- Associated Press - Monday, October 4, 2010

WASHINGTON | Stephen Strasburg knows exactly what he did for the 2010 Washington Nationals.

“I stirred up the baseball world,” he said.

Yes, for a dozen games this season, the Nationals truly mattered, even as they headed for a third consecutive last-place finish — and fifth in six years since moving to the nation’s capital.

Here’s the thing: After his better-than-advertised, 14-strikeout debut on June 8, Strasburg made only 11 other starts, finishing 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA and 92 Ks in 68 innings — then needed major elbow surgery that is expected to sideline him for most, if not all, of 2011.

And so, yet again, the Nationals head into an offseason with questions about where they’re headed.

Will slugger Adam Dunn be re-signed? Where will the starting pitching come from? Who will take over the duties of president Stan Kasten, who is leaving after 4½ years?

“I feel great about how far we’ve come and the platform we sit upon for the future,” Kasten said. “I think we are poised to really take off.”

Perhaps, although having a healthy Strasburg around to help the cause would make a difference.

There were various reasons for the team’s problems in 2010.

The Nationals went 20-28 in one-run games and 3-10 in extra-inning games — both worst in the NL. They tied for the most errors in the majors. Despite having Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman (.307, 25 homers, 85 RBIs) in the middle of the lineup, the offense was mediocre: Only two NL teams scored fewer runs than Washington; only four hit for a lower batting average.

There also were some bright spots, though, such as the emergence of what appears to be a middle-infield combination of the future in shortstop Ian Desmond and second baseman Danny Espinosa. There’s a catcher of the future, too, in Wilson Ramos, acquired in the trade-deadline deal that sent closer Matt Capps to Minnesota. The overworked bullpen worked wonders and features a likely closer of the future in Drew Storen.

Exactly how far away that future is remains to be seen.

“I think we’re on our way to the competing stages right now,” was general manager Mike Rizzo’s assessment as this season wound down.

Still, the Nationals do seem to be aware that it isn’t enough to keep talking about how they expect to start winning more games than they lose.

Home attendance at 40,000-plus Nationals Park averaged 22,569 — including one crowd of 10,999, the smallest in Washington since the Montreal Expos moved before the 2005 season — to rank 14th in the 16-team NL.

“We haven’t really put the product on the field that they deserve,” acknowledged reliever Tyler Clippard, who went 11-8 to lead Nationals pitchers in victories.

Manager Jim Riggleman and several players pointed to what he called “amazing” support from the spectators who do dot the stands.

But he noted: “Sooner or later, we’re going to be past the honeymoon period here.”

“It’s not going to last forever,” said Riggleman, whose contract expires after the 2011 season. “People are just going to say, ‘You know what? We’re tired of hearing Jim talk about light at the end of the tunnel,’ and ‘We’re tired of hearing about our players that we have coming,’ and so forth. We’re going to have to win ballgames.”

At least this year’s Nationals did avoid a 100-loss season, going 69-93 after dropping a total of 205 games the previous two years. Instead of finishing with the worst record in the major leagues — something they did in 2008 and 2009, earning the right to draft Strasburg, then 17-year-old Bryce Harper with No. 1 overall picks — the Nationals tied for the sixth-worst mark in baseball.

On the late-September night that Washington beat the Houston Astros for win No. 63, ensuring no more than 99 losses, starting pitcher John Lannan sat on a stool in front of his locker in the home clubhouse and spoke earnestly about the significance of that accomplishment.

“It’s cool just to see progress. Even though it’s small, we’re progressing,” said Lannan, 8-8 with a 4.65 ERA. “Our bullpen’s done such a great job. We’ve got guys stepping up. And our starting rotation is starting to take a little bit of form. So just a little bit of improvement — we’re still a young team, and we’re going through some growing pains and it’s not going to happen overnight. So … not getting 100 losses is pretty big for us.”

So where to now?

Rizzo said last week the team hadn’t determined how much money it would be willing to spend in the offseason — and he steadfastly has refused to discuss negotiations with Dunn, who led the Nationals with 38 homers and 103 RBIs.

Asked to name his biggest offseason need, Rizzo didn’t hesitate, pointing to “a front-of-the-rotation guy to put everybody in what we feel is their proper place in the rotation.”

That could be a fitting way to describe Strasburg, but the Nationals — and their fans — will have to wait.


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