Nationals poised to contend, just not yet

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Top draft pick Stephen Strasburg throws during the second inning of a spring training baseball game. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

Fourth in a series

 

VIERA, Fla. - Jason Marquis has pitched 10 years in the big leagues. And in each and every one of those seasons, the team he was with - the Braves or the Cardinals or the Cubs or the Rockies - has gone to the National League playoffs.

Don't rush out to get a bet down on the 31-year-old righthander extending his streak, though.

He signed with the Nationals last December.

And while it's true that hope springs eternal and that you never know and that there is a lot of talent on Washington's roster, the reality is that the Nationals aren't going anywhere but home this October.

When the Expos were transplanted from Montreal to the District of Columbia in 2005, they went 81-81 the first year. Lost 91 and 89 games the next two seasons. Have dropped 102 and 103 the last 2 years. Along the way, early enthusiasm for baseball's return to the capital evaporated and attendance nose-dived.

Now there are some building blocks in place, but it's going to take time. The emphasis on stockpiling pitching, highlighted by the signing of first overall draft pick Stephen Strasburg last year, should start to pay dividends eventually. Standard operating procedure would be to emphasize the kids and ask the fans for patience.

General manager Mike Rizzo, in his first full year on the job after being named interim replacement for Jim Bowden last spring, isn't following standard operating procedure.

"We want to win more games. It's much more fun to win than it is to lose. The fan base in D.C. is tired of losing. Believe me, the general manager is tired of losing. And the players are tired of losing," Rizzo said before an exhibition game at Space Coast Stadium.

"I'm not concerned with respectability; I want to have a chance to win a lot of games this year and in the future. And that's our ultimate goal, to compete for championships, not just to compete."

Rizzo is realistic enough to understand that the chances of the Nationals making it to the postseason are minuscule. But he's not going to wave a white flag, either.

"We hope to play a better brand of baseball," he said. "To play cleaner games. To play more efficient games. To do the little things a championship team does to win. I'd like to see our younger players take a step forward. I'd like to see our veteran players assist our younger players to take a step forward. I'd just like the players to perform to the level of their ability and have some surprises, maybe a couple of players exceed their ability level."

To that end, the Nationals have made a conscious effort to improve team chemistry.

"We're going to bring a new culture to our clubhouse and a new attitude on the field into the regular season. Hopefully we'll have more success on the field and we can take a forward step after that," Rizzo said.

That's why Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes are no longer with the team. That's why the Nationals signed veterans like Marquis and second baseman Adam Kennedy and catcher Pudge Rodriguez as free agents. All are older players who have been on winning teams.

If all goes well, the Nationals will churn their rotation dramatically before the end of the season. Strasburg, who will open the year at Double A Harrisburg, is ticketed to make his major league debut sometime in the middle of the year. The hope is that he will be joined by Chien-Ming Wang in May and Ross Detwiler in late May or early June and Jordan Zimmerman around the same time. All are coming off injuries. At that point, only John Lannan and Marquis would remain.

Closer-of-the-future Drew Storen could arrive about the same time Strasburg does. And he liked the veteran presence that surrounded him in spring training.

"It's a great mix of young guys and veteran guys who know how to win and know what they're doing. So I think it's great," he said. "Obviously, we've got guys like Strasburg. But we've got guys who have been in the league. John Lannan and all those guys. Pudge and Marquis. You can't measure what they've been through. They know what it's like to win. It's something for us to look forward to."

While Storen will probably start out in middle relief when he reaches the majors, there will be a temptation to get him the ball in save situations quickly. Matt Capps was signed to be the closer despite indifferent numbers in that role for the Pirates. If he can't get the job done, manager Jim Riggleman could turn to Brian Bruney or Jason Bergmann until he thinks Storen is ready.

Kennedy said there's something to learning how to win, but that isn't enough by itself.

"You've got to be talented, too," he said. "Knowing how to win or thinking you know how to win is sometimes just not good enough. You have to have talent. You combine all that and you have a good team like the Phillies or the Yankees. They've done it year after year, so you start to see a trend. And belief. You take the field believing you can win. Pitchers trust the defense. Hitters trust each other. It's kind of an ongoing thing throughout the clubhouse and the lineup."

Another often-overlooked factor for the Nationals could be centerfielder Nyjer Morgan. He was acquired from the Pirates at the end of June. From his first game until Aug. 27, when he sustained a broken hand, the Nats were 23-29 (.442). Washington lost eight straight after he went on the disabled list. Without him, they were 36-74 (.327).

Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman remains the face of the franchise and Ian Desmond will be the starting shortstop sooner rather than later. There is some hope out on the horizon for this franchise.

Just remember that Marquis, unless he's traded, isn't going to extend his streak this year. *