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These Nationals Aren't Easy to Figure Out

Adam Dunn (44) is part of a potent Washington offense that also includes Ryan Zimmerman and Josh Willingham.
Adam Dunn (44) is part of a potent Washington offense that also includes Ryan Zimmerman and Josh Willingham. (By Luis Alvarez -- Associated Press)

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By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, August 12, 2009

You can't construct a big league team properly unless you can evaluate it correctly: See it clearly, don't kid yourself and face the truth. Few tasks are harder for executives.

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If you conclude that your team is abysmal, then that drives every key decision. If you believe you are a losing team, but far from a bad one, then you act very differently.

Either way, you better not delude yourself. If you needlessly blow up a team that's actually close to being decent or, conversely, if you fool yourself into thinking you just need a few good men to be a winner, it can waste several seasons and scores of millions of dollars.

Welcome to Nats Town, where every day this season has been Crazy City. If you can evaluate the Nats accurately, go straight to Cooperstown. Nobody else can.

Three weeks ago, they were 26-66 and aimed at 116 loses. Since then, they had gone 14-6 before last night's loss to Atlanta. They've already caught the '62 Mets in wins (40) with 49 games left to play. If they finish their year a crummy 20-29, they will still surpass their 59 wins in '08.

The Nats aren't just winning. They're more confusing than that. They are clubbing people. Their top five hitters -- Nyjer Morgan, Cristian Guzmán, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham -- have season stats that duplicate (in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage), respectively, Boston speedster Jacoby Ellsbury and '09 all-stars Miguel Tejada, Evan Longoria, Mark Teixeira and Prince Fielder.

Dunn entered Tuesday with 30 homers, 84 RBI and a .281 average. Teixeira stood at 29-83-.286. Does Teixeira play defense $12 million a year better? Somebody extend Dunn's deal -- fast. The Nats' big offseason theft, however, is the misevaluated Willingham. He crushed the last four minor leagues he played in (better than a combined 1.000 OPS) and should've been in the majors far sooner. With enough plate appearances, he would be third in OPS (1.016), behind only Albert Pujols and Joe Mauer. No, he's not nearly that good. But he's a tough, stand-on-top-of-the-plate, HBP-ignoring Don Baylor type. At 30, he's never had a bad year. The Nats have probably stolen one of baseball's top 50 heart-of-the-order bats.

"After we traded for Josh, [Yankees Manager] Joe Girardi told me, 'You just got my favorite player that I ever managed,' " Nats President Stan Kasten said.

Ever since the Nats came to Washington, they've been looking for a pitching staff. They still haven't found one -- they're last in the NL in ERA this season. The franchise's best arm, Jordan Zimmermann, faces ligament-replacement surgery. Remember John Patterson, Chad Cordero and Shawn Hill, all high-ceiling Nats hurlers, now all gone with blown arms? Is there a pattern here? The Nats have just five days to sign No. 1 overall draft pick Stephen Strasburg; does Zimmermann's injury worry him?

The young starters, such as Ross Detwiler and Collin Balester, make sense if they fall in line behind Strasburg, Zimmermann and John Lannan. But fill a whole rotation with these guys? If anything, their extended auditions this summer have knocked them down a notch. The recently improved bullpen may be temporarily sufficient; that's faint praise.

Yet, somehow, this franchise obsessed with amassing pitching has almost accidentally amassed one of the NL's better hitting lineups. By next season, they may be truly formidable, at bargain prices. Next season, injured catcher Jesús Flores returns, and Elijah Dukes may be the regular right fielder. Both will be 25. Both are under club control for, roughly, eternity. If you combine the 2008 and '09 stats of Flores (12 homers, 74 RBI, .269 in 391 at-bats) and Dukes (86 RBI, 53 extra-base hits in 499 at-bats, .805 OPS), you discover hitters who are clones of Bengie Molina and sluggin'-whiffin' Dan Uggla.

Just as disorienting as a bad team with a good lineup is the way modern stats assert that the '09 Nats are baseball's unluckiest team. Given the number of runs they've scored vs. the number they've allowed, the Nats should have been 48-64 (Bill James's Pythagorean wins) or 47-65 (ESPN's expected W-L record) through Monday. Instead of being a national punch line, they should have a better record than the Padres and Royals, and be indistinguishable from the seldom-mocked Reds and Orioles.

So, which is it? Are the Nats and their 5.00 ERA basically awful but temporarily blessed with a fluke eight-game win streak that will soon be reversed? Or is the team's 23-27 record in its last 50 games, and 14-12 mark under interim manager Jim Riggleman, more predictive? Will the Nats keep buying into Riggleman's refrain of "better defense"? Send your answers to MannyActa@unemployed.com.

One man has made up his mind. Or, rather, he has never changed it. For months, Kasten has muttered: "This is nuts. We're not anywhere near this bad." I've agreed but wisecracked back, "Will reversion-to-the-mean arrive in time to save Manny's job?" This week, Kasten said, "You, me and Pythagoras all knew we were better than that. I just have no idea why it took so long."

Kasten thinks the Nats' recent hot run answers his most basic evaluate-the-Nats question. "We are not 'rebuilding.' There is tangible progress. It's all coming together," he said Tuesday. You can almost hear him shredding his "Village Idiot" business cards.

Morgan is the center fielder and leadoff man "we've been looking for since we came to Washington." Zimmerman, Dunn and Willingham "will hit 90 to 100 homers this season and keep on doing it." Beyond 2010? "Who's to say Dunn leaves?" Kasten said.

From the seats of Kasten and interim general manager Mike Rizzo, the Nats need better defense up the middle, a couple of relievers and probably a veteran (not-elite) free agent starting pitcher.

"But those are things you can get," Kasten said. "We have the 3-4-5 hitters. We have the leadoff man now. We have depth in inventory in young starters. We have Drew Storen [the No. 10 overall draft pick reliever from Stanford]. He walked another man the other night."

That's 37 strikeouts vs. two walks in 23 minor league innings for Storen.

Then there's Strasburg. Twice, Kasten mentioned him casually in listing next year's starting pitchers. Maybe. You don't pick 'em No. 1 overall so you can screw it up. But the Nats view Zimmermann's injury as more evidence not to overspend for any one arm. Negotiations? Most likely, nothing worthy of the term has happened yet. Best bet: Last day, last hour, even last minute before the midnight Monday deadline. Hey, relax.

Every season, baseball tests the loyal fan's sanity, though usually in some new way. You test your powers of observation and ability to reason unemotionally. The game tries to make you crazy. Like Annie Savoy from "Bull Durham" said, "It's a long season and you've got to trust it." In this regard, as in so many others, the Nationals have been a torment to their fans as well as their own executives. They are not a good team. But what are they?

"We're not as bad as we looked earlier. We're not as good as we look right now," Rizzo said. "But without a whole lot of retooling, we can be a viable team next year."

They better be. It's past time. And the Nationals may finally know it. "We need to put a damn team out there next year," said one executive. So, sign Strasburg. Then seeing the future, and evaluating the Nats, will get a lot easier.


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