- The Washington Times - Monday, June 23, 2008

Sports fans are by nature an impatient lot. When things go awry, they want answers and they want changes. Now. Fire the coach. Replace the GM. Trade away underperforming players.

If there is one faction of sports fans, though, that seems to understand the concept of patience, it might well be loyal baseball enthusiasts. Devoted seamheads are willing to put up with a poor product on the field if their favorite club appears to be making a reasonable effort to improve said team.

There is one caveat: Fans need to see at least a few encouraging signs that their team is taking steps toward becoming a legitimate contender. Young players must be given a chance to learn and grow. The organization must have a plan and must execute it.

Which brings the discussion to the Washington Nationals, an organization that has asked its fan base to be patient while it develops a championship-caliber ballclub. For the most part, fans have bought into the idea. Some have embraced it wholeheartedly.

But those same fans are starting to grow restless after watching the Nationals slog their way through another losing season. The problem isn’t so much that this team is losing (though it doesn’t help). The problem is that this team isn’t having much luck identifying key pieces to its long-term plan.

It has been nearly two years since new ownership took over and announced intentions to rebuild the franchise from the bottom up. Since then, how many “core” players have emerged?

That question was posed to a prominent member of the organization, one who both has a keen eye for talent and is in a position to influence roster decisions, and he could count the number on one hand: Ryan Zimmerman, Jesus Flores, Lastings Milledge, John Lannan.

There are others who could still emerge — Elijah Dukes if he keeps his head, Shawn Hill if he keeps his right arm intact, Chad Cordero if he can come back from his shoulder injury, Jon Rauch if he can sustain his success out of the bullpen — but the list is amazingly short.

For each young player who looks like he could be part of a contending team here in the future, there have been at least two or three who haven’t panned out. Remember when John Patterson was the “ace” of the pitching staff? When Wily Mo Pena, Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez were going to be difference-makers in the lineup? When Kory Casto and Mike O’Connor were considered the organization’s top prospects?

The Nationals have, by all accounts, done an impressive job restocking their farm system with the kind of players (especially pitchers) who could emerge and expand that list of core ingredients. But as always is the case, the club only can reasonably hope that a couple of its top prospects actually pan out.

Until then, the Nationals will continue to field a roster of underperforming former prospects and stop-gap veterans to keep the team afloat until the young players show up and take over.

And through it all, the organization will ask its fans to continue to be patient and believe that better days will arrive someday.

The question is: How much longer will those fans hold out without tangible evidence of progress?

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