- The Washington Times - Monday, September 21, 2009

NEW YORK

The Washington Nationals are approaching rare territory, the kind of stratosphere occupied by only a select few in baseball history.

And no, it’s not good.

The Nationals closed the weekend with 98 losses, meaning they’re only two away from losing 100 games for the second consecutive season.

Since 1980, only four teams - four - have managed to pull off that stunning accomplishment: the 2001-02 Rays, the 2002-03 Tigers and the Royals, who make the list twice because they did it in 2004, 2005 and 2006.

Assuming the Nationals join the group - and it’s a fairly safe assumption with games still on the schedule against the NL West-leading Dodgers and the wild-card hopeful Braves - they would have pulled off a feat that has happened once every six or so seasons over the last 30 years and didn’t happened at all from 1980 to 2000.

That’s a stunning run of futility. In a 162-game season, which might be the fairest test of a team’s true identity in professional sports, to do anything three out of every five days for six months takes some serious proficiency or, in this case, deficiency.

So what can the Nationals learn from their 100-loss predecessors? There’s a shred of hope in the Tigers and Rays, who both reached the World Series within six years of their second consecutive 100-loss season.

But the method by which each team pulled itself out of the gutter was quite different.

After losing 119 games in 2003, Detroit went out and signed catcher Ivan Rodriguez away from the world champion Marlins, using the All-Star catcher as a four-year, $40 million good faith deposit toward building a contender. Owner Mike Ilitch didn’t stop there, signing outfielder Magglio Ordonez in 2005 and fielding a mix of veterans and homegrown players that cost $82.6 million in 2006.

The Rays’ 2008 roster, full of players developed through a decade of losing, cost barely half of what the Tigers spent in 2006. But that team was ready to make a move after stockpiling high draft picks and getting its key prospects to the majors at the same time.

There are plenty of romanticized feelings about the way the Rays did it, and the Nationals likely would point to them as a template before the Tigers. But the reality is it might take more of what Detroit did for the Nationals to matter anytime soon.

They’ll likely dip into the free agent pool this winter to a greater degree than they have in the past, though they still won’t be in the hunt for any major prizes. But there’s an organizational belief that things can turn around relatively quickly with the right pieces, and the Nationals will have money to spend.

Austin Kearns’ $8 million salary is coming off the books. So is the $5.5 million the Nationals spent on Dmitri Young and the $5 million they paid Nick Johnson this year. There’s also no more dead money going out to the likes of Wily Mo Pena and Daniel Cabrera (who got $2 million and $2.6 million to go away, respectively).

That’s $23.1 million gone from this year’s payroll, with only Josh Willingham (arbitration) and Ryan Zimmerman (new contract) in line for substantial raises. Washington could add a veteran pitcher or middle infielder relatively easily without even increasing the payroll. To look much different in 2010 they would have to; outside of first-round picks Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen, their farm system isn’t likely to deliver anything new to the major league roster.

And like the Tigers, they might need to make some additions to keep fans interested. This is a crowded sports market where, like Detroit, baseball isn’t the first priority. Whether it’s with a few smart acquisitions or a major step forward from some of their young players, the Nationals need to make a substantial improvement soon or risk things getting even uglier at the box office than they already are.

So if the Nationals are going to learn anything from their time in baseball purgatory, it might behoove them to copy the Tigers more than the Rays. Or they could end up looking like the Royals for a lot longer than they would like.

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