Behind the Washington Nationals' 0-6 Start Are Several Intriguing Storylines

Farid RushdiAnalyst IMarch 9, 2010

VIERA, FL - MARCH 2:  Infielder Ian Desmond #74 of the Washington Nationals fields against the New York Mets during MLB Spring Training action on March 2, 2005 at the Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Florida. The Washington Nationals defeated the Mets 5-3. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

After finishing their first year in Washington with a .500 record, fans and players alike hoped the Nationals would have a breakout season in 2006.

The key was to get off to a fast start.

It didn’t happen.

The Nationals were just 2-8 after 10 games and finished April with a dismal 8-17 record.

The team brought in a bevy of new players the following year and it was hoped that a fast start might propel the team back to a .500 record in 2007.

Didn’t happen again.

The team was an identical 2-8 ten games into the season and by May 1 was 9-17 with little hope of improving.

In 2008, Elijah Dukes, Paul LoDuca and Lastings Milledge, it was hoped, brought enough new talent to the team to reverse the string of bad starts, and it almost worked.

The Nationals started the year 3-0 and were ahead by six runs late into their fourth game before losing.

They lost seven in row and were 3-7 after ten games and 11-17 at the end of April.

After signing Adam Dunn, no one—no one—thought the Nationals would again start slowly or would lose another 100 games last year. Most pundits predicted 72-75 wins for the Nationals in 2009.

But they couldn’t start the season 2-8 again.

And they didn’t. They started the season 1-9.

They finished the month 5-16 and only a handful of die-hard fans bothered to check the box scores each morning.

But there is great hope for 2010. The additions of "Pudge" Rodriguez, Jason Marquis, Adam Kennedy, and the dual-headed phenom that is Drew Storen and Stephen Strasburg have all but assured that the upcoming season will be special.

With this much talent, another 1-9 or 2-8 start is simply impossible.

But it would seem that no one told the players.

Six games into the Grapefruit League season, the Nationals are winless heading into Tuesday’s game against the Tigers.

The Nationals have been outscored 67-30 with a team ERA over 10.00. The hitting isn’t great, but pitchers are always ahead of the batters this early in spring training.

Unless, of course, you’re talking about the Nationals’ pitching staff.

That said, don’t sweat the stats and don’t sweat the record.

I’m only bringing it up because everyone else is. Mark Zuckerman of Nats Insider and Adam Kilgore of Nationals’ Journal have gone into great depth describing the team’s woes.

Neither thinks it’s time to panic, but both feel that if this keeps up, panic may ensue.

Spring Training records and stats offer themes but not specifics.

Jason Marquis has an ERA of 22.50, walking three in two innings. John Lannan’s ERA is 9.00. Scott Olsen’s 13.50 ERA is bad, but allowing seven hits in just two innings is even worse.

But no one expects these three veteran pitchers not to be ready when Opening Day rolls around (assuming that Olsen is healthy).

Adam Dunn is hitting just .111 and Nyjer Morgan didn’t even have a hit until Monday’s game against the Marlins.

Come October, Dunn will have 40 homers and 100 RBI while Morgan will have close to 50 stolen bases.

For them, March is meaningless.

So rather than worry about a few veterans who are sleep-walking through the first couple of weeks of spring, let’s take a look at some of the interesting story lines coming out of Viera right now.

In 139 major league games, Mike Morse has hit .293-6-47 with a .355 on-base percentage and a .409 slugging percentage. Three of those home runs came last season with the Nationals.

In 16 at-bats this spring, Morse is batting .313-2-5 with a .353 OBP.

He is just 27 and has the body of a slugger. Perhaps he’s learning how to hit with power later in his career than most.

He can play first, third and both corner outfield positions. He would also be a great bat off the bench late in games, especially against left-handers (.324/.376/.449)

He’s part of the 25-man roster, at least initially.

Ian Desmond impressed Jim Bowden so much as a 19-year-old back in 2005 that he anointed him as the second coming of Derek Jeter.

Then he fell off the face of the earth, leaving us to believe that Bowden was wrong about the young shortstop.

Nope. It just took him a little longer to make it to Washington.

Desmond batted .280-4-12 in 82 at-bats for the Nationals last September (.280-28-84 over a 162-game season).

He comes into spring training knowing that the only thing that will keep him from a return engagement in Syracuse is either a superb spring by him or an injury to Cristian Guzman.

Thus far, he is taking care of those things under his control.

In five games, he’s hitting .545 with a grand slam, seven RBI, a .583 on-base percent and a .909 slugging average.

He’s made several good plays in the field and brings with him an air of excitement and exuberance.

It will be extremely difficult for the Nationals to bench Guzman though because of his $8 million contract, which is the same reason they can’t trade him.

Still, it’s better than a 50-50 chance that Desmond is your Opening Day shortstop.

Many believe that Justin Maxwell is deserving of that fourth outfield spot, but he’s hurting his chances with his 0-for-9, six-strikeout start (though he’s walked five times).

It’s still early for the 25-year-old, but players battling for reserve roles aren’t given much time before the team looks to their next option.

He’s the best defensive outfielder the Nationals have, however, which might give him the edge over some of his competition.

Chris Duncan could benefit from Maxwell’s problems. Back problems derailed a once promising career for the son of Cardinals’ pitching coach Dave Duncan, but he said to be 100 percent healthy this spring.

In 2006-2007, Duncan averaged .273-22-56 for St. Louis (.273-33-85 over 162 games) and if healthy could be valuable off the bench for the Nationals in 2010.

So far this spring, he is hitting just .167 in six at-bats.

Since Drew Storen first took the mound last June, we’ve all been waiting for him to fail, wanting to see how he would deal with adversity.

It’s yet to happen.

He finished last season 2-1, 1.95 with 11 saves playing for Class-A Hagerstown and Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg. He had a sparkling 0.66 ERA against baseball’s finest prospects in the Arizona Fall League.

In two innings this spring, he’s yet to allow a hit or a run; six up and six down with a strikeout and no walks.

If Matt Capps (0-1, 13.50) and Brian Bruney (0-1, 9.00) continue to struggle this spring, the Nationals might not have an option regarding where Storen starts the season.

The Nationals almost certainly will keep Stephen Strasburg in the minors until June when his “free agent clock” flips and bringing him up won’t cost the team a year of playing time.

But Drew Storen has already showed the Nationals by signing the day after he was drafted that the business side of baseball is less important than throwing from a major league mound.

The team will be less concerned with Storen’s free agent clock starting because the team is confident they can sign him to a long-term deal should they desire to.

And boy, they would be fools not to desire to.

I pounded the Matt Chico drum all winter. If Jordan Zimmermann didn’t lose his spot in the starting rotation because he underwent Tommy John surgery, then Chico deserved the same opportunity.

Both players had a 4.63 ERA in their rookie seasons. Zimmermann got opposing players out with a 97-mph fastball while Chico got them out with guile and good location.

But he still got them out.

His elbow already damaged, Chico never threw faster than 88 mph in 2007 and was in the 85-86 mph range in 2008.

He was hitting 91-mph during his mound sessions this spring and cruised at 88 mph in his first appearance on Sunday. He threw two innings, allowing no hits or walks while striking out one.

He deserves a spot in the rotation and pitched very well in his first audition.

When J.D. Martin was taken by the Indians in the first round of the 2001 draft, much was expected from the player Cleveland received as compensation for the loss of outfielder Manny Ramirez to free agency.

In his first two seasons in the minors, Martin did not disappoint, going 19.6, 3.17, striking out 11.3 batters per nine-innings.

In 2004, however, an aching arm led to Tommy John surgery.

When he returned, his location remained but his fastball was gone.

Over the next three years in the minors, he went 15-8, 3.31 with 6.5 strikeouts per nine-innings.

But Cleveland wasn’t impressed and released him after the 2008 season. The Nationals signed him and he blossomed for Triple-A Syracuse, going 8-3, 2.66 before being called up in July.

In 15 starts, Martin was 5-4, 4.44 with Washington.

And yet, just like Matt Chico, no one has given him much of a chance to make the rotation. His first start, however, helped his cause greatly. In two innings, Martin allowed no hits or walks.

He dominated.

I will be content if the Nationals start the season with Martin and Chico manning the back of the rotation.

All eyes will be on Viera, Fla., on Tuesday when Stephen Strasburg takes the mound against the Detroit Tigers. What happened this past week will mean nothing if Strasburg impresses and the Nationals win.

A loss tomorrow—especially if Strasburg gets pummeled—will hurt and will magnify the team’s early struggles.

Therefore, Strasburg will dominate and the Nationals will win and all will be well in NatsTown.

In other words, a 1-6 team could be the talk of the town (and Sportscenter) Tuesday night.

I can’t wait ….

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