A fan's observations on the Washington Nationals, from across the virtual divide.

Plan A

Filed under: Background,Fan Experience,Organization,Personnel,Players — Wigi @ 4:36 pm December 3, 2010

While my ties to Washington baseball are long and deep (and limited only by my middle age), I admit that I did not follow baseball as closely as I do now through the Dark Years. I was an ultra-fanatic as a child, took a thirty-four year break, and became an ultra-fanatic again in the fall of 2004, as the Nats came to town. Certainly there are those among us that followed every baseball season meticulously, but I was not one of them, and I suspect that for the vast majority of Nationals fans, the Dark Years were dark years.

When you’re a ten year-old kid, and you live, eat and breathe the Washington Senators, your focus is on your favorite player – for me, that was Frank Howard. I was only vaguely aware of who Bob Short was, and it was not until late in the 1971 season that I any appreciation at all for what his bumbling ownership meant. From the perspective of a child, he was an adult who had done me wrong, even if I was unaware or incapable of understanding how he had done it. I was hurt, and it was personal.

After Short came Bowie Kuhn, Ray Kroc and Peter Angelos – all three conspiring against me and other Washingtonians to keep baseball out of the Nation’s Capital. Perhaps it isn’t fair to lump all three into the same basket of disdain – after all, Ray Kroc was just trying to save the Padres for the city of San Diego, rather than deny them to Washington. But really, it didn’t matter, since I didn’t have a home baseball team.

When the Nationals came to town in 2004, it was only after Washington and a half-dozen other cities begged and pleaded with Major League Baseball to be allowed into the club, and the city of Washington paid a ransom of over $600 million, in the form of a new stadium. And in many respects, the 2005 Nationals were less than you would expect from an expansion team, since the entire organization had been gutted top-to-bottom. Washingtonians were starved for baseball. We were made to beg to get our team back (and our victory was at the expense of the fans in Montreal). The organization we got in the bargain has proven to be hobbled for what will likely be ten years because of Major League Baseball’s willful mismanagement of the team.

Now that I had a home team to root for again (even though I live 4000 miles away), I looked at baseball differently than I ever had before. Sure, I still had my favorite players, but of equal or even greater import was how the organization ran. For the next four years it ran not well at all. Under the ownership of MLB and then the Lerner family, Jim Bowden was part General Manager, part sideshow barker. His three tenets of management seemed to be to give the fallen a second chance, make a big splash, and “it’s about Jim Bowden, stupid.”

As a Nationals fan who watches the organization, the four major baseball holidays – Spring training, the entry draft, the trade deadline and the Winter Meetings – were times when you could always count on Jim Bowden to come up with something. Even his inaction, such as his inability to trade Alfonso Soriano, was structured to be a Jim Bowden publicity stunt.

More than once, both to friends and in this space, I made the argument that we as Nationals fans should be thankful that we have a team at all. Certainly that is true. But our gratitude should not be confused with blindly accepting the Nationals without looking at them with a critical eye – and I now admit that I was not as critical as I should have been. When SmileyGate broke in 2009 I realized what many before me had been saying – the Nationals were in the midst of an organizational crisis, and a big part of the problem was Jim Bowden.

When Bowden left, and Mike Rizzo became  the General Manager, Nationals fans finally caught a glimpse of what competent organizational management was all about. Rizzo couldn’t be more different than Bowden. Rizzo is all about building a top-shelf major league organization, and came to the position with a great resume’. Rizzo is quiet and thoughtful… and in fact, listening to him speak and trying to make sense of what he says is a bit like listening to Alan Greenspan talk about the economy – he is oracle-like in his obfuscation.

A year and a half with Rizzo at the helm has been just what the doctor ordered for Nationals fans. While the team as a whole has shown only modest progress under his leadership, the Nationals have a top-notch bullpen, and have drafted two of the most highly-touted prospects in many years in the form of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. In addition, other homegown talents such as Drew Storen, Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond all made the Nationals in 2010, showing that the organization is indeed growing and maturing. Whatever angst Nationals fans had about the organization during the Bowden years has probably been assuaged.

Until yesterday.

And by yesterday, I mean, the day Adam Dunn signed a four-year contract with the White Sox.

Truthfully, that anxiety has been building since the summer, when it became clear that the Nationals weren’t all that interested in signing Adam Dunn. I think a lot of us thought that the Nationals would come to their senses and sign Dunn, and that the low and/or short-term offer was a strategy to get Dunn at the price they wanted. And perhaps it was, but you would think that Mike Rizzo wouldn’t take that stance without a Plan B.

Actually, I think that it is the other way around – Adam Dunn was Plan B.

Which brings me to the angst. If Adam Dunn was Plan B, what is Plan A?

I think, to most casual (and perhaps serious) observers, Plan A isn’t obvious.

I can tell you this, if Plan A is Carlos Peña or Adam LaRoche, I don’t think the fans are going to be happy. I won’t be happy.

I’ve said this before – I am not a Major League General Manager, and neither are (almost) any of you, so I am not, and you are not qualified to make an informed judgment about the merits of who the Nationals have to play first base. But given that most fans had a strong opinion on whether the Nationals were going to keep Dunn, I think that most fans would agree that Plan A better be some kind of plan. Nationals fans liked 40 home runs and 110 RBIs a season. Nationals fans liked the affection and respect that Ryan Zimmerman, Josh Willingham and Adam Dunn shared. Nationals fans thought that Dunn made Willingham and Zimmerman and the rest of the lineup better hitters.

Mike Rizzo, you better have a heck of a Plan A.

What is different today is that the bar is set a lot higher for Mike Rizzo than it was for Jim Bowden – and rightly so. Nationals fans are done with rebuilding, especially when, from their perspective, the rebuilding is being preceded by demolition. I am willing to take Rizzo’s actions as an indication that one of baseball’s best minds has a plan, and that 2011 will be better (by a lot) than 2010. In the meantime, I think I need to express my expectations.

The only rationale that works for me is that by letting Adam Dunn walk, the Nationals are going to be a better team… and not in three or four years, but the day pitchers and catchers report. Of course, Rizzo isn’t one to articulate his plans to the public – after all, he’s like the oracle. We have to infer his intentions from his actions.

We suffered through Bob Short, and we suffered through thirty-four years of no baseball. We begged for our team and paid the ransom. We put up with the dysfunction of Major League Baseball-as-owner, and the dysfunction of Jim Bowden. As fans and as a community, we’ve been at this for almost fifty years, and for forty-eight-and-a-half of them we’ve gotten the short shrift. I was ready to believe that when Mike Rizzo became GM, that we had finally seen the beginning of a new era.

I want to believe that. But you’ll forgive me if a lifetime of rooting for baseball in Washington has made me cynical.

By letting Adam Dunn go, Mike Rizzo has set the bar very high.

Mike Rizzo, you better have a heck of a Plan A.

Trade Deadline Post Mortem

Filed under: Media,Organization,Personnel,Players,Teams — Tags: , , , , — Wigi @ 2:56 pm August 2, 2010

I am not a GM, nor do I play one on television… so I don’t have (an informed) opinion about how the Nationals did leading up to the trade deadline. Certainly the two trades the Nationals made make a lot of sense, and in terms of Matt Capps for Wilson Ramos, I think it was definitely a case of selling high.

What bothers me about it all is that the pundits seem to be critical of Mike Rizzo for sticking to his guns with regard to the trade value for Dunn (and presumably Willingham). In Rizzo’s blog, he addresses (and essentially dismisses) the criticism.

I can’t help but wonder if the team were some other… say, the Yankees or the Phillies, or the Cubs… whether the “conventional wisdom” would be so strongly lined-up against the Nationals and Rizzo.

Does (the collective) baseball somehow believe that the Nationals don’t deserve to be shrewd players in the marketplace?

Rizzo is right: if the criticism is that the other teams didn’t get Dunn at the price they wanted to pay, that is their problem.

(Next) Spring is in the Air…

Filed under: Fan Experience,Personnel,Players — Tags: , , , , — Wigi @ 11:36 am July 29, 2010

This isn’t much fun for me.

Back in 2006, when Jim Bowden was shopping around Alfonso Soriano, we watched and waited every day… waiting for news… waiting to hear about the trade that would send our reason to come to the ballpark off to a contender, in exchange for prospects. Soriano smiled and worked hard, swiped bases, swatted home runs, and threw out runners from left field as if he was turning the 4-6-3, and we all knew that it was a charade. Soriano wasn’t staying, Bowden was asking for the moon, and Nationals fans pretty much knew that the rest of the season was really about showcasing the healthy trade pieces, and not about putting a winning team on the field. We heard the whispers, we read the rumors. Major League Baseball’s contenders were the vultures, and the Nationals were carrion. Bowden stood between them, looking to strike a deal that would send the choicest parts away, for a handful of magic beans.

No, July 2006 wasn’t much fun.

In a lot of respects, 2010 is worse. The Nationals aren’t quite dead,  but they’re not well, either. The vultures are circling, looking to pick up The Last Piece, in exchange for prospects. Bowden is gone, replaced by Mike Rizzo. He, too is asking for the moon. He’s asking for the moon for Adam Dunn. He’s asking for the moon for Matt Capps. Who knows who else is in the trade mix. One of the things that makes it worse is how ubiquitous Twitter has become. Rumors and whispers travel the InterTubes in nearly instantaneously in 140-character chunks.

The trade deadline is the point where most baseball fans (and all Nationals fans) have to come to grip with the fact that the sweet dreams that are born in Florida and Arizona in the spring are dead. General managers knew this in April, but fans hold out hope and root for their favorite players until the end of the season. Rizzo is thinking about 2011. The fans are thinking about the next game. As the trade deadline approaches, and the rumors fly, it isn’t very pleasant for Nationals fans, who spend the days leading up to the deadline contemplating the loss of their favorite players.

I think I can handle the rumors and hand-wringing. If the Nationals can make themselves a better team through trades, I’ll swallow a little disappointment now for a shot at the playoffs next year.

But I am not ready for more of the same.

Remind You of 2005?

It shouldn’t.

The Nationals of 2005 were a very different animal than the Nationals of 2010. In many ways, it feels the same, and Mark Zuckerman wrote today of the last time that the Nationals were four games above .500. But on September 18, 2005, the Nationals were riding the escalator down, while our 2010 Nationals are riding the escalator up.

The Nationals in 2005 were the bare bones leftovers that Major League Baseball decided to impose on its thirtieth city – in many respects, worse than an expansion team, because there was no need for MLB to create the illusion of fairness of an expansion draft. The league, with the able assistance of Omar Minaya and Jim Bowden gave Washington a team with a  slashed payroll and traded away every significant prospect. Even if the 2005 Nationals had found their way into the post-season, nothing between 2006 and 2009 would have been appreciably different.

Our Nats sucked, and they would have sucked, no matter what.

But here we are in 2010. The Nationals are about in the same place in the standings as they were in 2005. But the Nats’ future looks very different.

The problem is, nobody really anticipated that the Nationals would be all that different this year. I think most of us had absorbed the idea of 70-92, and most of us would probably have be OK with that. We were ready to accept twenty-two games below .500, knowing that we would be better next year.

But we’re better this year.

Which makes me wonder. At what point does Mike Rizzo decide that the Nationals need to make a run at this season?

The Nationals shopping list is actually rather short. While the Nationals desperately need improved starting and relief pitching, they have ample reinforcements on the way, in the form of Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen, Chien-Ming Wang, Jason Marquis, Ross Detwiler, and perhaps Jordan Zimmerman. Last night’s game exemplifies why the Nationals need to shore up their pitching. They won, but the bullpen made things exciting… perhaps a little too exciting for some people’s tastes. If we can wait out three weeks of Super-Two purgatory (and several rehab stints), the Nationals pitching will be getting a lot better very quickly.

The other glaring hole is in right field, where there is no in-house answer. The platoon of Justin Maxwell, Roger Bernadina, Willie Harris, Willy Taveres and who-knows-who-else (actually, I do know, Cristian Guzman) has been adequate to good defensively – and defense is a big part of the Nationals success in 2010. But at the plate, well… not so hot. There are some who argue that we should just let Willie Harris play the position.

I am torn. I think that Willie Harris will be a better hitter if he plays every day. But what he won’t be is the guy that offers protection to the lineup… and I think that the Nationals need one more feared bat in the lineup. Say what you will about Elijah Dukes, opposing pitchers at least respected him. Sure, you could throw breaking balls at him, but you couldn’t make a mistake to him.

The Nationals will be Also-Rans if they don’t solve their right field problem. The question is whether Mike Rizzo is going to be satisfied with meeting the 70-92 expectation, or whether he’s going to shoot for 92-70. If he chooses the latter, the Nationals are going to have to make a trade. The current winning formula isn’t sustainable… even with better pitching. They need their entire lineup to wake up at the plate. As it is now, there’s a path through the lineup where you can pitch around the hot hitters. A legitimate bat with the defense and arm for right field is what they need.

Right now.

A few words with Stan Kasten

Filed under: Organization,Personnel — Tags: , , , — Wigi @ 7:13 am April 18, 2010

Lets have a little contest. Without doing the research I had to do to compile these stats, tell me which set of statistics belongs to which season – the first eleven games of 2009, or the first eleven games of 2010:

  Year A Year B
Runs Scored 54 53
Runs Allowed 75 66
Team Batting Average .268 .250
Team OPS .755 .770
Errors 13 9
Team ERA 6.38 5.91

They seem pretty comparable, don’t they? One set of stats (2009) belongs to a 1-10 record, and the other (2010) to a 6-5 record.

The correct answer is, Year A is 2009, and Year B is 2010.

Statistically, they seem almost identical, but not only are the outcomes very different, the fan perception of the season so far is different, too. It is just a different vibe.

I have a theory about this. My theory is that the organization as a whole is a healthier place, and we have been seeing the benefits of it in many different forms, but now we’re seeing it on the field, too. This past winter, players (not all, but some) were lining up to play in Washington. A year earlier, nobody wanted to come to Washington. Whether you talk to players, general managers, pundits or fans, nobody sees this year’s team the same way as they saw last year’s team.

Organizational changes don’t happen overnight, and I wanted to find out more about my suspicions. I imagined that at some point in 2009, the Nationals decided that they needed to reinvent their front office, and from there the entire organization.

Last Saturday I spoke with Stan Kasten at Citi Field. I asked him at what point did he decide that they needed to wipe the slate clean, and reinvent the front office. Kasten said that the decision came in March, with the departure of Jim Bowden. I asked if the organizational reinvention was in reaction to the Dominican scandal, and Kasten was quick to point out that there was no way that Bowden or anyone else in Washington knew about the specifics of the Dominican problems, and that had they been aware, to allow it to continue would be professional suicide. Instead, Kasten suggested that Bowden’s resignation provided the opportunity to move in a new direction, and the Nationals took advantage of that.

Unfortunately for the Nationals, they were able to chart the course in March, but they could not act until the end of the season. Teams cannot recruit or hire people for the baseball operation during the season – most of the potential candidates are already committed to teams. But the Nationals planned through the summer, made note of those who might be available at the end of the season, and moved quickly to expand their front office once the season was over.

I asked Kasten if the Nationals were done with their organizational overhaul, and Kasten said no, that they hadn’t hired everyone they wanted, and that they expect to further enhance their baseball operations. Look for more additions in the fall. Kasten also added that the new facility in the Dominican Republic is expected to open in May, and that he has high hopes for what the Nationals can accomplish there.

I suspect that the work the Nationals have done over the past year – starting with the reinvention of the entire baseball operation has made a huge difference in the way the club sees itself and how others see the Nationals. Washington is now an attractive place to play, and I think that we are seeing at least a part of that difference manifest itself in the outcomes of the games at the beginning of this season. The statistics aren’t all that different between this year and last, but the results are certainly different.

Other notes from my conversation with Stann Kasten…

One of the topics of conversation that came up was Adam Dunn, and the status of his contract. Kasten mentioned that he thought that it was a mistake for Dunn to insist that he’s a National League player. Clearly, Dunn would be an attractive candidate for an American League team looking for a designated hitter. I asked Kasten if that gave the Nationals some advantage in their negotiations with Dunn for his extension, and Kasten said that the only thing that was preventing a deal was that Dunn needed to show that he could really play first base. Kasten said, “I love Adam Dunn… I really do love him… but he has to prove he’s a first baseman”

***************

Hendo commented that it was easy to tell the difference between 2009 and 2010 because of the errors… but if you only compare the first ten games, they become almost indistinguisable:

  2009 2910
Runs Scored 50 53
Runs Allowed 68 66
Team Batting Average .269 .243
Team OPS .763 .754
Errors 10 8
Team ERA 6.32 6.52

Will History Repeat Itself?

I make an effort not to put myself in the position to be an armchair General Manager. I figure that there are probably fifty people in the world who are qualified to be a Major League GM, and I am not one of them. For me to comment would be a little like me commenting on major surgery – Take that spleen out! You can live without a spleen, right?

But there are aspects of being a GM that isn’t about evaluating talent or negotiating contracts.

One of them is, what happens when one (or more) of the Nationals’ prospects ends up playing themselves onto the big club’s roster?

The gaudy (in a bad way) start of spring training is setting up the scenario where it is entirely possible that a player like Ian Desmond or Drew Storen so handily outperforms the incumbent that Mike Rizzo’s biggest April worry is what to do with Cristian Guzman and Jason Bergmann. It wasn’t so long ago – 2008 – that this very scenario played out as Jesus Flores played himself onto the big team’s roster, even when his ticket seemed irrevocably punched for AAA.

Back in November, I traveled to Arizona for Arizona Fall League, and I interviewed Drew Storen about his plans for spring training. At that time, he said his plan was to come to Florida and make an impact. While he’s had only one appearance so far, it was notable for both its success and brevity. He’ll pitch again tomorrow – and while his appearance may be overshadowed by Stephen Strasburg, a strong performance will almost certainly get the attention of the front office. An impact, indeed.

Ian Desmond is doing the same thing… and as a position player, he’s getting a chance every other day or so to show that perhaps Syracuse isn’t the place for him.

The problem that Rizzo faces is that the business of baseball – assigning players to the minors in order to both foster their development and slow down the arbitration clock – seems to be in conflict with the actual performance of the players. I suspect it is tempting to not let a player’s emprical performance on the field interfere with a perfectly good business decision. But the fans don’t see it that way, and people like me are rooting for Drew Storen and Ian Desmond.

I am not saying that Storen or Desmond… or any other Nationals rookie… deserves to make the team. What I am saying is, if they have game, they don’t deserve to ride the bus in the minors because the Nats have expensive contracts with veterans. The fans don’t deserve it, either. I think we deserve the best available team… and I think that the take home message from 2009 is that  it is a mistake to assume that any player on the team is a lock at his position on the first day of spring training (see Milledge, Lastings). Albert Pujols comes to spring training believing he needs to earn his spot. It seems to work out for him.

So will history repeat itself?

Let’s hope!

O-Dog

Filed under: Personnel — Tags: , , , , , , — Wigi @ 3:38 pm February 4, 2010

There are some deals that you just feel bad about when they don’t happen, but for me, the Orlando Hudson deal wasn’t one of them. Not that I am the first to say this, but there are reasons that Hudson isn’t with the Dodgers, and there are reasons that the Dodgers acquired Ronnie Belliard last season.  Hudson was/is asking top shelf money,  and I think there are good reasons to believe he isn’t top shelf anymore.

I totally agree that the Nats have gaping holes at middle infield, but they have had them for a long time, and it isn’t an easy problem to solve. What is different now is that at least we have some prospects - Ian Desmond - who is in the neighborhood. After Desmond put on an encouraging showing at the end of last season, a lot of fans would probably settle for an Ian Desmond – Cristian Guzman middle infield. Clearly that isn’t what Mike Rizzo has in mind, but there is still time to work another deal, whether through trade or free agency. The worst we’re going to end up with is Desmond and Guzman. There are worse possibilities. Think Felipe Lopez and Jose Vidro.

I think it only makes sense to be upset about losing Hudson if you think the Nationals are at 90 wins this year, and signing him gets you to 93… and if your argument is that Hudson is a stop-gap until Desmond is ready, $9 million is an expensive stop-gap. I think there are a lot of acceptable ways for a 75-to-80 win team to fill the middle infield for a year, and most don’t cost $9 million.

I absolutely want to see the Nationals acquire a top-shelf middle infield. But I think there was very little upside with Hudson, and a lot of risk. Hudson was not Mister Right… He was Mister Right Now. If we could have landed him for what (we think) Rizzo was offering, it was a good deal. I like that Rizzo stuck to his guns.

Makes you a little teary-eyed for Alfonso Soriano, doesn’t it?

The Intangible Value of Stephen Strasburg

What are you doing Saturday afternoon?

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’ll be watching the Desert Dogs – Javalinas game on television*.

And for that, you have Stephen Strasburg to thank.

The Nationals are pretty psyched about it too, I bet. After all, here it is just a week before Thanksgiving, and quite a few fans are going to tune in a baseball game to watch Strasburg and the Phoenix Desert Dogs try to win the Arizona Fall League Championship. It is probably safe to assume that interest among Nats fans has never been higher, and I confess, a big part of why I went to Phoenix was to see Strasburg. But like they say in advertising, “Come for the Strasburg, stay for the rest of the Nats.”

Between Strasburg and the Desert Dogs, and the splash that Mike Rizzo is making revamping the front office (more on this soon), it is likely that the Nationals have never had a better November. Okay, November 2004 might have been better, but that was technically the Expos, and from the Montreal perspective, that wasn’t a good month at all.

The only downside: High expectations. We’ve had them before – search my blog for “irrational exuberance”. But I think we’ve all been hurt enough now that our expectations are more in line with reality.

The Nats paid a lot for the privilege of signing Stephen Strasburg. When they weighed the cost and the benefit of signing him, I wonder how much they considered the good feelings and attention that would be generated in the offseason with his participation in the AFL. In most other years, the AFL action would be an obscure afterthought for most people. But this year, a lot of attention has been called to AFL, and Nationals fans are getting to “see” not only Strasburg, but also Drew Storen, Chris Marrero, Danny Espinosa, Josh Wilkie, Jeff Mandel and Sean Rooney.

So Saturday afternoon, a lot of people will be watching college football. The hardcore of us – most of you reading this – will be watching the AFL Championship Game on television.

This is very good news.

———-

*The AFL Championship Game can be seen starting at 2:30 Eastern Time/10:30 Alaska Time on MLB Network (cable) and MLB.TV (Internet).

Christmas in November

Nationals fans got some of their Christmas presents early this week, with the announcements that Ryan Zimmerman was honored with both the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards for his amazing play in 2009. Add to that the announcement that Jim Riggleman has been chosen as the permanent manager for the Nationals, and you’d be hard pressed to find a week with more Nationals news that didn’t have seven lineup cards and a few home runs.

Bloggers got an extra gift this morning – a telephone press conference with Jim Riggleman.

After having spoken to Drew Storen last week in Arizona, I was curious if Riggleman had some advice for those young players that were hoping to crack the twenty-five man roster this spring. Riggleman pointed out that the players in the Arizona Fall League are the cream of the crop and that the majority of them make it to the Major Leagues – though not all make it right out of spring training. Riggleman added that Storen’s path through the organization – signing early after the draft, getting considerable experience in the minors, and then an additional stint in the Arizona Fall League has done nothing but help his chances. And while Riggleman said it was too early to say exactly where Storen might land in the spring, he suggested that there might be opportunities for him if he earns it in spring training.

Some other notes from the press teleconference:

  • Riggleman hopes to have Cristian Guzman play at second base this year. Guzman’s September injury to his shoulder prevented the Nats from trying Guzman at second at the end of the season. Guzman’s surgery was successful and the damage found was minimal, so there is every hope that a healthy Guzman will move to second base in the spring.
  • … which brings us to shortstop. Riggleman mentioned that he would be comfortable with Ian Desmond at shortstop, but there has been some recent rumors that the Nationals may be interested in other shortstops that might be available on the free agent market.
  • Scott Olsen is recovering well from his surgery, and is expected to be ready for spring training.
  • Jordan Zimmerman is also recovering well from his surgery, but Riggleman does not expect Zimmermann to be back before 2011.

Reminiscing…

I was reading Tom Boswell’s piece in The Post today, and it got me thinking about the Nationals, and their first year in Washington. The return of baseball to Washington had captivated me – as a native Washingtonian and childhood fan of the Senators, I made the trip back to DC for Opening Day – a ritual I have re-enacted every year since.

Back in Late July, 2005, I got a phone call from a friend of mine that lived in Denver. My friend had helped me with my business, and suggested that perhaps I should take a weekend and go to Denver, and take in the Nationals series against the Rockies. The Nats had just completed a torrid first half, had lead the National League East, but were now slowly coming back to the pack, and in fact, they had lost their lead by this time. I, like every Nats fan, was totally wrapped up with the improbable season, and I couldn’t get enough. While it was clear that the Nats had begun their slide back towards the middle of the pack, I expected the Nats to right themselves and stay in the playoff picture to the end. I was wrong, of course… but had the Nats played just .500 ball the rest of the way (a reasonable hope and expectation after a 51-30 first half), they might well have been playing in October – 90 wins won the National League East that year, and 89 won the Wild Card.

I debated the idea of going to Denver, and when I realized I could only make one trip east for the remainder of the year, I decided that I should save the opportunity, and go back to DC for the playoffs. I skipped the trip to Denver (where the Nats swept the Rockies), and instead watched the Nationals at RFK in September, where they lost their last three, to settle at 81-81.

The 2009 season is now over (for the Nats, at least). I watched the Twins-Tigers game yesterday, and couldn’t help imagining the Nats in that situation. Not our current Nats, mind you… but the team of our future. Maybe even next year’s Nats. There is a lot to look forward to, not the least of which is that it really can’t be any worse than it was this year. We have good young pitching today, that hopefully will be great young pitching tomorrow. We have the leadoff-hitting center fielder we’ve wanted since our hearts were broken by Endy Chavez. Willingham and Dukes could play for almost any team, and both are poised to find their place in the big leagues. Adam Dunn is proving to be a better first baseman than anyone ever expected, and while Ryan Zimmerman is proving to be everything we hoped he would be, our hopes are stratospheric. He is our superstar. Once again, the questions are up the middle, and while I am skeptical that Ian Desmond is the answer at shortstop, or that Guzman will thrive at second, I am just a blogger, and not a major league scout or GM… so what do I know? And the question remains whether Jesus Flores can come back from his injuries, and becomes the every day catcher we think he is, or the Nick Johnson of the catching fraternity.

So for Nationals fans, the slate has been wiped clean, and not a moment too soon. If you need a positive message to take forward from 2009, the Nats played .440 ball after the All-Star break (including the end-of-the-season seven-game winning streak, and an eight-game streak in August), compared to under .300 for the first half. And unlike in previous years (thanks, Jim Bowden), instead of needing to cobble together a team comprised mostly of castoffs and second chances, the Nationals have a small but manageable shopping list for the offseason. When you’re 58-103, the playoffs may seem to be light-years away, but the addition of just one or two players can make a huge difference; for example, the Nationals with Nyger Morgan were 22-26 (.458) , and 36-78 (.315) without him.

Boswell’s point today about the playoffs is this: Once you’re in, it doesn’t matter what you did before that. The same is true for the Nationals in 2010. It doesn’t matter what happened in 2009. On April 5th at 1:05 PM, we’ll all be in our seats at Nationals Park, our Nats will be tied for first, and the promise of every baseball fan everywhere will be ours – in April, anything is possible. The difference between 2010 and every Nats season that came before it is that the best Nationals team ever will be on the field.

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