Sunday, March 25, 2012

Hope Springs Eternal

In 1971, when Bob Short absconded to Texas with the second iteration of the Washington Senators, I was still in diapers and therefore oblivious to the idea that my hometown would be without a baseball team for the next 34 years.  Growing up in Washington, D.C. in the 1970s and 1980s was not an awful experience for a sports fan.  The Redskins were great, going to four Super Bowls (and winning three) between 1983 and 1992, the Bullets twice made the NBA Finals, winning the title in 1978 and losing their bid to repeat a year later and while the Capitals became notorious for their ability to lose playoff series in excruciating fashion, at least they were *making* the playoffs.  If Washingtonians desired a fix of the national pastime, the Baltimore Orioles were a quick hour's drive up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, playing at Memorial Stadium and fielding competitive teams year in and year out, losing an epic World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1979 and defeating the Philadelphia Phillies for the title in 1983.  

Although the drumbeat for a third baseball franchise in Washington began as early as 1974, when the San Diego Padres were rumored to be relocating to D.C., and continued intermittently through the 1980s and 1990s, when others attempted to lobby Major League Baseball for an expansion franchise for the nation's capital, Washington laid dormant, with an aging multi-purpose stadium (beloved RFK) unsuited for the trend toward retro parks upgraded with luxury suite amenities even as new franchises sprung up in places like Miami, Denver and Phoenix.  When all hope for a team seemed lost, MLB decided to relocate the Montreal Expos, a once proud franchise that had groomed players like Randy Johnson, Larry Walker, Pedro Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero and others, before falling on hard times, unable to draw more than a few thousand fans to their aging home at Olympic Stadium.  Even then, Washington had to compete against other potential landing spots in places like Las Vegas and Portland.  As MLB shopped the franchise, they levied a final indignity on the Expos franchise, forcing them to play several "home" series in San Juan, Puerto Rico, further alienating the few diehard Canadians that still supported the team.  

Although MLB profited handsomely from the move (the league purchased the Expos for $120 million from Jeffrey Loria, who turned around and bought the Florida Marlins, and then sold the now Washington Nationals to the Lerner family for $450 million), the team itself was hardly ready for prime time.  None of that mattered the day the move was announced.  City leaders donned the iconic "Curly W" ball cap and announced the team's relocation, along with an agreement to build a state of the art stadium in downtown Washington.  The city got a team, MLB got paid and long suffering fans could once again look forward to spring for something other than the Cherry Blossoms.  

The months leading up to Opening Day 2005 were well .. weird.  The team itself had little in the way of a farm system, uniforms were sort of slapped together on the fly, and for a while, ticket sales and marketing were done out of trailers in the parking lot of RFK Stadium.  The team opened the season with nine road games to give groundskeepers and workers time to put the finishing touches on RFK, which receives some modest upgrades to make it more appealing for the fans (the new Nationals Park would not open until 2008). Of course, none of that mattered when Livan Hernandez took the hill on April 14th and threw the first pitch a Washington hurler had tossed in RFK since 1971. 
That first year, or at least the first half of that first year, was magical.  The team, made up of cast offs, has beens and never wases, seemed to always escape danger or win in unexpected fashion.  Unknown players like Chad Cordero and John Patterson played well above what their careers would ultimately be and halfway through the season, the Washington Nationals, a team that did not even exist a year before, were leading the NL East with a 50-31 record. Of course, baseball being what it is, the law of averages kicked in and the second half of the season was a funhouse mirror reflection of the first - the team's record was perfectly inverted - 31-50 - ending the season at precisely .500.  

Little did the more than 2.7 million fans who turned out to watch the team in that inaugural season know, but the midpoint of the 2005 season would be the high water mark for the franchise for years to come.  The bloom quickly fell off the Nationals' rose in 2006, as the team limped to a 71-91 record and settled into the basement of the NL East.  A year later, with a new manager but little talent, the Nats failed to have a starting pitcher win 10 games, journeyman Mike Bacsik was forever immortalized as the pitcher that gave up Barry Bonds's 756th home run and although the team improved modestly from 71 wins to 73, barely beating out the Marlins for 4th place in the division, they still finished 16 games behind division winner Philadelphia.

When Nationals Park opened in 2008, the team rang in its first game in grand style, beating the Atlanta Braves when third baseman Ryan Zimmerman crushed a home run in the bottom of the ninth.  The memory would have to last fans all year long, as the team lost more than 100 games and did not finish within earshot of any other team in the division.  Ownership was pilloried for the poor product on the field, for failing to spend money to lure free agents to Washington and the questionable moves of the team's General Manager, Jim Bowden.  The only bright spot after Zimmerman's walk off was on the last weekend of the season, as the Seattle Mariners won a couple of meaningless games against the Oakland A's, thereby guaranteeing the Nationals the first pick in the amateur draft.  That pick was used to select San Diego State pitching phenom Steven Strasburg, widely regarded as one of the best college prospects of the past 20 years. 

2009 would be no better, as the team duplicated its 59-103 record and suffered an embarrassing scandal involving its Dominican Republic operation, resulting in the termination of General Manager Jim Bowden and his Special Assistant, Jose Rijo.  The team did not perform much better,  firing manager Manny Acta in July when the team stood at a miserable 26-61 record and suffering the embarrassment of having its two biggest stars, Zimmerman and first baseman Adam Dunn, come out for a game in April with the word "Nationals" misspelled on their jerseys. Again, a lone bright spot in this season of despair was the first overall pick in the draft, a precocious, and prodigiously talented slugger from Nevada named Bryce Harper.  More importantly, at least in the short term, was the promotion of scouting director Mike Rizzo to the GM slot.  Rizzo and team President Stan Kasten poured enormous resources into bolstering the front office, hiring additional scouts and personnel to rebuild the farm system, sniff out potential trades and begin remodeling a franchise that was not only regressing on the field, but losing its tenuous grasp on the fan base.

Whatever good will the Nationals had engendered as a scrappy upstart thrust into an uncomfortable situation back in 2005 was long gone by the time the team celebrated the 5th anniversary of its relocation to Washington.  But baseball is a funny sport.  It requires (and rewards) fans and teams alike that take the long view.  Unlike football, which unfolds quickly and team dynamics and momentum are quickly apparent, baseball is largely sub rosa, often changing slowly and under the radar.  For the Nationals, the small changes it was making below the surface began to bear fruit during the 2010 season.  Rizzo's savvy staff plucked Matt Capps out of the free agent bargain bin, watched him have an All-Star first half of the season and then smartly flipped him to the Minnesota Twins for premier catching prospect Wilson Ramos, whose path to the big leagues was blocked by Joe Mauer.  An earlier trades the Nationals made, sending Ryan Langerhans to the Seattle Mariners for an aging prospect named Michael Morse, a classic "toolsy" player who had never reached his potential, also bore fruit as Morse started to steadily produce at the major league level.

In addition to these important moves, the hard work the Nationals brain trust did in prior drafts began to pay off.  Drew Storen, a well-regarded closer from Stanford, selected in the same draft as Strasburg, rocketed through the minor leagues and made his major league debut that summer.  Two other prospects, shortstop Ian Desmond and second baseman Danny Espinosa, were also making their way through the minor leagues, with the former making the major league roster in 2010 after receiving a September call-up the prior season and the latter getting his own late season call-up in 2010.  Other selections like Jordan Zimmermann, a hard throwing right hander who the Nationals selected in the second round of the 2008 draft out of remote University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and Jesus Flores, a catcher plucked from the Mets in the Rule 5 draft, showed flashes of greatness before experiencing devastating injuries (Zimmermann had Tommy John surgery and missed the 2010 season, Flores suffered a nearly career ending shoulder injury in late 2008 and did not return to the big leagues until 2011). 

As the team restructured its major league line-up, the buzz surrounding Strasburg's inevitable promotion to the big leagues loomed in the background.  When that day finally came in early June, Strasburg did the one thing that rarely happens in sports - he exceeded the "hype."  Taking the mound against the weak sister Pittsburgh Pirates and before a sell-out crowd, Strasburg baffled hitters on his way to recording 14 strikeouts with a triple digit fastball and a curveball that harnessed speed and movement to move in ways that appeared to defy the laws of gravity.  While the team still struggled, Strasburg's emergence was the most promising development for a team that was languishing in the standings and home attendance.  Although Strasburg's season would be devastatingly cut short when he snapped his ulnar collateral ligament, resulting in Tommy John surgery, the team's 10 game improvement suggested that the team had, through drafts and trades, begun to turn the corner by forming a nucleus of everyday players and pitchers at almost every position. 

These positive indicators started to come together in 2011.  Even when manager Jim Riggleman inexplicably resigned in the midst of an 11 game winning streak, the team showed resilience.  When $126 million free agent signee Jayson Werth struggled at the plate and another free agent, Adam LaRoche, was lost to season ending shoulder surgery, others stepped up.  LaRoche's place was taken by Morse, who clubbed prodigious home runs, and younger players like Espinosa and Desmond picked up the slack left by Werth's weakness and the loss of Zimmerman to an abdominal injury.  Other young players, like uber-talented but erratic reliever Henry Rodriguez emerged and Storen and his All-Star set up man Tyler Clippard (who the Nationals had acquired from the New York Yankees several years before), solidified a bullpen that, in the span of just a few seasons, went from one of the worst in the history of baseball to one of the best in the league.  The team's hot second half, under the guidance of World Series winning manager Davey Johnson pushed their record to 80-81 (a game that was rained out was never played), the team's best record since landing in D.C. 

Which leads us to today, to the idea that "hope springs eternal" and that the happiest day in any baseball fan's life is the day that pitchers and catchers report for spring training.  Baseball's pastoral roots encourage the concept of renewal, that even in the darkest winter (two consecutive 100+ loss seasons) the promise of spring (Strasburg's return, Harper's future promotion, the promise of Espinosa, Zimmermann, Desmond, and Ramos) is right around the corner.  For the first time since the team came to Washington, the Nationals are considered a legitimate contender.  Rizzo's investment in better scouting and drafting stocked the team with the league's best farm system, which he deployed in the service of trading for All-Star pitcher Gio Gonzalez and ownership's commitment to spending locked up Zimmerman deep into his 30s and brought in competent starter Edwin Jackson.  With Jordan Zimmermann and Strasburg now both fully recovered from their Tommy John surgeries, the Nats staff is top notch and backed up by a well regarded bullpen, which added former All-Star Brad Lidge for a mere $1 million. 

In a larger sense, the Nationals are not only set up to contend for one of the now two wild card spots available in each league, but Rizzo's maneuvers have set up the team to compete for years to come. The Nationals spent prolifically for amateur talent in recent years, paying top dollar for players like Matt Purke, Anthony Rendon and Brian Goodwin in the hopes of creating a steady pipeline of pitchers and everyday players well into the 2010s.  At the major league level, the team is young and talented, with position players and quality pitchers locked up for the next several years while creating depth that affords the team flexibility to make trades into strength and the wealthiest owner in the game now willing to consider splashier free agent signings to get (or lock up) players that can help the team contend.   In this way, the Nationals are potentially on the cusp of the type of run experienced by the Atlanta Braves in the 1990s and the Philadelphia Phillies of the late-2000s, where both of those franchises rode young talent and strategic free agent signings into division dominance and deep runs into the playoffs that resulted in World Series victories.  

In the city itself, the Nationals' timing is also fortuitous.  While the Redskins remain the city's first love, the team itself is awful (a whole separate blogpost would need to be dedicated to the terrible free agent signings, trades and draft picks of the past 20 years), the Wizards nee' Bullets would be considered a laughingstock if the NBA did not also have the Los Angeles Clippers and the Capitals have tantalized a small but loyal fan base a couple of times only to fall short in the playoffs.  With Strasburg back in action, Harper on his way up, and a team that has more major league talent than it has at any point since its move from Montreal, there is legitimate industry buzz that the team might be a sleeper for the playoffs (and even the World Series!). A winning squad will launch a virtuous cycle of revenue, national media attention and fan support that will allow the team to retain younger players as they reach free agency, compete for marquee free agents and reinvest in the farm system through its deep and talented scouting department.  For long suffering fans like me, it does not get any better than this.  GO NATS!

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