By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 3, 2010; D01
At the midpoint of their season Friday, the Nationals pondered two intertwined questions. Are they close to being a winning team, as they seemed in April and May (record: 26-26), or are they as bad as they looked in June (8-19)? If they're not as good as they had hoped, should they react to their recent fold by trading sluggers Adam Dunn or Josh Willingham for prospects before the July 31 deadline?
The answers are clear. The Nats are much better than last year. They'll come out of their recent funk. And they'll be better still in 2011. Once team brass understands this, they'll get their second answer, too: The Nats would be nuts to trade Dunn or Willingham.
However, it's far from clear that the Nats grasp the situation. On Sunday, General Manager Mike Rizzo described the team as "underachieving," "playing bad baseball" and "not a team that should be 10 games under .500." Then, Thursday, Manager Jim Riggleman said "time is running out" for the current group of players to prove that it should be kept together beyond this month. Then, after his walk-off RBI on Thursday night, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman told me how worried he is that the Nats won't keep together their Zimmerman-Dunn-Hammer power trio.
"The last month wasn't good. But there is plenty of time. We haven't gotten hot even one time this year. But we will. It's going to happen," said Zimmerman, after the Nats beat the Mets, 2-1, in the bottom of the ninth. "We shouldn't overreact to a bad month.
"To me, the hardest thing to get in baseball is strong 3-4-5 hitters. We have it. Why break it up and then just have to rebuild it?" said Zimmerman, who has teamed with Dunn and Willingham to give the Nats arguably the second-best heart of the order in the National League this season, behind the Cardinals.
"I'm signed for the next three years. It's not my decision or my money to spend, but it seems like you'd want to extend [the contracts of] Dunn and Willingham to keep us together and see what we can accomplish," Zimmerman said. "People are talking about breaking it up. Man, we're way too close right now to do that.
The front office "knows how we feel. The three of us get along together, but what's important is that we think we're pretty good together," he added. "I'm staying [in D.C.]. But it'd sure be nice to lock those two guys up so I'd have some partners in crime."
Dunn, Willingham and Zimmerman rank 7th, 11th and 17th in the National League, respectively, in on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) and are on track for a season like 2009, when they combined for 95 homers. Their RBI totals, and the Nats' run-scoring (24th in MLB), have been disappointing for several reasons. The Nats' top two hitters in the order have low on-base percentages, which reduces RBI chances. The rest of the lineup is bereft of home run power. And the three sluggers have unusually high solo-homer totals, probably a temporary fluke.
The idea that you improve this situation by subtracting a power hitter or even two of them -- rather than work to add an on-base artist and another bat with punch for 2011 -- is bizarre at best, penny-wise at worst. Remember '08, when Lastings Milledge often batted cleanup and the Nats' team leader in home runs had 14? Those Nats were unwatchable.
These Nats have, within the past month, dashed up from 25th in attendance to 20th as Stephen Strasburg arrived and larger crowds came with him. In a year when MLB attendance is declining, the Nats are one of the few teams gaining both fans and buzz. Is this the time to deal off a top-20-in-the-league hitter for prospects?
Yet Nats execs have confirmed that they are listening to offers; that means Dunn and/or Willingham, because no other veteran would fetch much more than a bag of balls.
Are the Nats simply dreaming that a steal deal will fall in their laps? Fine. That's wise. But that's not the only explanation. Do they doubt that they'll be given the payroll to re-sign Dunn, probably for three more years, and also be able to afford Willingham when arbitration will jump his salary in 2011 (his last year under team control)?
When money is involved, almost any negative argument seems to scare the Nats. The idea that Dunn, 30, and Willingham, 31, will somehow get old in a hurry is a concern, but not a deal-breaker. In these bad economic times, teams are in the driver's seat. You don't have to do contracts that take these guys to their 35th birthday, often a drop-off point for large sluggers.
Is there risk? Yes. Is it worth taking? Absolutely.
Even Riggleman has indicated that, if the Nats don't shape up soon, that July 31 date may bring out the old argument: We're losing with you; we can lose without you.
"You can't make that strong suggestion to keep this group together when you're not winning enough ballgames to justify it," Riggleman said this week. "We have time, but time is running out. We need to get it going and make it clear that we don't need to overhaul it, because we can do better with this group right here."
When the manager talks about "time running out" on a team on pace for a dozen-game improvement, with sensible prospects for another such jump in 2011, something is amiss in the reality vs. expectations equation. This is a team that's overcome a combined 2-8 record from John Lannan and Jason Marquis, its Game 1 and 2 starters in April.
If the Nats show confidence in their roster, and demonstrate a willingness to make commitments to players such as Dunn and Willingham who have earned it, then they may reduce some of the tension in the locker room and see better play.
The Nats are much improved. But, especially on defense, they're not a winning team yet. They must wait for Jordan Zimmermann and other injured pitchers to return. Their true rotation may not jell until next March. They don't need trade-deadline subtraction. They need offseason additions. Let second-half production tell you what positions need help. And, at an appropriate time, they need to lock up Zimmerman's "partners in crime."
But, for heaven sake, don't blow up what's already built. The Nats have a young ace, a potentially solid rotation by 2011 and a fine Clip-Store-and-Save bullpen. They have gifted but raw everyday rookies in Ian Desmond and Roger Bernadina, plus good team leaders who've kept morale intact. And they've got core 3-4-5 hitters who are the envy of more than 20 teams. Compared to just one year ago, when the Nats were a national joke, that is real progress.
Build on it. Don't tear it down.