By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 4, 2010; 11:27 PM
The 2010 Washington Nationals season was shaped not only by the rotating cast of 25 men in their clubhouse, but also by the horrors of the past two years. They finished tied for the sixth-worst record in the major leagues, and that counted, at once, as improvement and discouragement.
"If you look at the team we had two years ago, it's definitely progress," starter John Lannan said. "It's not where we want to be. We don't want to lose 90-plus games. But there are some areas where we improved. We know what we need to do. We have guys in here who want to win. At the same time, you know, it's a little discouraging. But we're going in the right direction."
So, then, this Nationals' season may be judged by the seasons to follow. By their record, they are no longer the very worst baseball has to offer. They are still one of the worst. Was this season an initial and necessary step on the way from wallowing at the bottom of the National League toward contention? Or was it another year of entrenched futility?
The Nationals believe they are closer to contention than their 69-93 record - good enough to tie them with Manny Acta's Cleveland Indians for sixth worst in the majors - would indicate.
"I think we're at a point now where we're very competitive," General Manager Mike Rizzo said. "I think if we take the same track, that progression puts us somewhere in the .500 type of range if we can match that same progression. So I think we're on our way to the competing stages right now.
"Our plan is to win championships, and it's too difficult to put a timetable on that. To use words like 'going for it,' I don't understand what those mean. We're going to make moves to improve the ballclub. The next step along the way is to compete with the best teams in the National League, to see where we're at and to ultimately become a championship-caliber team."
When the Nationals gathered in February in Viera, Fla., for the first team workout of spring training, Rizzo addressed them in the clubhouse. "We expect to win," he told them. He wanted to use this season to improve on the field and change the tenor of the organization. From one standpoint, he succeeded: The players were not content to merely show improvement.
"I don't think there's very much encouragement," rookie shortstop Ian Desmond said. "We played better. I think we have a better record. But, you know, I think everybody is disappointed. I don't think anybody had a year where they go: 'Oh, this is the best I can offer. I can never do better than this.' It's been a real frustrating year. I think we've got a lot more to offer than what we did."
The small progress of this season will be invalidated if they can't match it next season, a task made more difficult by Stephen Strasburg's Tommy John surgery forcing him to miss the entire season. Rizzo has made signing a No. 1 starter his first priority, but it is not his only objective.
"This," Lannan said, "is going to be a very interesting offseason."
Along with pursuing an ace, the Nationals will have to either sign Adam Dunn or someone who can replace him as a slugging first baseman and cleanup hitter. There are no other obvious needs, but as an offense the Nationals generally faltered. The Nationals ranked 25th in runs scored, and their outfielders generated a .727 on-base plus slugging rating (OPS), 26th in the majors.
Rizzo has supported center fielder Nyjer Morgan, and Josh Willingham - who is eligible for arbitration and stands to receive a considerable raise - seems certain to return in left. Rizzo called a right field platoon of Michael Morse and Roger Bernadina "a little bit of a wait-and-see," but said he considers them a reliable tandem.
So the Nationals could stand pat in the outfield without creating a glaring hole. But, clearly, there is room to upgrade with either a trade or through free agency.
"Obviously, we've done it with scouting and drafting and developing some of those guys," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "We found this year is finally the first year we see some of those guys. Now, the next step is obviously signing guys."
Before the Nationals can sign free agents with the ability to make an impact, they first must convince them to play in Washington.
For hitters and pitchers interested in playing for a winning franchise, the 298 losses over the past three seasons will be a difficult point to explain away. One way to help mitigate the dearth of success would be to prove they're serious about changing it.
"You take something like the Dunn situation, I think that plays into a factor of guys wanting to come back," second baseman Adam Kennedy said. "He's a big part in the clubhouse and a big part in the lineup. So if he doesn't come back, is the team still moving forward?"
Rizzo said opposing managers, such as Bobby Cox and Charlie Manuel, have told him they can see progress. He believes, within the baseball world, the Nationals have altered their perception enough to attract players.
"I think that, from the response I get from agents and from players, this is a destination people want to be at," Rizzo said. "The industry sees what we're trying to do here, possibly more so than the public. We feel we're going in the right direction. I think it's recognized in the baseball world we're going in the right direction. I feel the players and the respective free agents that we'll talk to will see that when we map out the plan to them, and we'll show them what we can be and what will be in the near future."