Nats Are Awfully Certain

"It's very easy to be negative," new Nationals manager Manny Acta says. "If you're negative, you don't have to work. When you're positive, you have to work just to keep your word." (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 2, 2007

By design, John Patterson rarely reads the sports page. But last week, he was climbing into a whirlpool to loosen his muscles. With little else to do, he grabbed a paper from New York that sat nearby. He looked at a prediction for the team for which he pitches, the Washington Nationals. And there it was: 125 losses.

"That just doesn't make sense to me," Patterson said.

By the time the Nationals' season opens this afternoon at RFK Stadium against the Florida Marlins, the predictions from pundits and prognosticators across the nation will have been widely dispersed. Where Washington is concerned, not many of them are upbeat. Explosive slugger Alfonso Soriano is gone. The starting rotation includes no one making more than $850,000. First baseman Nick Johnson is out indefinitely. The arguments are almost endless.

But if you want to find folks who agree with those assessments, stay out of the Nationals' clubhouse, where a mix of defiance and hope has created an optimism that, when spring training began, would have seemed implausible. They hear: "120 losses." They respond, "Puh-lease.""You got to try and lose that many games," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.

"There's too many good players and too many pieces of the puzzle here," right fielder Austin Kearns said, "for a number like that to happen."

Most befuddled of all? Try the team president, Stan Kasten.

"Am I missing something here?" he said.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, only one team -- the infamous 1962 New York Mets -- has lost as many as 120 games, the standard for ineptitude. In 2003, the Detroit Tigers won five of their final six games to avoid matching that mark, finishing 43-119. In the 107 seasons since 1900, only 15 teams -- including the Washington Senators of both 1904 and 1909 -- lost as many as 110 games.

So eliminate any of that talk, the Nationals say.

"It's very easy to be negative," new manager Manny Acta said. "If you're negative, you don't have to work. When you're positive, you have to work just to keep your word."

Therein lies one reason the Nationals scoff at such assessments of their season: Acta has established an environment in which work will be fun but serious. The manager promises better defense than a year ago, when the club finished 71-91 and in last place in the National League East in part because it was baseball's worst defensive team. He promises not to give away outs on the base paths, another weakness in 2006.

Plus, to this point, he appears impervious to such dire ideas.

"It really doesn't bother me," he said of the assessments of his team. "That's why I moved over here [from his native Dominican Republic] -- freedom of speech. Everybody has a right to their opinion, and we have to respect them. That doesn't bother me at all.

"I'm here. I know that this team is better than what a lot of people think, and we're going to make it better."

The chief reason for such low expectations from the outside is the starting rotation with which Acta will be dealing. None of the members of the initial five-man group -- Patterson today, followed by Shawn Hill tomorrow, rookie left-hander Matt Chico on Wednesday and right-handers Jason Bergmann and Jerome Williams when Arizona comes to town later this week -- has ever won as many as 11 games in a single major league season.

Yet hear what Zimmerman said, "I think our pitching staff is better this year than it was last year."

The reason: Gone are Livan Hernandez, Ramon Ortiz and Tony Armas Jr. Yes, that's 668 major league starts. But "they all had over 5 ERAs, so it's not really a hard thing to replace," Zimmerman said. "And I think Hill and Chico and the younger arms are a little bit better to run out there every day."

In fact, the major league ERA of the current rotation is 4.29. And the main reason those younger arms will be counted on this season is because management -- led by the new ownership of the Lerner family, endorsed by Kasten and implemented by General Manager Jim Bowden -- believes that increasing payroll this season, when there were glaring weaknesses throughout the farm system, would have been imprudent.

"We could raise the major league payroll to such an extent where you're going to finish maybe five or 10 games better had you invested a lot more money," Bowden said. "But you still weren't going to win."

Thus, Kasten and Bowden mention at almost every turn how much better the scouting and player development departments have become over the last year, how many more bona fide prospects the club has now because it took this approach.

Still, that could be meaningless to the current major leaguers. Take Kearns. He arrived in a trade from Cincinnati last July, a transaction that shook up his life. But in January, he listened to Kasten's pitch -- not to mention his offer of a three-year, $17.5 million contract -- and bought into it. He signed the deal, knowing that Kasten had helped build the Atlanta Braves in the late 1980s and early '90s.

"Basically, what he's saying is, 'Stick with me,' " Kearns said. "What took place in Atlanta speaks for itself. You don't have to convince me of anything. I think it's going to happen sooner than people think."

What that means for this year's team is difficult to say. The only certainty is that today, the predictions will be replaced by performance.

"I hear about these losses that we're supposed to accumulate this year," first baseman Dmitri Young said. "It's not going to happen. We got too many proud people over here that love to play this game, that know how to play this game. Now it's a matter of going out and doing it."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company