- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Sometimes you wonder whether the W on the Nationals‘ caps stands for Wait. Let’s face it, since the franchise took up residence

in Washington in 2005, waiting is about all the team’s fans have done.

First they waited for Major League Baseball to find an owner for the club. That took a year and a half.

Then they waited for a new stadium to be built. That took another year and a half.

All along, they’ve waited for the front office to put together a competitive roster, one capable of challenging for the National League East title.

And now, of course, they’re waiting for Stephen Strasburg to come back from Tommy John surgery, for Bryce Harper to turn into Roy Hobbs and, quite a bit further down the list, for Teddy Roosevelt to win the Presidents Race.

(On the plus side, though, they no longer have to wait for Cristian Guzman to draw a walk or for Austin Kearns to be worth all those millions his benefactor, Jim Bowden, paid him. Thank heaven for small favors.)

Fortunately for the Nationals, Washingtonians have a lot of practice waiting. They waited 33 years for baseball to return to the District. They’ve waited the same length of time for the Wizards to win another championship. They’ve also waited 37 years for the Capitals to claim the Stanley Cup and - can it be? - two decades for the Redskins to return to the Super Bowl.

Waiting R Us, in other words.

Still, you couldn’t blame Nats followers if they were beginning to look at their watches. After all, this wasn’t an expansion franchise, a startup, that arrived in Washington in ‘05. It had a farm system and - on the major league level, at least - enough talent to finish .500 that first season.

But those 81 wins have been the high point so far of baseball’s return to D.C. The past three years have been particularly gruesome, lowlighted by loss totals of 102, 103 and 93; the firing of a manager (Manny Acta) and general manager (Bowden); the stepping down of president Stan Kasten (the Lerner family’s tour guide); and a noticeable thinning of the crowds (except when Strasburg was on the hill).

Indeed, when Nyjer Morgan flipped out last summer, he almost seemed to be channeling Nats Nation’s smoldering rage. Especially when he hit that Phillies fan with a ball - the same Phillies who had recently added Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt to their rotation (and would further beef up their pitching in the offseason with prize free agent Cliff Lee). There was something wonderfully symbolic about Morgan’s act, even if it did bring him great gobs of grief.

In the offseason, owner Ted Lerner and general manager Mike Rizzo continued the “assault” on Philadelphia by throwing $126 million at right fielder Jayson Werth. Aside from that, though, the past few months have been relatively uneventful in Nats Land. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Bowden years had an unhealthy amount of drama; if a prospect wasn’t being unmasked as an imposter, then the GM was being charged with DUI - or interviewed by the FBI about the purported skimming of signing bonuses by Latin American scouts.

Rizzo’s more understated approach has brought some much-needed normalcy to the organization. Viera, Fla., seemed more like a place of work this year and less like the winter home of Barnum & Bailey. But it’s hard to envision the Nationals making up much ground on the Phillies, not with Strasburg still on the mend and Harper figuring to spend the season in the minors. (Heck, the acquisition of Lee makes Philadelphia - winner of the past four division crowns - more of a colossus than ever.)

Aside from Werth, the Nationals have brought in Adam LaRoche to play first base - essentially replacing Adam Dunn’s 199 strikeouts and 36 homers with LaRoche’s 172 strikeouts and 25 homers. LaRoche also has a better glove. Defense, in fact, is a point of emphasis with the Nats this season.

Manager Jim Riggleman wants his pitchers to throw more strikes and go deeper into games, and the only way that’s going to work is if his fielders can (a) cover ground and (b) catch the ball. Werth, with his range and arm, fits the bill nicely in right field, and Michael Morse should be an upgrade in left over the departed Josh Willingham. An infield of Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa (a shortstop playing second base) and LaRoche doesn’t look too shabby, either, particularly if the athletic Desmond can whittle down his errors from an MLB-leading 34.

But without Strasburg, the starting rotation lacks an ace or even a certified No. 2, and it remains to be seen who the closer is going to be. (Drew Storen has not had a great spring.) The batting lineup, meanwhile, doesn’t look much more murderous than it did last season, when it produced fewer runs (655) than all but two other NL clubs.

So expectations once again will be modest. The Nationals aren’t about the here and now. They’re still about the future, still a team that’s more imagined than real.

Thus, the waiting continues. With successful clubs such as the Phillies and Braves, a W means one thing. With the Nats, it means something else.

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