- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

So what if last season was a train wreck? Who cares if the franchise squandered a great opportunity to capture local fans in its first season in a new ballpark?

And does it really matter that spring training was defined not by what progress was made on the field but by off-field controversies that made national headlines?

A new baseball season is upon the Washington Nationals, and if nothing else good can be said about that, at least take solace in this fact: 2009 can’t be any worse than 2008, right? Right?

Sure, there are still plenty of things to be upset about when it comes to the Nationals. The payroll is too low. The pitching staff is too inexperienced. The franchise isn’t worthy of the $611 million stadium the public paid to have built.

But that’s a glass-half-empty view of the Nationals. The glass-half-full outlook would point out that payroll is up (slightly) this year. The pitching staff boasts several top-flight prospects. And the stadium still is a nice place to watch a ballgame, win or lose.

Truth be told, the Nationals appear to be taking steps forward. Baby steps, to be sure, but steps nonetheless. That grand “Plan” touted by Stan Kasten three years ago is starting to become visible on the major-league level. Three of Washington’s starting pitchers to open the season will be home-grown products of its own farm system. Four of the starting position players were either drafted by the Nationals or acquired via trade at a very young age.

That may not mean this franchise is on the verge of a World Series appearance, but at least we’re starting to see some tangible signs of progress.

You, the loyal fan, surely have questions about it all. And we’re here to answer those in an educated, reasoned, occasionally snarky manner …

Q: If everything is so rosy for the Nats these days, how come all I ever hear about this team is negative?

A: Because a cloud of negativity has hovered over this franchise for the last 12 months. Think about how much has gone wrong. The team lost 102 games. Attendance in the first season at Nationals Park was less than impressive. Television ratings were abysmal. The clubhouse boasted too many overpriced players who didn’t perform. A top prospect was found to have falsified his identity and age, leading in part to the firing of a top front-office official and the resignation of the general manager.

Whew, that’s a lot of bad stuff to be associated with one club.

Q: But things are getting better, right?

A: Yes, they absolutely are. If you slice up the last year into two sections - pre-March 1 and post-March 1 - you’d find completely different outlooks. Before March 1 (the day Jim Bowden resigned), there were plenty of things going wrong for this organization. Since then, the situation has improved dramatically.

That’s not to pin all of the Nationals’ troubles on Bowden. The blame could be spread among countless others. But Bowden’s departure signaled an end to one era of baseball in D.C. and the beginning of another one. Everyone around the team at spring training could feel the difference, like everyone could breathe easy again.

Q: So what are the reasons for me to get excited about the direction this franchise is headed?

A: Well, as mentioned before, we’re starting to see evidence of the “Plan” succeeding at the big-league level. A lot of work was done in the last two years to shore up one of the worst farm systems in baseball. Now, the effects are trickling up to the major leagues.

Take a look at the rotation the Nationals used to open the 2007 season: John Patterson, Shawn Hill, Matt Chico, Jason Bergmann and Jerome Williams.

Now look at the 2008 season-opening rotation: Odalis Perez, Matt Chico, Tim Redding, Jason Bergmann, John Lannan.

And finally, look at the 2009 rotation as the season approaches: John Lannan, Scott Olsen, Daniel Cabrera, Shairon Martis, Jordan Zimmermann.

The Nationals have gone from counting on injury-prone youngsters, minor-league free agents and second-tier prospects to lead the way to fielding a starting five made up of four promising young pitchers and one reclamation project.

That’s progress.

Q: But the Nats’ real problem last year was a lack of offense. How has the lineup improved?

A: For one thing, it’s healthy. Remember, every starting position player from Opening Day 2008 spent time on the DL last season except for Cristian Guzman. A full season of Ryan Zimmerman, Nick Johnson, Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes should make a difference.

So, too, will the addition of Adam Dunn into the heart of Manny Acta’s lineup. The Nationals have had only one true power-hitting threat since arriving in town: Alfonso Soriano, who hit all his homers out of the leadoff spot.

Dunn will be providing his customary 40 homers from the cleanup spot, where he will have maximum impact. Not only will he drive in a lot of runs, but Zimmerman will see better pitches hitting in front of him, and Dukes and Johnson will have more RBI opportunities hitting behind him.

Q: Can we really count on Nick Johnson to stay healthy for a full season?

A: The evidence obviously says no. But that won’t stop the Nationals from hoping this could finally be the year Johnson makes it through 162 games without some calamity befalling him.

Q: Who is most likely to enjoy a breakout season?

A: Elijah Dukes. The dude has some serious talent. And not just athletic talent. Baseball talent.

When he was healthy last season, he was the best player on the field. By far. He hits for power. He has a good eye at the plate. He runs the bases well. He fields well. He throws well. This guy has superstar written all over him.

Will it happen, whether this year or ever? You just can’t count on it, given Dukes’ history of troubles and injuries. But for what it’s worth, he was something of an anonymous figure in the clubhouse this spring, in a good way. He just quietly went about his business and stayed out of trouble. If he can keep that up, watch out.

Q: Who is most likely to disappoint?

A: Daniel Cabrera. It still baffles some how the Nationals could give a pitcher with his shoddy track record a $2.6 million contract.

Cabrera did little this spring to refute his reputation as a guy with a great arm who has no idea where the ball’s going to wind up. Considering the young pitching talent already on the roster and more fast approaching, don’t be surprised if Cabrera’s stay in the rotation doesn’t last long.

Q: What’s the future hold for Mike Rizzo and Manny Acta? Will they both still be around in 2010?

A: Probably. Rizzo is obviously auditioning for the GM job but seems to have made a good impression on Stan Kasten so far. He was starting to grow into the role by the end of spring training, a good sign.

Acta, too, is well-liked by Kasten (and Rizzo, for what that’s worth). His fate might hinge more on actual wins and losses, though. If the Nationals struggle through another 95-plus loss season, there could be pressure to make a managerial change. But if they get off to a fast start, look for the club to pick up Acta’s option for 2010.

Q: OK, it’s prediction time. Can this team make the leap from 102 losses to a winning record in one season?

A: This is where the rosy outlook changes somewhat. It’s not that the Nationals haven’t made real progress since the end of last season. They have. And it’s not that this won’t be a much better team in 2009 than it was in 2008. It will be.

But the leap from 59 to 82 wins is wider than Dmitri Young and Adam Dunn’s combined waistlines. It’s just not that easy to improve by 23 games in one season. Yes, the Rays did it (and more) last year. But that team was loaded with some of the game’s best prospects, who all took the leap forward together at the same time.

The Nationals don’t have that kind of talent on the major-league roster yet. They do, however, have enough to make a reasonable leap from 59 to 72 wins in 2009.

Which should be enough to erase the negative vibe that has engulfed this franchise for the last year and allow it to enjoy some time under the sun for a change.

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