Nationals face many questions in offseason

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“We haven’t really put the product on the field that they deserve,” acknowledged reliever Tyler Clippard, who went 11-8 to lead Nationals pitchers in victories.

Manager Jim Riggleman and several players pointed to what he called “amazing” support from the spectators who do dot the stands.

But he noted: “Sooner or later, we’re going to be past the honeymoon period here.”

“It’s not going to last forever,” said Riggleman, whose contract expires after the 2011 season. “People are just going to say, ‘You know what? We’re tired of hearing Jim talk about light at the end of the tunnel,’ and ‘We’re tired of hearing about our players that we have coming,’ and so forth. We’re going to have to win ballgames.”

At least this year’s Nationals did avoid a 100-loss season, going 69-93 after dropping a total of 205 games the previous two years. Instead of finishing with the worst record in the major leagues — something they did in 2008 and 2009, earning the right to draft Strasburg, then 17-year-old Bryce Harper with No. 1 overall picks — the Nationals tied for the sixth-worst mark in baseball.

On the late-September night that Washington beat the Houston Astros for win No. 63, ensuring no more than 99 losses, starting pitcher John Lannan sat on a stool in front of his locker in the home clubhouse and spoke earnestly about the significance of that accomplishment.

“It’s cool just to see progress. Even though it’s small, we’re progressing,” said Lannan, 8-8 with a 4.65 ERA. “Our bullpen’s done such a great job. We’ve got guys stepping up. And our starting rotation is starting to take a little bit of form. So just a little bit of improvement — we’re still a young team, and we’re going through some growing pains and it’s not going to happen overnight. So … not getting 100 losses is pretty big for us.”

So where to now?

Rizzo said last week the team hadn’t determined how much money it would be willing to spend in the offseason — and he steadfastly has refused to discuss negotiations with Dunn, who led the Nationals with 38 homers and 103 RBIs.

Asked to name his biggest offseason need, Rizzo didn’t hesitate, pointing to “a front-of-the-rotation guy to put everybody in what we feel is their proper place in the rotation.”

That could be a fitting way to describe Strasburg, but the Nationals — and their fans — will have to wait.

 

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