Top 10 Nationals stories of 2010
Sunday, January 9, 2011; 8:41 PM
There's really no blanket way to summarize what the Nationals accomplished in 2010. There were little pieces of everything. On the field, they were sometimes good (see their 20-15 start). They usually were bad (see the rest of their season). They were constantly weird (see a game-ending pickoff, two inside-the-park home runs allowed, Tyler Clippard's win total and probably any one of a dozen more examples). You could make what you wanted out of the Nationals' 2010 dealings outside the lines. Do you want to say they cemented their place at the bottom of the majors? They didn't sign Adam Dunn. They traded Josh Willingham for two prospects. They finished in last place, 10 games out of fourth, with a bad enough record to pick sixth in the draft next season. Do you want to say they challenged the status quo? They threw $126 million at Jayson Werth and promised him help is on the way. They drafted and signed Bryce Harper, who might be the best prospect in the past 50 years. They won 10 more games this year than last. This year, most any opinion can be argued. We'll need 2011 -- and maybe 2012, too -- until we can form a definitive verdict about what 2010 meant. For now, we've got the biggest stories that came out this year. With a nod to the D.C. Sports Bog, here's one pick for the top 10. 10. Rob Dibble calls his last Nationals game. Announcers become part of a fan base's experience in baseball, with its sheer number games and downtime, more than any other sport. Even that considered, Dibble became an enormous part of this Nationals season. He was either a tough-talking, entertaining truth speaker or a these-wimps-won't-throw-inside Neanderthal, depending on your proclivities. Dibble gave the Nationals reason to fire him, with more than a year remaining on his MASN contract, on Aug. 25. On his XM Radio show, Dibble criticized Stephen Strasburg for calling toward the bullpen after hurting his arm on a pitch that would lead to his Tommy John surgery. Dibble infamously uttered the phrase, "Suck it up, kid" during his diatribe. The Nationals gave Dibble, who had broadcast on MASN since 2009, down time before announcing his dismissal. The delay gave Stan Kasten the opportunity for an all-time quote. "Rob asked for some time off," Kasten said. "Perhaps he's not feeling well. But I'm not a doctor, nor have I seen his records. So I shouldn't say anything more about it." 9. Nyjer Morgan has a crazy couple of weeks. Morgan served as one of the brightest spots of the 2009 season upon arriving in a trade from Pittsburgh, hitting .351/.396/.435 before a broken wrist ended his season. His play deteriorated in 2010. His stats dropped, he was routinely caught stealing, and defensive mishaps led to a pair of inside-the-park home runs. But nothing compared to the stretch of bizarre incidents from Aug. 25 to Sept. 1. He was first suspended seven games by MLB for a hitting a fan with a ball in Philadelphia, a charge that was later completely dismissed thanks in large part to the testimony of a fan in the stands that night. (Morgan later hosted the struck fan at a game.) On Aug. 28, after being moved to eighth in the lineup, Morgan unnecessarily plowed into Cardinals catcher Bryan Anderson despite there being no play at home plate. He missed the base and was called out. The next day, Manager Jim Riggleman benched Morgan for a game and called his play "unprofessional." The next day, Morgan criticized Riggleman's response. The next day, Morgan plowed into Marlins catcher Brett Hayes. Hayes was holding the ball and the play was clean, but he suffered a separated shoulder and the Marlins took exception. The next night, Marlins starter Chris Volstad threw at Morgan. He jogged to first and promptly stole second and third. The Marlins again took exception, and Volstad threw behind Morgan. He charged the mound, slugged Volstad, got clotheslined and ignited a benches-clearing brawl. The end result was an eight-game suspension for his role in the brawl and some interactions with fans (oh, during all of this, a video surfaced in which Morgan was cursing, seemingly at a Marlins fan.) "He's never had a problem off the field, outside the white lines," General Manager Mike Rizzo said at the time. "Between the white lines, there's been some issues. But he's been a model citizen off the field, in the clubhouse and in the community. Let's not forget that." Said Morgan in September: "It's just frustrating when people perceive you the wrong way when you play the game hard. I guess it's basically what we signed up for. I think it's like a good buzz. All buzz is good buzz, in my eyes. I'm still the same person. It doesn't change me. This year is just one of those years, you know? Things just happen for a reason. It's just going to make me a better player and a better person, too." 8. Philadelphia invades. President Obama wore a White Sox cap and Roy Halladay and the Phillies beat the Nationals 11-1, but the worst part of opening day was the thousands upon thousands of Phillies fans at Nationals Park. They came by the bus. You could hear boos while Ryan Zimmerman received his Silver Slugger and Gold Glove trophies. At the end of the game, Phillies fans moved to the front rows and stood and cheered the final out. "That was impressive," Phillies right fielder Jayson Werth, now a National, said at the time. "It felt like all of right field was only Phillies fans. This kind of started to be our home away from home a little bit." 7. Mike Rizzo tightens his grip on the reins. After Stan Kasten departed, the Nationals answered the question of who had the most control of their franchise on Oct. 20 by adding executive vice president of baseball operations to Mike Rizzo's title and giving him a five-year contract extension. No one person has ever had as much say on the baseball happenings of the Nationals as Rizzo has right now. He made several bold moves this year, including releasing Elijah Dukes, trading Matt Capps for Wilson Ramos, letting Adam Dunn go, trading Josh Willingham and, of course, signing Jayson Werth. The extension will allow Rizzo to act with even more confidence. "There really hasn't been a shortage of my stamp on the organization," Rizzo said at the time. "I do believe that, with the new responsibility, the new title and, really, the new job description, it will be my baby and my fingerprints will be all over the organization even more so than they are already." 6. Untraded and unsigned, Adam Dunn heads to Chicago. Back in February, a contract extension for Adam Dunn seemed only a matter of time. He said he wanted to stay. The Nationals said they wanted him. And then something surprising happened: Nothing. The season began without an extension, which Dunn had hoped would happen during spring training. The trade deadline came and went. Rizzo, we learned later, wanted to trade him for Edwin Jackson and Kasten wanted to sign him. The Nationals did neither. Dunn stayed and kept clobbering home runs. He finished with 38, the last of which came on the team's penultimate home game, a walk-off. He said he would never forget the fans in Washington. On the next night, he went 0 for 4 with four strikeouts. Fans cheered him and chanted his name, anyway. The Nationals had a three-year deal on the table for roughly $35 million when the year ended. That never changed; the Nationals believed his subpar defense merited nothing more. By Dec. 2, Dunn had a signed a four-year, $56 million contract with the White Sox. Ryan Zimmerman expressed his frustration and wondered when the Nationals would start adding free agents. He would get his answer when they signed Jayson Werth days later, but the Nationals are still looking for a first baseman. If and when they start to contend, you wonder if the Nationals will be saying to themselves, "if only we had a first baseman who could hit 40 home runs every year, plays every day and really wants to play here." 5. Stan Kasten bids adieu. "He was a human 5-Hour Energy drink," one Nationals employee said on Sept. 23, the day Stan Kasten announced his departure from the Nationals. "When he wasn't there, you knew." For five years as team president, Kasten had a role in basically every facet of the Nationals. It's worth wondering if ownership relied on Kasten as much as they should have. It was not for a lack of trying on Kasten's part. He helped bring the Lerners in as owners. He influenced the design of Nationals Park. He advised on personnel. He sparred with reporters. He joked with players. It would be easier to make a list of the things he did not do with the Nationals, and the franchise will not be the same without him. 4. Bryce Harper becomes a National. Mike Rizzo flew to Las Vegas to see Bryce Harper with his own eyes on the first weekend in May. On the plane ride home, he knew the Nationals would draft him with the first pick overall. "It was a pretty easy decision," Rizzo said then. Harper and agent Scott Boras dragged the Nationals through another midnight saga before signing a major league contract for a total of $9.9 million. Harper came to Washington, put on a show during batting practice and dazzled during a press conference. The Nationals sent him to the Arizona Fall League, where, as the second-youngest player in league history, he dominated. Harper stands now as one of the most vital pieces of the Nationals' future. He has the potential and raw ability to become one of the greatest players in the league, maybe one of the all-time greats. There are no guarantees, other than that it will be fascinating to watch. 3. Jayson Werth's enormous contract begins "Phase 2." The news reverberated as the baseball world trickled into Disney World for the Winter Meetings. Who signed Jayson Werth? For how much? The Nationals had. For $126 million over seven years. It was the richest contract in team history, by far. The merits of the deal were immediately debated, an argument that still rages. The sure thing: The signing of Werth significantly changed the way the Nationals are viewed within the industry. Internally, the Nationals used Werth's addition to start what they're calling Phase Two, in which they will build using free agent signings along with their continued effort to assert their farm system. Externally, the rest of baseball has to consider the Nationals a potential player in any major deal. 2. Stephen Strasburg grabs his elbow. On Aug. 21, a Saturday night in Philadelphia, Stephen Strasburg had allowed the Phillies one run in 4 1/3 innings. It was his 12th major league start. He threw Dominic Brown a 1-1 change-up. He shook his arm. The Nationals' 2011 season, and at least the short-term course of the franchise, was wholly altered. 1. Strasmas. If and when the Nationals play a World Series at Nationals Park, it might approach the electricity of June 8. Then again, it might not. Strasburg's debut was the reward for all those losses from previous years, out of which came the first pick of the 2009 draft, which became Strasburg, which led to June 8. This from Dave Sheinin: It was the first major league pitch of Stephen Strasburg's career -- 97 mph fastball, inside, ball one -- the dawning of a new era for the Nationals franchise, and the spectacular collision of two of the most powerful forces today: a once-in-a-generation baseball phenom and the assembled might of the media hype machine in the Internet age. If it was possible to live up to that hype, the tall, sturdy kid with lightning in his right arm and the hopes of a beleaguered fan base in his hands did it, pitching magnificently for seven innings in a 5-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates in his major league debut. The strikeouts piled up -- 14 of them in all, a Nationals team record, each raising the electricity level in the stadium -- and the innings rolled by. That feeling won't return until 2012. Strasburg will make rehab appearances in the minor leagues next season, and with luck he could even make a token major league appearance at the end of 2011. The track record for Tommy John surgery gives Strasburg about a 90 percent shot to make it back; you needed two hands to count the number of pitchers who returned from Tommy John in this year's all star game. Still, one question hovers everything: Will he ever be the same? For the answer, we'll just have to wait. Honorable mention: Aroldis Chapman almost signs; Jason Marquis flops; Jim Riggleman returns for 2011; Elijah Dukes is released; Miguel Batista becomes Mrs. Iowa; the bullpen dominates; Drew Storen, Wilson Ramos and Danny Espinosa debut; Tyler Clippard goes win-crazy; Ian Desmond settles in at shortstop; Chien-Ming Wang and Jesus Flores sit out; John Lannan gets demoted.