- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Nationals weren’t an expansion team when Manny Acta became manager in 2007, but they might as well have been. They were, after all, still new in town — with new owners and a new stadium that was just a year from completion. Everything about the franchise screamed start-up.

So in that sense, Acta was doomed from the beginning. In that sense, his firing Sunday night — after the Nats wheezed into the All-Star break with an MLB-worst 26-61 record — was preordained. If you take over an expansion club, you’re bound to get the ax before it enjoys much success on the field. It happened to Bill Rigney with the Angels in the ‘60s, it happened to Larry Rothschild with the Devil Rays in 2001 and it’s happened to every manager in between.

The Nationals were a death sentence, plain and simple. The only real question was: How long could Acta avoid the guillotine? The answer turned out to be 2 1/2 seasons — a touch longer than Mickey Vernon lasted with the second-edition Senators, a bit less than Roy Hartsfield held out with the just-hatched Blue Jays. All in all, though, Manny’s experience in Washington was fairly typical for an expansion-type job.

And let’s face it, that’s what he was managing, an expansion-quality team. So why shouldn’t his performance be measured against Vernon’s and Hartsfield’s — or for that matter, against Larry Rothchild’s birthing of the Devil Rays? It would enable us to see, for one thing, that his 158-252 record isn’t as Historically Awful as it’s been made out to be.

In fact, Manny has a higher winning percentage (.385) than five of the 14 expansion managers in the last five decades — the Mets’ Casey Stengel (.302), the Jays’ Hartsfield (.343), the Padres’ Preston Gomez (.363), the Senators’ Vernon (.373) and the Mariners’ Darrell Johnson (.384). (He’s also not far behind Harry Craft’s .406 with Houston and Rothchild’s .411 with Tampa Bay.)

Or should we be talking about losing percentages instead of winning percentages?

Besides, it could be argued that Acta didn’t start from Square One with the Nationals, he started from Square Minus-One. Not only did he inherit a last-place team, one that finished 20 games under .500, he also inherited a team that had divested itself of four of its best players — Alfonso Soriano, Livan Hernandez, Jose Vidro and Jose Guillen. Of all the prospects and compensatory picks the Nats received for those veterans, only Jordan Zimmermann, the aspirin-throwing right hander, has made much of an impact so far, and he’s just getting started.

But then, during the Acta years, it was never about today. It was always about tomorrow. Players — Jim Bowden’s players — came and went (including one bonus baby from the Dominican who suddenly aged four years). Then Bowden went. And now Manny is gone, replaced by journeyman Jim Riggleman, erstwhile star of the Richard Montgomery High School Rockets in Rockville.

All along, the attitude of Stan Kasten and Team Lerner has been: Maybe we can distract the fans with our shiny new stadium until we get this train on the tracks. Maybe they’ll be so preoccupied with the Presidents Race they won’t notice we’re 27th in team payroll.

Recently, the Nationals showcased a piece of The Future by calling up Ross Detwiler, their prized 23-year-old southpaw. The poor kid went 0-5 before being sent back down to the minors… for his own protection.

Earlier, the Nats watched Daniel Cabrera start the season 0-5 and, having seen enough, flat-out released him. (This leaves them, you’ll be happy to know, with only one 0-5 pitcher on the roster, reliever Joe Beimel.)

Kasten insists “the pieces are coming together” and that the club is ready to “start winning more.” But the truth is the Nationals are on a 114-loss pace and their top power hitter, 23-homer man Adam Dunn, has just a year left on his contract. If things don’t improve in a hurry, Dunn would be a dunderhead to stick around.

As for Acta, he still hasn’t gotten a chance to manage a bona fide major league team — only one that, 2 1/2 seasons later, still bears a striking resemblance to an expansion club. But to his credit, he’s shown prospective employers that when the world is crumbling around him, he won’t go all YouTube and start pulling bases out of the ground. That should count for something.

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