Washington Nationals are better, but they won't be great for a while

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, April 5, 2010; D01

For fans, opening day is finally, blessedly upon us, full of warmth, sun and a presidential first pitch at Nationals Park. An offseason that turned Washington into Nome is long gone at last.

For the Nats themselves, however, this season has a far more uncertain opening day.

It will be May 17 before a rugged stretch of 40 games, almost all against '09 winning teams, comes to a merciful end. The last four Nats seasons have, in effect, ended in April with starts so bad that they constituted finishes: 7-15, 6-15, 5-15 and 4-15 last year.

That could happen again. The Nats have six key pitchers with scary spring training stats, including starters Jason Marquis and Garrett Mock, and crucial relievers Matt Capps and Sean Burnett. In 59 innings, 92 hits and 26 walks allowed. The Nats will start the year with a whopping eight relievers. Is that a hint?

For all their long-term high hopes, and they finally have such things, the Nats could consign themselves to another spring of misery if they aren't ready to battle as soon as they hear the bell.

Oh, there's hope. The Nats added four good free agents. They finished spring training 10-19 after an 0-11 start. In their last outings, four starters looked reasonably sharp -- opening day lefty John Lannan, old Liván Hernández, Craig Stammen and Marquis.

Though the Nats have big worries, they also finally have big strengths. This is a team with a middle of the order in Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham that hit 95 homers last year. And Dunn's homers are the longest, by average distance, in baseball.

For speed, they have three thieves who may combine for 100 steals, led by Nyjer Morgan (42 in just 120 games). Despite suspect fielding at some spots, the Nats have three of baseball's most breath-taking defenders. Zimmerman at third belongs in the same sentence with anyone not named Brooks. Some stat mavens grade Morgan as the most valuable defender in the whole sport with his spectacular range in center. And Iván Rodríguez has 13 gold gloves and still packs an amazing arm.

Add to this mix a rookie shortstop, Ian Desmond, who is one of the game's more electric rookies with power, speed and range. No Nats teams since baseball returned has offered anywhere near as much potential for excitement. These are exactly the types of players, in quantity, that Washington never saw in the last three decades of the old Senators. This is why we wanted baseball back. And we haven't gotten to Stephen Strasburg or Drew Storen.

Yet this is also a club that frets the very front office that built it. Nerves get frayed when you start the year with a virtual void in right field, a rebuilt bullpen that, so far, hasn't unveiled a single hurler with a blow-away pitch and three men in the rotation who had ERAs over 5.10 in '09. Let the adrenalin kick in, please.

While everybody else in baseball will rejoice in the moment on Monday, the Nats long for the not-so-distant future. When the team president, GM and manager all talk about how much better the last 100 games will be, you wonder about the fate of the first 62.

Will the Nats true opening day arrive some pleasant evening in early June, when Strasburg, Storen and Justin Maxwell all arrive from the minors, never to go down again? Has a team ever called up unproven youngsters and, in a blink, added its most talented starting pitcher and reliever as well as a right fielder for the future?

The Nats nastiest shock of the spring was the hitting failure of the brainy 6-foot-5, 235-pound Maxwell, whom Nats scouts project as a 25-homer, 25-steal right fielder with a fine glove. In part, the Nats released Elijah Dukes because they were convinced Maxwell could produce just as much while adding to chemistry rather than deleting. If Maxwell could even hit his .245 of '09, that would be enough. Instead, he hit .100.

The Nats also anticipate, or perhaps are distracted by, the promise of several other mini-opening days. Will Scott Olsen or Chien-Ming Wang return from shoulder injuries to regain their old form? Will high-draft pick Ross Detwiler, his hip healed, blossom in summer? By September will Jordan Zimmermann, after elbow surgery, return as the most talented Nats pitcher after Strasburg? Are they just a fistful of lottery tickets or a winning hand?

After the last two lousy years, delayed gratification wasn't what the Nats wanted to offer their fans -- those that are left. President Stan Kasten, asked about Nats Park improvements for fans, mentioned some, then blurted, "But putting a product on the field would be a lot better."

Since free agency arrived in '76, teams have realized that the public and even their own key employees won't stand for an abysmal team. You can buy your way out of the bottom rung of hell. And, if you find yourself there, you should.

In the last 34 seasons, only three teams have had back-to-back seasons under .375 -- the awful '02-'03 Tigers, the '77-'79 expansion Blue Jays and, yes, the '08-'09 Nats. For generations, bad teams seemed to stay bad for an eternity. Now, that's much less prevalent. "We knew the '65 Senators would be the same as the '64 Senators. Where is the hope?" said Manager Jim Riggleman, who grew up rooting for the Senators at RFK. "Now, with free agency, that's changed."

While great stars rarely sign with tail-enders, many solid players, often with a flaw, are happy to join a team like the Nats looking for respectability. Dunn wants to become a decent fielder. Pudge wants to prove he's not too old. Capps is coming off a high-ERA year. Kennedy was the leftover infielder of free agency.

"A lot of people came here that another team didn't want," said Brian Bruney, traded by the Yankees. "There is hunger here."

So, for a moment, pretend you don't know that starting right fielder Willie Harris has played just one regular-season inning in right field. One inning. And that Cristian Guzmán has played zero innings at either second base or right field. Wow, virgin fielders. Good thing the Nats got a new groundskeeper. They'll get better hops as they chase balls to the right field scoreboard.

The Nats are better, probably by a dozen wins. But that new reality may not be obvious for a while. They meet the Phils, who clubbed them 15 of 18 last season, in six of their first nine games. What a litmus tests. Will the refurbished Nats band together to fight for themselves or roll over and wait for opening day II when that big kid at Harrisburg gives them a bit of dignity?

"We need a different mindset here. It's not good enough to 'want to win.' We have to expect to win," said GM Mike Rizzo, who's amassed eight players with World Series experience. "We have added some guys who're tougher. We don't want 'wanters.' "

Funny, for opening day, that's just what Nats fans want, too.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company