- The Washington Times - Monday, May 14, 2007

They were pure failure on a baseball field, a motley collection of past-their-prime veterans and not-ready-for-primetime kids who came together four years ago to make a run at infamy.

The 2003 Detroit Tigers were, quite frankly, a joke of a ballclub. And they played like it. They went 43-119, and if not for a late flurry of wins in the season’s final week, they would have broken the 1962 New York Mets’ modern-day mark of 120 losses and firmly established their place as the worst team ever.

Four years later, the Washington Nationals are hoping not to set the new standard. Similarly constructed of veterans near the end of their careers (Dmitri Young, Ronnie Belliard, Robert Fick, Ray King) and young guys who could use a little more seasoning (Matt Chico, Kory Casto, Jesus Flores) the Nationals have drawn plenty of comparisons to the ‘03 Tigers. Their record through the season’s first month-plus (12-25) only has bolstered those comparisons.

But perhaps the only man in the world who can legitimately compare the two clubs insists there really is no comparison.

“That ‘03 team wasn’t as talented as this team is,” said Young, who hit .297 with 29 homers for Detroit that year. “That should have been a Triple-A team or Double-A for that matter. Not to say they didn’t have big league ballplayers, but many of them weren’t at that particular time. This team is a lot more talented.”

That might prove to be true. The ‘03 Tigers didn’t have an established young star like Ryan Zimmerman or budding regulars like Austin Kearns, Felipe Lopez and Ryan Church.

What Detroit did have, though, were several kids who at the time looked overmatched yet ultimately became key contributors to the 2006 club that won the American League pennant:

• Right-hander Jeremy Bonderman, a 20-year-old rookie at the time, went 6-19 with a 5.56 ERA. Three years later, he won 14 games and pitched in the World Series.

• Lefty Nate Robertson made only eight starts that year and had a 5.44 ERA. Three years later, he went 13-13 with a 3.84 ERA as another cog in the Tigers’ standout rotation.

• Brandon Inge, then a .203-hitting catcher, blossomed into a 27-homer third baseman on a pennant-winning team. Outfielder Craig Monroe likewise used his experience that year to solidify his position later.

• And relievers Fernando Rodney, Wilfredo Ledezma and Jamie Walker all got experience in 2003 as well and were better for it in 2006.

So that season wasn’t entirely a lost cause in Detroit, as much as it might have felt like one at the time.

The Nationals acknowledge they’re employing a similar strategy as they go through their own rebuilding process. There are a few key differences — the Tigers already were playing in Comerica Park during their 119-loss season, while the Nationals will move into their new stadium next year and could add significantly to the payroll — but the general idea is the same.

That makes evaluating this season in Washington all the more difficult. It’s going to be hard to find positives in Chico if the young lefty loses 19 games with an ERA over 5.00, but it’s impossible to know whether he will wind up winning 14 games three years from now. Casto might look lost at the plate as a rookie and offer little reason to think he’s going to blossom, but he might become a .280 hitter with 20-homer potential in a few years.

That is the leap of faith the Nationals have been asking fans to take this season. It can be hard to believe them at times, but as loyal Tigers fans can attest today, you just never know.

Want more Nats? Check out Nats Home Plate.

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