At this point, it is a cliche to call the Washington Nationals a team on the rise.
Between their two prized prospects, their 26-year-old face of the franchise, their new $126 million centerpiece, and the richest owners in baseball, it's easy to see why the Nats have been labeled as such.
But in 2011, the "future" is still a couple years away, and the present is not going to to be as smooth as one would hope.
In the evolution of championship teams, there is always that period where the team takes its lumps and learns how to win. The Nats are in that period; in fact, they have just entered it.
You may be asking, what about these last five years of losing? That my friends, is what I would call purgatory. At that point point, the Nationals were not a team on the rise; they were a team going nowhere. Underachieving prospects forced the team into signing stop-gap journeymen like Dmitri Young and Ronny Belliard. And a free-wheeling Jim Bowden made too many deals for the Nationals to build a foundation.
With Bowden's replacement, Mike Rizzo, at the helm, the Nationals have built a solid foundation on which to go deep in to the Lerner's pockets to build upon.
When Rizzo mentioned a shift in to Phase Two this offseason, that is what he was referring to. For their first five years in Washington, the Nationals were stuck in Phase One.
For the dynastic Yankees of the mid- to late-nineties, Phase One included the acquisitions of Derrick Jeter, Andy Pettite, Mariano Rivera, and Jorge Posada. In Phase Two, the Yanks went for the big money free agents that they are famous for. But without Phase One, those four World Series titles would not have happened.
Unfortunately, for the present, the Nationals still have to learn how to win. And that will be what the 2011, and most likely 2012, season will be about.
“This is a prep year," Ryan Zimmerman tells the Washington Post, "for when we take off next season when we are a professional team."
That is not to say 2011 will be a complete bust, or even a waste. But at times it is not going to be pretty, but, as it has been in the past, it won't always be ugly. They will go on losing streaks, but then following it up with stretches of play that show their potential.
For the first time since the franchise's move to Washington, from one to twenty five, the Nationals' roster will be filled with legitimate major league talent.
Officially, Major League Baseball returned to DC in 2005.
Unofficially, it returned in 2011.
If everything goes right, the Nationals may be able to approach .500. But everything never goes right in baseball, so 75 wins is more likely.
Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond will boot a couple balls and botch a couple of double plays. Drew Storen will blow some saves. Jordan Zimmermann will get shelled on a few occasions.
But they'll learn from that failure, and when it comes time for the Nationals to contend, they'll be ready. And we'll all look back at 2011 as a pivotal year in the team's evolution.
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