No more gaffes, no more laughs for suddenly respectable Nationals
The Washington Nationals are over .500 this late for the first time since 2005
General manager Mike Rizzo has rebuilt the team with veterans and youth
Ivan Rodriguez has excelled with his bat and as a mentor to the Nats' pitchers
If there was a low point for the Nationals in their mostly hopeless first five seasons in Washington it likely came in February 2009. Their top international prospect, Esmailyn Gonzalez, had been proven to be four years older than he said he was -- and not named Esmailyn Gonzalez. General manager Jim Bowden was under federal investigation for alleged bonus skimming. They had lost 102 games in 2008, and the franchise hadn't finished above .500 since relocating to Washington in 2005.
Just 15 months later, however, the Nationals' fortunes have already reversed significantly. They are 20-19 and tied for second place in the National League East six weeks into the 2010 season -- the latest the club has been over .500 since '05 -- with reinforcements on the way: Last year's No. 1 pick, Stephen Strasburg, is expected to arrive in the majors by early June; the No. 10 overall pick, reliever Drew Storen, made his major-league debut Monday night; and Washington once again has the No. 1 pick in three weeks, a selection many presume they will use on 17-year-old power-hitting phenom Bryce Harper.
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Much of the turnaround can be traced back to that single Friday in late Feb. 2009, when then-assistant general manager Mike Rizzo essentially assumed control of Nationals management. Rizzo stood in the corner of the Space Coast Stadium pressbox in Viera, Fla., having returned to their spring training facility after completing a whirlwind 72 hours in the Dominican Republic in which he was charged with rebuilding the club's player academy and restoring order amidst the chaos of scandal.
Flanked by team president Stan Kasten and two other club officials who aided him in the D.R., Rizzo was there to be celebrated for his work, a public display rarely reserved for an assistant G.M. With weariness in his eyes, he started recounting his Dominican odyssey with a botched recitation of the famed opening crawl from Star Wars, saying, "A long, long time ago in a place . . ."
Rizzo can be forgiven for the slip-up -- he had barely slept in three days, after all -- but already that downtrodden moment in franchise history is starting to feel like it was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Two days later, Bowden resigned as GM and shortly thereafter Rizzo took over on an interim basis (he would be given the position full-time during midseason). The Nats very quietly made strides during the season. They signed Strasburg right before the mid-August deadline, and after playing to an MLB-worst .299 winning percentage before the All-Star break, they were at .440 after, good for a more respectable 22nd in baseball. Realistically, the Nats are still a year or two away from true postseason contention, but their early success this year offers even greater promise for the future.
"We feel we've come a long, long way from that particular day," Rizzo said last week about his return from the Dominican last February. "We're a vastly improved organization and franchise because of the people we've brought in since then."
The change didn't happen right away. The Nationals lost 103 games in 2009, finishing in last place for the fourth time in five years, and endured a series of embarrassing gaffes. Among others, the jerseys of their best two players, Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman, were misspelled "Natinals" during a game last April, and a postgame fireworks display last June was abruptly shutdown when debris landed on the D.C. fire chief.
Since then Rizzo, who was the Diamondbacks' director of scouting before coming to Washington, has been able to focus on remaking the Nationals from league laughingstock to competitor, a change he's enacted by continuing the development of the farm system while acquiring veterans in key positions to bring stability to the club and implement a greater level of professionalism at the major-league level.
That started with a roster re-do. At the end of the Bowden era, for instance, Washington featured eight players in overcrowded rotation for first base and the two corner outfield positions. Not one of them was properly suited to play center field, forcing Lastings Milledge to man the position -- where in 2008 he was the majors' worst defensive center fielder, according to Ultimate Zone Rating -- until he was traded to the Pirates for Nyjer Morgan, who was the NL's best defensive outfielder in 2009, per UZR.
Milledge isn't the only one from that logjam to have departed. Elijah Dukes, Austin Kearns and Wily Mo Peña are also gone. Rizzo wasn't done: veteran second baseman Adam Kennedy signed before the season; prospect Ian Desmond won the starting shortstop job even though incumbent Cristian Guzman is the club's second priciest player (in annual value); and future Hall of Fame catcher Ivan Rodriguez signed a two-year deal, the final and perhaps most important piece of what Rizzo called a "conscious effort" to improve themselves up the middle of the diamond.