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

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.

All of the Pieces

You have to admit, watching the “Battle of the Beltways” has been entertaining so far.

In the last two games, we’ve seen great Nationals pitching and at least crisp, and occasionally spectacular defense:

Justin Maxwell snares fly in the first inning. (Image courtesy of MASN and the Washington Nationals. Used with permission)

Justin Maxwell robs the Orioles Adam Jones of a home run in the first inning. (Image courtesy of MASN and the Washington Nationals. Used with permission)

What we haven’t seen is the Nationals hitting the ball.

The reason for that has to do with the Disabled List. When you remove Jesus Flores and Elijah Dukes from the lineup, there’s actually a way to pitch around the Nats. Adam Dunn has struggled since Dukes has been out, and the Nationals miss Jesus Flores both behind the plate as well as when he’s at bat. And while Anderson Hernandez doesn’t make the lineup any more formidable by himself, his speed, and the presense of Cristian Guzman two hitters later in the lineup helps to insure he gets some pitches to hit.

In my last post I spoke about the need for the Nationals to be accountable for their level of play. The next day, Manny Acta held a team meeting, and since that time, the Nats seem to have been transformed – at least when it comes to pitching and defense. It hasn’t been lost on at least some of the national media: Tim Kurkjian wrote a piece last week about the bright future for the Nats. If the Nationals can play average defense and get average pitching from their bullpen, if the all-rookie (almost) rotation can continue to go six or seven innings every game… and if the Nats – and given history, this is a big if – can keep their starting eight on the field and off the Disabled List, we’re going to see real baseball break out on Half Street.

But in this respect, the Nationals are fragile. As well as the team has played since the end of the Pittsburgh series, they’ve barely been able to put up runs, even against a team as weak as the Orioles. Once you’re into the bench, things get dicey. The bench is acceptable, and perhaps above average, as a bench goes. But when the Nats bench is starting every day, the lineup just isn’t as imposing as it could be.

And as spectacular a catch as Justin Maxwell made today, he isn’t the hitter that Dukes is.

The sample size is small – three games – but since Manny’s team meeting, the Nationals seem to have their head screwed on more or less straight. Once we get all of the pieces back, we might actually see what the Nationals are capable of.