Nats' Sunny Outlook Not Just Seasonal

The Washington Nationals make their spring training debut in a 4-1 loss to the Florida Marlins in Viera, Fla.
By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, March 1, 2008

VIERA, Fla. Washington finally has its first truly serious baseball franchise since the 1930s.

You have to be as old as Ted Lerner, the 82-year-old boss of the Nationals, to remember the last time Washington had a big league team that was a serious annual contender, a legitimate front-line franchise, a club that fought toe-to-toe with the very best. But that time is probably arriving again and perhaps fairly soon.

The Nationals are not, presumably, a playoff contender this season, and may not even have a winning record, although near-miracles such as the '07 Rockies actually do happen. What distinguishes the Nats, what lifts their spirits but also defines them within the sport, is their uniform belief that they are on the verge of joining the sport's elite teams.

At this point, because cynicism bordering on defeatism has surrounded Washington baseball for so many decades, it's useful to hear independent voices. Of course, the Nationals brim with brave talk. What team doesn't? But they're not delusional. More likely, they just see their future slightly ahead of schedule. They may be early in announcing themselves, but they're not wrong.

Long ago, the Sporting News was baseball's bible. Now, the game has old and new testaments. Baseball America epitomizes the eyeball view of scouts; Baseball Prospectus is home to uber-educated stat lovers. Both see the Nats coming fast. In one year Baseball America has upped the Nats' farm system from dead last to ninth, one of the biggest jumps ever. The Prospectus is more brazen: "The foundations are in place. The Nationals are going to be the best team in the NL East, not in 2008, not overnight and not by sneaking up on anyone. But stay tuned, because the next four years should be all sorts of fun."

It is against this inside-the-sport buzz that we should judge the February words of the best-known Nats. A year ago, they had to endure hearing themselves described as potentially the worst team in history. Instead, after May 9, they went 64-64, then, in September, did more head-to-head damage than any team to send the Mets to one of the worst collapses in history. So, they may have a bit too much spring confidence in their words. But they think they'll become worthy of their $611 million park.

"They've done a good job of turning the whole organization around in about two years. We got a lot better and a lot younger at the same time," Ryan Zimmerman said. In a new ballpark, "we have six or seven guys who may become 30-homer hitters. Nick Johnson, Austin Kearns and I think we can. You watch Lastings Milledge and his hands are unbelievable. Elijah Dukes is Lastings with more pop. Wily Mo Pe¿a may hit the ball further than anybody. We got two good-hitting catchers now. Felipe L¿pez hit (23) homers in Cincinnati. Right now, we might have as much potential as any team in the league."

"We've had an underdog attitude since Montreal. We're not going to lose it just because we got a nice park," reliever Chad Cordero said. "We want to be a winning team and get some respect. I don't think we have to wait. We can start doing it now."

That depends, of course, on one huge "if" -- starting pitching, especially the health of Shawn Hill and John Patterson. Last season, even helped by huge RFK Stadium, Washington's starting ERA was 5.11. In a normal park, things could get ugly. That is, unless Hill (3.42), Tim Redding (3.64), Jason Bergmann (4.45), Matt Chico (4.63), John Lannan (4.15) and Patterson (3.13 in '05) can stay healthy enough to start far more than their 98 games in '07.

"If we can go out there healthy for 25-30 starts [apiece] this year, then this team will give 'em all they want -- in our division, right now, not 'someday,' " said Patterson, grinning. "We're really improved. Everybody has that feeling."

Perhaps this isn't the breakout season, or even next year. What is different, almost incomprehensibly so for longtime fans, is that the Nats, as well as much of the rest of the sport, see their emergence as a 90-win team as a "when," not an "if." Nothing like that has been the case since the elder Lerner was 7 and the Senators went to the 1933 World Series.

Since then the phrase "Washington wins the pennant" has been something out of a Broadway hit -- "Damn Yankees" -- rather than an actual memory. Since the '30s, there's been nothing but misery and mediocrity, punctuated by a few lucky but fleeting seasons above .500. Oh, and one brief run at the flag during players-depleted World War II. Washington was baseball's perennial symbol of pity. When the orphaned Expos arrived, they seemed the proper heirs to the Senators "tradition" -- an afterthought, the place to find an occasional slugger, but never a first-class franchise.

"My dad saw Washington baseball when it was that good, but I never have -- in my whole life," said principal owner Mark Lerner. "My generation settled for memories of Frank Howard hitting home runs. We plan on changing that."

Nothing current Nats fans know has any bearing on appreciating or evaluating the progress of this franchise. An entirely new yardstick is needed. Team president Stan Kasten, General Manager Jim Bowden and Manager Manny Acta all operate on a mind-set that, luckily, is completely alien to Washington's decades of disappointment or abandonment. They don't just think that they could be building a powerhouse, they believe that nothing less is acceptable. To them, the National League looks there for the taking, like Oklahoma when Sooners lined up for a land rush.

For them, the game is about the prospects, the pipeline, the potential and the leap in payroll that a new ballpark can generate. For now, the phrase you hear most often here is "high ceiling" -- as in off-the-charts stats if everything broke correctly. The Nats want to find out who fits that mold. The brass knows they have one season, perhaps two, when the feel-good rush of a new park allows them to experiment and not lose their fan base if they go 73-89 again.

What if Pe¿a got 600 at-bats? Does that produce 40 homers, 200 strikeouts or both? How fast could Milledge develop if he got to play his favorite position -- center field -- every day at age 22? What if Dukes turned his life around and forced the Nats to find a place for the talent bursting from his linebacker physique? Until young hurlers Ross Detwiler, Collin Balester, Josh Smoker and Jack McGeary arrive, there's still time for a much-injured Patterson, or an underwhelming but gritty Chico, or a last-chance veteran such as Redding to prove his ceiling is high enough.

"I'm not very good at making predictions, but I am worse at believing them," Acta said. No Florida opinion matters after Opening Day. As a season unfolds, or unravels, "everything changes everything," as Earl Weaver said. Still, Acta knows which direction his team is heading. "We made a lot more progress in one year than I ever could have imagined," the manager said. "We are not trying to 'compete.' We are playing to win."

Finally, Washington baseball is in a place where victory is, increasingly, an expectation, not a hope. For this town, that's somewhere few of us have ever visited. And for those elders, like Ted Lerner, who have, it's barely a memory.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company