- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 4, 2010

After back-to-back 100-loss seasons, the Washington Nationals are looking to climb back to respectability this season.

Last season was a disaster for the Nats, as the tone was set by the resignation of controversial general manager Jim Bowden in spring training and the eventual firing of manager Manny Acta — the team needed a seven-game winning streak at the end of the campaign to match 2008’s 59-win total.

But, with Mike Rizzo taking over team operations and Jim Riggleman back after replacing Acta, the Nats underwent a major overhaul that the team hopes will reverse a five-year slide.

The most visible addition likely won’t be with the club until June, as highly-touted prospect Stephen Strasburg was the team’s top pitcher in spring training, but will start the season with Double-A Harrisburg to work on his mechanics — and allow the Nats to delay the pitcher’s arbitration hearing for a year.

But rest assured, the top pick in last year’s draft will be playing in Washington at some point this season.

“No question. Yes, he will,” Riggleman told reporters this spring. “Only thing that would stop that would be an injury, and we’ll do everything we can in the organization to not let that happen.”

But there are some changes already evident on the Opening Day roster.

“These are all new guys, with different attitudes, different personalities,” Jason Bergmann told reporters this past month. “It’s not like this is a set of guys who contributed to the losing. We have more proven guys, with better track records. And it’s from the top down: We have a different GM, different manager, different players.”

The most significant change in the lineup comes at shortstop, where the last member of Washington’s 2005 Opening Day lineup, Cristian Guzman, was beat out for the starting role by Ian Desmond, who was good in his September call-up last fall and followed up with a terrific spring training.

“Exciting. Excited. Doesn’t really seem like it,” Desmond said last month when he was told of the news, “but, you know, I am. I’m excited.”

“Well, he’s an electric player,” Riggleman said after the decision. “I didn’t see him back [high school], but that’s what he does now – he makes electric plays.”

Guzman, in the final year of his two-year, $8 million deal, likely will get some playing time, but with Adam Kennedy added at second base, he will be pressed for playing time in 2010.

The Nats may even elect to put Guzman in right field to get his bat in the lineup, something the Nats experiemented with during the spring.

“The way he swings the bat it’s tempting to stick him in there, period,” Riggleman said.

Another big change comes behind home plate, as the Nats brought in Ivan Rodriguez, who certainly is past his prime but also could be helpful in nurturing a young pitching staff that will look to improve on last year’s National League-worst ERA. Rodriguez’s offensive numbers have declined, but he helped both the young staffs of the 2003 Marlins and 2006 Tigers reach the World Series, so he should have a positive impact in handling the young arms.

“Wherever [his offensive] numbers end up,” Riggleman said after Pudge’s first homer of the spring, “we got him because he’s a good catcher.”

Washington may have to wait for help from Jason Marquis and Chein Mien-Wang. Marquis struggled mightily through spring training, while Men-Wang is expected to arrive in midseason after rehabbing from an injury that has kept him off the mound since July.

One of the biggest surprises during the team’s camp was the sudden release of Elijah Dukes, who had cleaned up his act since arriving in Washington but reportedly was a bit of distraction in the locker room.

But with some fresh talent and a revamped roster, the Nationals are hoping to finally turn the corner after two dark seasons — and perhaps raise expectations this year.

“I think there [are higher expectations], and that’s a good thing,” Riggleman said. “You want expectations to be high, since people have seen the ballclub and see the progress. We expect to play better baseball and it shows up in the win column … Nobody handed us anything last year when we had to fight out of some real tough times. The ballclub did that.”

“The young talent coming up here is very exciting, and we’ll see it kind of breaking through this year,” Adam Dunn said of his club. “I’ve already been through the bad. I’d like to be part of the good, you know?”

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