Time to Make Most of This Horror Show

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, September 11, 2009

A horrible season is a terrible thing to waste.

So as the Nats' losses mount, with 10 defeats in their last 12 games and a current pace of 106 beatings, the biggest issue, from ownership on down, is to focus on how bad this team still is -- and vow not to inflict any similar product on Washington next year.

Because the Nats are less atrocious under Jim Riggleman (22-31) than they were under Manny Acta (26-61), because they signed Stephen Strasburg and made Mike Rizzo their permanent general manager, and because half of the team's payroll falls off the books after this season, leaving the way clear to sign $20 million to $25 million a season worth of free agents, there's been a sigh of relief in the franchise.

But there shouldn't be. Not too much of one, anyway.

Even nice moments, like the debut of shortstop Ian Desmond on Thursday night, including a through-the-wind homer that came within two rows of clearing the left field bleachers in front of the Red Porch, shouldn't take the tension out of this franchise's neck.

Misery focuses the mind wonderfully. And those who run the Nats, who'll be tempted to enjoy one-game reprieves like Liván Hernández's win over the Phillies on Thursday, shouldn't forget too quickly how painful this season was.

Some local fans, because baseball was gone so long, lack context for evaluating what they are watching and paying for. In the interests of consumer protection, let it be pointed out that if the Nats finish with 106 defeats, they will be one of the five worst teams in the National League in the last 40 seasons. And they are on track to be the second-worst team in Washington since 1909.

Yes, out of all those legendarily bad Senators teams in the last 100 years, only the '49 version, which Nats owner Ted Lerner probably remembers ("stars" like Clyde Vollmer and Ray Scarborough), were worse than his current bunch.

Baseball is back in Washington, but not major league baseball. Not yet anyway. But, if the Nats keep reminding themselves over and over that the last two years are utterly unacceptable, they may be closer to an actual big league team than cynics think.

"We're all excited for next year, as bad as that sounds," said Ryan Zimmerman, whose transformation into a genuine 30-100-.300, Gold-Glove star may be the team's best piece of news. "We're all hopeful that they will go out and get a couple of pitchers. We have faith that they'll go out and make us better this winter."

The key word is faith. Do you believe the Lerners? Do you believe that, when President Stan Kasten and Rizzo speak, the owners are now truly on the same page? The pattern for the last 10 months has been encouraging. But not the 30 months before that.

Everybody in the clubhouse knows what needs to be done. And they'll tell you. Add two pitchers to the rotation. The bullpen needs another good arm. Add a fine defensive infielder at either shortstop or second base and play Cristian Guzmán at the other spot.

This year, after adding Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham, the Nats are on pace to score almost 100 more runs than in '08, even though catcher Jesús Flores missed nearly the whole season and leadoff revelation Nyjer Morgan played just 49 games.

"We've fixed the offense this year. With Nyjer here all next year and Jesús back, we should be better," Zimmerman said. "Now we need to do the same thing with our pitching and defense -- give up about 100 less runs."

The Nats' pitching, with the worst ERA in baseball entering Thursday (5.12), has been so horrid this season that a 100-run improvement might not be as tough as it sounds. They're on pace to give up 73 more runs than any team in the NL. So, just improving enough to be tied for the absolute worst would be transforming. After being beaten over the head with a bat, just being kicked in the shins is almost fun.

Besides, by midseason, Strasburg and No. 10 overall draft pick reliever Drew Storen may be up from the minors to stay.

And, about that time, the Nats look like they'll be getting the No. 1 overall pick in next year's draft.

Strasburg, without knowing it, has been making a nice impression while hanging around the team, though he hasn't thrown a pitch yet. "I asked him if he played golf," Zimmerman said. "He said, 'Yes,' but he didn't play as much as he wanted 'because golf is so expensive in Southern California.'

"I didn't say anything," Zimmerman said, grinning at a $15.1 million man who frets about greens fees, "but considering all the things he could've said, I was thinking, 'Good answer, kid.' "

At least the Nats don't dispute that they can afford to do what both their own players and their fans want. The Nats have so many contracts coming off the books they can spend an additional $20 million a year on free agent salaries in '10 and still have the same cheap $61.4 million payroll that placed them fourth from last in baseball in '09. And a $65- to $70-million payroll is still pretty conservative. After all, the median MLB budget is $80 million for middling towns such as Milwaukee, Toronto, Cincinnati and Baltimore. Even a $97 million budget doesn't crack the top dozen.

"That's all public. I can't disagree," Kasten said. So, the Nats' feet are to the fire. They claim that's where they want 'em to be.

The Nats' plan -- oh, yes, those pesky plans do evolve, don't they -- now includes, at the least, two starters for the rotation. One may be Hernández, a bargain-basement type, if his final month goes decently. But the other should be a middle-of-the-rotation type for a good team -- meaning a possible Opening Day pitcher by the Nats' standards. Who? There's seldom been such a huge class of established free agent starters.

Rizzo is looking at a list that includes Jason Marquis, Randy Wolf, John Lackey, Cliff Lee, Jon Garland, Kevin Millwood, Tim Hudson, Brad Penny, Joel Piñeiro, Braden Looper, Jarrod Washburn, Brandon Webb, Brett Myers, John Smoltz and more. "Some of them have club options that may be picked up," Rizzo said. "But that's a long list. We're going to get one of them."

In a sense, it's sad when a team with 23 games to play has little to think about but the hopes of the offseason or word next month from the Arizona Fall League on how a class that includes Strasburg and Storen looks in the flesh.

But that's where the Nats are. Morgan and starters Jordan Zimmermann and Craig Stammen have had season-ending surgery. The team can barely find a fifth starter to finish out the schedule. Riggleman still needs to win games; he's auditioning.

Even next year's No. 1 overall amateur draft pick, which the Nats seem to have virtually locked up with their 1-10 collapse, can rival the next game for clubhouse interest.

"No high school kids," one veteran said. "Just draft another top college pitcher who can be ready to help us in '11."

Daydreams are enticing because they are easy. "If we won, this town would be awesome," Zimmerman said. "If we win for one year, then we can attract the other [free agent] people we want."

If, if . . .

Remember, a horrible season is a terrible thing to waste. Last winter, after 102 losses, the Nats still squandered chances. Dunn could have been signed for three or four years, the front office pushed for four, but the owners would only sign off on two. A pitcher like Wolf, with a 3.22 ERA and leading the Dodgers in innings, might have been grabbed with a three-year deal. The Nats wouldn't go there. Orlando Hudson couldn't pass a Nats physical. The Dodgers gave him an incentive-heavy deal and he's helped them into first place.

Habits die hard. Zimmerman has "faith" in his team. That's nice. But, instead, lets go with an old D.C. standard for compliance: Trust but verify.

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