- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

It is the benchmark for failure in the baseball world, the most-recognized sign of an organization’s struggles and the long road it faces to climb back to respectability.

One hundred losses.

And the Washington Nationals were one of only two major-league franchises (along with the Seattle Mariners) to hit that depth in 2008, a train wreck of a season in which just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

When a team goes 59-102 as the Nationals did last year, the knee-jerk response from fans, media and even sometimes the club’s own front office is that a complete overhaul is necessary. Blow up the roster. Fire the manager and GM. Trade away the underperforming and overpaid veterans, sign a bunch of big-name free agents and go young with top prospects.

Irate fans, even madder talk-show hosts and even more-unstable Internet message board posters don’t care that it’s impossible to do all that at once. They’re not going to take a rational approach to this. They are by nature an irrational lot, and without them professional sports franchises would have no fans.

It is, then, the job of those men who run a ballclub - from the owner to the GM to the manager - to wade through the public discord over an embarrassing season and make reasoned decisions about how to fix a broken team.

Some choose to clean house and hire a new front office and coaching staff. Others choose to wade into the free-agent market and increase payroll. And still others decide the best course of action is actually to stay the course and hope the previous season was an aberration.

In the Nationals’ case, all three tactics made some amount of sense:

c They overhauled manager Manny Acta’s coaching staff, firing everyone but pitching coach Randy St. Claire. And the front office took on a new direction this spring when GM Jim Bowden resigned under allegations of improper dealings in Latin America.

c They made their first serious foray into free agency since arriving in town four years ago, making a serious push to sign slugger Mark Teixeira for $180 million and ultimately settling on Adam Dunn for $10 million per season.

c And all the while, they tried not to veer too much off course from ownership’s original stated plan to rebuild the franchise through scouting and player development, sticking with a core group of young players who believe they will be stronger for having endured recent tough times.

“I think the things we learned and all the stuff from last year is going to help us more than people think,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the oft-promoted face of the rebuilding franchise. “Battling through disappointments and grinding out a season that was obviously not very fun to go through is only going to make us stronger this year.”

Guiding the organization through it all is a man who has been through this very scenario before. Nationals president Stan Kasten, who held the same title with the Braves from 1986 to 2003, recalls not so fondly his former team’s abysmal 1988 season, in which Atlanta went 54-106 and finished 27 games behind the next-worst team in the NL West.

Though the end result was similar, Kasten sees few common threads between the 1988 Braves and the 2008 Nationals. That Atlanta club was just starting to rebuild and allowed future stars like Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Ron Gant to take their lumps. This Washington club, Kasten believes, was further along in its development but was done in by a spate of injuries to key personnel.

“After the 100-loss season [in Atlanta], we were just so young and had just started to put the program in place,” Kasten said. “There wasn’t much you could do. It’s baseball. There are no shortcuts. We just had to stay at our pace and at our program.”

After making only a few roster changes, the 1989 Braves improved nine games, still finishing last in the NL West at 63-97. They are, however, one of the rare cases of a 100-loss team making only modest progress in the standings.

Baseball’s worst team each of the last nine seasons has won an average of 16.9 more games the following year. Only three times in the last 26 years has a 100-loss club actually gotten worse the next season.

Even had they not made any roster additions this winter, the Nationals believe they would have fielded a much-improved team in 2009 through nothing more than avoiding the crushing injuries that helped derail last season. Eight of the nine players in Washington’s Opening Day lineup spent time on the disabled list in 2008, with only All-Star shortstop Cristian Guzman avoiding injury.

The Nationals enter 2009 a far healthier club.

“We had devastating injuries,” Kasten said. “We thought a lot of that would take care of itself, and it has.”

Not that a healthy roster alone would solve all of Washington’s woes. Recognizing the lack of a true power hitter in last year’s lineup, the front office made its top offseason priority the acquisition of a big bat.

Surprising many around baseball, the Nationals made a serious run at Teixeira, offering the free-agent first baseman an eight-year, $180 million contract that would have dwarfed anything this club previously offered to another player. When Teixeira elected to take a similar deal with the far more successful New York Yankees, the Nationals turned to Dunn and inked the majors’ lone 40-homer hitter in each of the last five seasons to a two-year, $20 million contract that still established a new franchise high.

Dunn, who toiled for a sub-.500 team in Cincinnati the last eight seasons, figured he’d catch on with an established winner. But when few enticing offers came from those clubs, he took a harder look at Washington and came away with a rosier impression of this organization, especially when it came to the core group of young position players already in place.

“That’s a big reason why I signed here,” he said. “I can see the talent offensively, and hopefully pitching. Obviously pitching is the name of the game, but if everyone can stay healthy, this is a very good offense.”

The Nationals believe Dunn’s addition will have a profound impact on a lineup that ranked among the majors’ worst in 2008 but now can reap the benefits of a bonafide slugger and on-base machine in the cleanup spot.

“It makes everybody better,” Acta said. “Everybody knows how much good he’s going to do for Zimmerman. And then the guys that come in front and behind of Dunn, they both get some benefit out of it. You’re either going to be protected, or there’s going to be a ton of times when you’re going to hit with somebody on base.”

Dunn proved to be the highest-profile offseason addition to the Nationals roster, but he wasn’t the only player acquired. A November trade with the Florida Marlins netted outfielder Josh Willingham and left-hander Scott Olsen. A December signing brought right-hander Daniel Cabrera aboard. And Washington picked up several players after camp opened this spring, signing reliever Joe Beimel for $2 million and picking up catcher Josh Bard and reliever Julian Tavarez in smaller deals.

“By the time the offseason is over, we’ve been very busy,” Kasten said. “We’ve added two rotation guys, an experienced reliever and two veterans to the lineup. That’s a lot of pieces to add on top of a young team.”

But is it enough to turn the Nationals’ fortunes completely around in one year?

Teams that lose 100 games don’t go to the World Series the following year. Only a handful even post winning records. Progress for the Nationals in 2009 could mean a 70-92 record and perhaps even another last-place finish in the NL East.

Players inside the clubhouse are realistic about the upcoming season. There’s very little talk of a worst-to-first miracle.

But there is a renewed sense of optimism, a sense that better days are ahead and that the moves the organization made - and didn’t make - over the winter ultimately will lead to success.

“If you look at our lineup now, if you look at our pitchers we’ve picked up, there’s no way we can lose as many games as we lost last year, or even be that close to it,” Zimmerman said. “We have a good young team, a good core group of young guys. I think that’s the key. You have to build a core of four or five guys and then fill in the pieces of the puzzle around them. That’s what we’re starting to do here.”

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