- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 18, 2009

No franchise in the major leagues has taken more of a beating in the past 16 months than the Washington Nationals.

And not just on-the-field beatings. As if their combined .366 winning percentage the past two seasons wasn’t bad enough, the Nationals have become a punch line around the sport. That’s what happens when you lose a lot of games, have a dwindling fan base, become embroiled in a Dominican prospects scandal that forces your general manager to resign, commit more errors than anyone else in the game, wear uniforms with a missing letter, fire your manager and pitching coach and fail to sign your first-round draft pick.

Your 2008 first-round draft pick, that is.

Yes, at long last the Nationals did something Monday night that will bring positive attention to the franchise. They managed to come to terms with Stephen Strasburg at 11:58:43 p.m., beating the deadline by a whopping 77 seconds. And you weren’t alone in detecting a giant sigh of relief coming from the offices on South Capitol Street.

For one thing, the Nationals secured the services of perhaps the top pitcher to come out of the draft in decades, ending nearly a year of hand-wringing and speculation. Perhaps more significantly, the Nationals took an important step toward re-establishing their good name around the sport.

Don’t underestimate the importance of that. Strasburg’s final decision didn’t come down to just money. It also came down to his gut feeling about the Washington organization and its long-term viability.

Think about it this way: If the New York Yankees offered Strasburg $15.1 million, would he have waffled so much before making a decision?

Strasburg needed on some level to be convinced it was the right choice to commit to the Nationals for the next half-dozen or more years. He needed to see evidence of improvement, both on the field and off it.

He saw some of that evidence a week ago, when members of Washington’s front office, including managing principal owner Ted Lerner, flew to Southern California to meet with him in person and sell their franchise. By all accounts, that meeting made a significant difference. “Stan [Kasten] and I both thought that was an important aspect of getting this deal done,” acting general manager Mike Rizzo said. “Mr. Lerner, Mark [Lerner], Bob Tannenbaum, Stan and I trucked our way across country and showed the respect that we felt Stephen Strasburg, as our No. 1 pick, deserved. When a man the likes of Ted Lerner flies cross country to see you, that makes a huge statement.”

So give Lerner credit for that bold move, and give the entire organization credit for the steps it has taken in the past five months to restore its credibility in the baseball community. It began, really, with Jim Bowden’s forced resignation in March, continued with the signing of Ryan Zimmerman to a five-year, $45 million extension in April, was advanced with Rizzo’s roster makeover in May and June and was bolstered by the club’s dramatic turnaround under interim manager Jim Riggleman.

That last point may have been most significant of all. Had the Nationals come out of the All-Star break in a continued state of free fall, Strasburg surely would have had to wonder whether he really wanted to be a part of the organization.

But Washington has played inspired baseball under Riggleman, carrying a 17-14 record into Tuesday’s start of a seven-game homestand, one that may now feature a ceremonial first pitch from the richest 21-year-old in baseball. All of a sudden, another 100-loss season — not to mention next year’s No. 1 draft pick — isn’t a slam dunk.

And all of a sudden, the prospects for a competitive 2010 are encouraging.

Assuming Strasburg lives up to the hype, he’ll join Zimmerman, John Lannan, Jesus Flores, Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham, Sean Burnett and Nyjer Morgan as core pieces of a future contender. Add a couple of free agents — who are more likely to want to sign with an improving outfit — to the mix, plus the emergence of another young starter like Ross Detwiler or Collin Balester, and the Nationals have something legitimate cooking.

It’s called positive momentum, and it’s something this franchise has needed for a while.

Maybe the District no longer will be viewed as the end of the baseball universe. Maybe this town will become an attractive destination for top free agents. And maybe, just maybe, a pennant race will return to the District in the near future.

Is Strasburg’s signing alone going to trigger all that? No.

But it’s certainly the latest (and largest) positive development for a franchise that not long ago hit rock bottom but in the past five months has taken some dramatic steps to climb out of the abyss.

“This experience has taught us one thing: We have never been so determined not to have the No. 1 pick again,” Kasten said. “I never want to have to go through this ever, ever again.”

Perhaps the Nationals have done enough now to make Kasten’s dream come true.

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