- The Washington Times - Friday, May 11, 2007

The Washington Nationals began their 10-game home stand last night in last place in the National League East Division, where they finished during each of their first two seasons in Washington. The team also owns the worst record in Major League Baseball (MLB). The Nationals lost the last eight games of their recently concluded nine-game road trip, just as they began the season with a 1-8 record. In between, the team played nearly .500 ball, winning seven games and losing nine. The bottom line was an atrocious 9-25 record and an abysmal .265 winning percentage.

It’s a long way from the midpoint (July 3, 2005) of the team’s inaugural season in Washington, when the incredibly over-achieving Nats were entrenched in first place (50-31, with the third-best winning percentage in baseball) in the NL East, 5.5 games ahead of the second-place team.

There are three principal reasons why the Nationals are today’s worst team in baseball: hitting, pitching and fielding.

Among the 30 big-league teams in the National League (16) and the American League (14), the Nationals have scored the fewest runs (99), hit the fewest homers (15) and batted in the least number of runs (94). Their slugging percentage (.327) is the lowest as well. The Nationals have the second-fewest base hits (265) in the National League (the Cardinals played two fewer games), but Washington’s batting average (.227) is comfortably situated at the league’s bottom, well below Pittsburgh’s second-worst batting average (.236).

Individually, outfielder Ryan Church has the team’s highest batting average (.270), which places him tied for 49th in the league. No Nat has hit more than three homers this season, precluding the team from representation among the league’s top 50. First baseman Dmitri Young, who has collected seven hits in his last 53 at-bats and is batting .224 for the season, leads the team with 14 RBIs, which puts him tied for 58th in the league.

On the pitching front, the team’s earned-run average is a hefty 4.67, exceeded in the National League only by Colorado (4.83), whose pitchers toil a mile above sea level. Despite the fact that RFK Stadium is one of baseball’s most cavernous ballparks, no National League pitching staff has surrendered more home runs (38) than the Nats. No National League team has walked more batters (152) or struck out fewer hitters (189). Not surprisingly, Nats relief pitchers have recorded the fewest saves (5) in the league, in part because no other team has blown more save opportunities (7).

No pitcher for the Nats has won more than two games. John Patterson, who began the season as the team’s ace, compiled a 1-5 record and a 7.47 ERA before returning to the disabled list, where he spent most of last year. Chad Cordero, who led the majors with 47 saves in 2005 and who converted 29 of 33 save opportunities last year, has blown four of his eight opportunities this season.

While compiling the worst fielding percentage in the major leagues, the Nats have committed the most errors (31).

The Nats’ collectively abysmal performances at bat, on the mound and in the field call to mind Casey Stengel’s famous question: “Can’t anyone here play this game?” As it happens, Stengel asked that question while managing the 1962 New York Mets expansion team, whose 40-120 record (.250 winning percentage) represents the worst MLB record in more than 70 years. Going into last night’s game, the Nats were on track toward matching the second-worst MLB record since 1935 (43-119), which was compiled by the 2003 Detroit Tigers.

Nationals President Stan Kasten, who helped assemble the 2007 team, insists everything is going according to plan. He’s not kidding. And Kasten, who took the 1988 Atlanta Braves team (54-106) and built it into a National League powerhouse that won 14 consecutive division titles, may even be right.

In order to make money available to rebuild the team’s farm system, which was in terrible shape when the Lerner family purchased the team last year for $450 million from Major League Baseball, the Nationals slashed their payroll from $63 million last year to $37 million this season. Meanwhile, Kasten and General Manager Jim Bowden have been collecting draft choices, developing a scouting system and resupplying depleted farm teams with legitimate prospects. We are impressed with Kasten’s record in Atlanta. But we do not share his view (and, obviously, the owners’ view) that rebuilding a farm system and playing competitive (.500) baseball are mutually exclusive endeavors — especially in the District of Columbia, which is the center of one of the wealthiest metropolitan markets in the country and whose taxpayers are building a $611 million stadium for the team. The Lerner family isn’t the only group with hundreds of millions invested in this team.

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