Since the beginning of the season, I've been watching the Washington Nationals play a very unique brand of baseball. Most of us wrote off last year's 59-102 debacle as a perfect storm, a confluence of off-years, green pitching and bad luck.
I mean, there is no way that the Nationals would repeat last year's .366 winning percent in 2009, right?
Heading into Friday's game with Atlanta, the Nationals are on pace to win just 48 games and are currently eight games ahead of Cleveland for the "honor" of securing the first pick in the MLB amateur draft for the second season in a row.
Wow. What an honor.
The Nationals are a much better team this year. Nick Johnson (.295-5-33) is healthy and outperforming the cabal of first baseman that the Nationals trotted out last season. Anderson Hernandez (.256-1-21) is playing far better than Felipe Lopez did a year ago.
Cristian Guzman (.318-3-18) continues to provide strong offense at short and Ryan Zimmerman (.296-13-44) is quickly making fans forget about his injury-riddled off year in 2008.
Adam Dunn (.260-20-56) and Josh Willingham (.288-9-18) are marked improvements over Ryan Langerhans and Austin Kearns.
And the pre-slump Elijah Dukes and the currently over-achieving Willie Harris in center have made it so very easy to forget about the since-departed Lastings Milledge. Only catcher hasn't been upgraded, and that's only because of Jesus Flores' injury.
And while we can moan and groan about the bullpen, it was just as bad last year.
In 2008, the starters that followed John Lannan were Tim Redding (10-11, 4.95), Odalis Perez (7-12, 4.34), Jason Bergman (2-11, 5.09) and Colin Balestar (3-7, 5.51).
Jordan Zimmermann, Shairon Martis, Ross Detwiler and Craig Stammen, though all green, have all shown flashes of brilliance and have pitched no worse than last year's cadre of the crappy. And Scott Olsen, even with his injury problems, was an upgrade from 2008.
And while the defense is still bad, at least it's not the very worst in the National League like last year. Currently, it's just the second worst.
So why have the Nationals gotten worse? Why have they gone from being an embarrassment to a laughing stock?
A few years back, I was a car salesman for our local General Motors dealership. Over the previous four years, I had been the top salesman each year. The other salesman were all career guys and the dealership made a lot of money.
One day, the owner retired and his son took over the business. He forced out the old-time sales managers and brought in a bunch of young, high-pressure guys. The sales staff didn't trust the new leadership, and with good reason. They were the prototypical jerks you hate to deal with when you try to buy a new car.
When things were difficult, we needed hugs and loves. What we got were swift kicks in the back side.
Within six months, my sales declined from 15 a month to seven. The other salespeople had similar drops in sales. We would have morning meetings where we'd be excoriated by the managers, threatened with our jobs, and made to feel totally worthless.
Eventually, the owner got wise and "retired" his son, got rid of the high pressure and returned the dealership to its former ways.
And our sales doubled.
See, if those dirt-bags (and they were) had fired all of us and brought in dirt-bag salesmen, the dealership would have prospered. But we were low key, low pressure, and unable to work in the environment that was created for us.
That's the problem I see with the Nationals. The players have a low-pressure manager but require a high-octane personality to lead them. The team has an "AC" manager but the runs on "DC" current.
In other words, they don't have a ying and a yang.
It's ying ying.
By this point, most Nationals' fans have grown weary of manager Manny Acta and many refuse to take the team seriously until a change is made.
And they're right, of course.
And the Lerners, and team president Stan Kasten, and sort-of-GM Mike Rizzo see in Acta a very intelligent, very able, very compelling manager who has all the makings of a winner.
And they're right too.
But as things currently stand, the Nationals are a Ford SUV held together with parts from an 1987 Yugo.
It's just not going to run properly.
So Stan and Mike and Mark and Ted have a decision to make. They can either get rid of Manny Acta and bring in a manager with less stoicism and more vitriol and maybe they can mimic the Colorado Rockies for the rest of the season.
Or they can keep "Manager Manny" and turn over the roster, filling it with players whose pulses must be checked on a regular basis for signs of life.
You know: "Dude, we just got a walk-off homer. Cool. What's for dinner?"
It's one or the other.
So who's to blame? Why none other than Smiley Gonzalez.
If former general manager Jim Bowden had not been forced out during spring training because of "Smileygate," things would be very different right now. It was obvious that the Nationals were an unfinished product when spring training began.
Bowden had collected six starting outfielders and was going to trade for starting pitching from a position of strength before the season started.
However, Bowden lost his job and the Nationals were only willing to give Mike Rizzo a soft endorsement as their sort-of, pseudo, for-the-time-being general manager. Rizzo didn't have the gravitas to make any dynamic trades, and because he had a differing view of how to build the team, was unwilling to continue to build the team Bowden style.
As a result, the Nationals are a hoge-poge of mismatched parts.
Now don't get me wrong; I haven't retreated one inch from my "the future is bright for the Nationals" mindset. There is enough talent in the minor leagues to make a difference (though I wish it was a little farther along). The offense is good enough, and the starting pitching has the potential to be somewhere between special and stellar.
All Nationals' fans need do is show a little patience. If Mike Rizzo is bold and reshuffles the roster, or fires the coaching staff, then all is well on the S. S. National. No icebergs are in sight. There is enough talent to make a significant turnaround in 2010.
If, however, Rizzo becomes a seller and trades Nick Johnson, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham for prospects, well, that's a totally different story.
But I'm willing to wait until the July 31 trading deadline before throwing my fit.
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