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

Fan’s Guide to Watching The Washington Nationals (revised 6/19/2008)

It isn’t just about the expectation of wins (and losses). It is now, and has always been, about building for the future. The problem is, from where the fans sit, it isn’t entirely clear that the Nats are really building.

In fact, thirty seconds of thought will indicate that they are; one only has to look at the minors to see that the pipeline is at least partially stocked with something other than cobwebs. Moreover, the Nationals minor league system has the best combined record in baseball. Admittedly, minor league baseball may not be all about winning, but if nobody is out there trying to win as their primary goal, but rather to foster the growth of young talent, one could reasonably make the argument that won-loss record is at least a partial indicator of success.

But little of that is consoling after watching the Nats flail in Minneapolis. Even when they’re winning, there is something a bit unsettling about the team. I feel very fortunate to have seen the Nats in Seattle, where they caught a team that was struggling as badly as they are. It was fun to watch, but I never got the sense that I was watching a juggernaut, even when sweeping the Mariners in Safeco. So there’s something very ‘MSG’ about our Nats diet as of late. An hour after a win, we’re hungry again.

So this is what I suggest: Stop watching the Nats with the expectation of a particular outcome, which is to say, that the Nats are going to win. Instead, look at the individual moving parts, and lets watch how they grow and develop. And with that in mind, here is my list of things to watch for the rest of this season:

  • Watch for a lack of personnel changes at the top: Don’t expect Bowden to be fired before the end of the season. If you ignore the won-loss record this year, and simply look at the acquisition of personnel, Bowden has done a pretty good job as GM. The Nats have drafted and traded for prospects rather well, and in doing so, provided the foundation for a winning club, if not this year, in a year or two. What Bowden hasn’t done well this year is manage the 25-man roster. Admittedly, the roster problems are even more severe than usual, with all the injuries, but there has been a lot of playing with a short bench. I predict that Bowden will be fired at the end of the season, and it will signal an important organizational change for the Nats. It will signal the transition from the ‘acquiring the pieces’ phase to the ‘putting the pieces together’ phase. Bowden has some important shortcomings that, in my opinion, make him unsuited for the latter task. If I am wrong, and Bowden is fired before the end of the season, it will almost certainly be because other MLB teams are trying to court Mike Rizzo into GM positions, and the only way the Nats can keep Rizzo without crippling Bowden in the trade market is to fire Bowden and make Rizzo the GM.
  • Watch the Nats designate Wily Mo Pena. I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened today or tomorrow. If you’re Bowden, and you still love him, send him down (he’ll clear waivers) and let him get his 300 AB in Columbus, and then bring him back in September… maybe. Who would you bring up instead? Well, there are all sorts of choices. Pick one.
  • Watch the development of Elijah Dukes and Lastings Milledge. It is hard to really appreciate the growth that they’ve experienced thus far, when it rains in our hearts every day, but give Bowden credit on these two acquisitions. Milledge is already as good as Church would have been on this team, and Schneider would be spare parts, with the emergence of Jesus Flores. Dukes has some growing up to do yet, but at least in public, he’s been a good citizen, and he’s flashing the leather and getting good ABs.
  • Watch the team develop some synergy as the injured veterans clear the DL. When healthy, we have a middle-of-the-pack roster, that without the clutch bats of Zim and Nick Johnson, and the steadying presence of Austin Kearns, is exposed and easily pitched around. Clearing the DL will go a long way towards creating more sunny days in our hearts.
  • Watch the development of our starting pitchers. Shawn Hill sure struggled today, but looking back at recent pitching performances, for the most part, the scores and the won-loss record belie the fact that the Nats have pretty good starters. Lannan is going to be spectacular, Bergmann has his flashes of brilliance, Redding and Perez have both been more than serviceable, and when Hill is on, he’s amazing. But all of them have been hung out to dry by their offenses, and while one might say that what happens at the plate is not related to what happens on the mound, the question is, how long can a pitcher pitch with no margin of error? When our bats give the starters a lead, the pitchers will be dazzling… and none of that addresses the talented arms in the minors waiting to come up.

I am disappointed that the Nats are not on the road to 85 wins this year. Before I started blogging, I was Professor Emeritus in the “Glass Half Full Department”, and as you can see, I revert to my roots. But that being said, I think we will soon see the end of the Bowden era, and for no other reason than it will shake up the clubhouse a bit, a change in the coaching staff, particularly with regard to Lenny Harris. But there are other lessons to be learned this season and chemistry to build, so don’t expect too much change before October. Making changes now sends the message of panic and instability, neither of which is what the Nats need.

The medicine tastes awful, doesn’t it?

Don’t Panic!

I watched the game last night. It was bad. Really bad. Terrible. I begged, “Make it stop!” It was so bad that when I was chatting in the PlanetNJ chatroom when Elijah Dukes came up in the 8th inning and someone asked what people thought of Dukes - at that moment Dukes hit into a double play – I answered, “I am liking Dukes pretty well right now, he’s not prolonging my agony.”

But it was just one game.

The thing is, nothing is really any different than it was before last night’s game. The Nats are still not hitting. Starting pitching is still a strength, despite Chico’s performance last night. We might point some fingers at Colome, except that he hadn’t pitched since Friday night in Baltimore. When was the last time a Nats reliever went six games between appearances? Did I mention that the Nats are still not hitting?

[506, a reader/participant from "Nationals Journal" points out that our position players actually hit pretty well last night:

Lopez, 2 for 5, 2 doubles, 1 K
Zimmerman, 2 for 4, 1 RBI
Young, 1 for 3, 1 RBI, 1 BB
Milledge, 2 for 4, 1 K
Flores, 3 for 4, double]

I might have predicted that the Nats would lose last night. In fact, I did predict it. I just didn’t tell anyone. Matt Chico isn’t Shawn Hill, and that’s probably good, if for no other reason that Shawn Hill has a bum arm. But, he’s also not the same quality pitcher as Shawn Hill, and to me, Hill missing a start meant a loss. I hoped for a different outcome, but it was not to be. The bottom line is that last night’s loss was about pitching… and for the most part, our starting pitching has not been a problem this season.

Over the past several weeks, there has been considerable rumbling among ‘The Constituency’ for the firing of both Lenny Harris and Jim Bowden. I would point out that last night’s game does not make the argument for either of their firings more compelling. I have been critical of Lenny Harris in that position, but my reasons have more to do with the fact that I think it is inappropriate for the Nationals to provide on-the-job-training for a MLB-level hitting coach more than with Harris’ performance… And his performacne is not something that I am in the position to evaluate. The external indications are not good, but the magic of that position occurs in the clubhouse, and I am not privy to the goings-on there.

As for Bowden, many will point to his comments yesterday as indication that he’s not the man for the job. I don’t think you can take much of what Bowden says to the press to be very meaningful. The personnel operations of an MLB team are inherently secretive, and I think it is safe to say that anything that Bowden might say is vetted and filtered through the “appropriate for public consumption” filter. Bowden isn’t going to divulge anything of substance to the public that either does or does not indicate his fitness for the job.

These are tough times, but mainly because we have higher expectations. I would point out that while Chico’s performance last night was abysmal, the overall quality of his pitching this season is no worse than we came to expect last year… and this year we have five starters that are performing better than he is. That’s progress.

Just relax!