The Nationals are the only team that could have a spring training where the highlight was the day the general manager quit. The Nationals are the only team that could regularly bring 70-plus players to big league camp -- and still not manage not to find five that you cared to see.
The Nationals are the team you work spring training plans around -- to avoid seeing them.
|With phenom Stephen Strasburg on the horizon, the Nationals are suddenly a watchable team. (US Presswire)|
I want to see them, and when I asked club president Stan Kasten if I'll see him in Viera, Fla., he said, "Darned right I'll be there. I'm as curious as you are."
Besides, wouldn't anyone want to get out of the Washington winter? It snowed so hard last week that the city was still shut down on Monday and Tuesday, and more snow was starting to fall Tuesday night.
The Nationals' offices have been closed all this week because of the snow, although general manager Mike Rizzo and his baseball staff were still at work.
"I'm from Chicago, and I know snow," Rizzo said. "But I give. I give. Uncle."
Rizzo is the guy who took over when Jim Bowden resigned under pressure last spring (and yes, it was the Nationals' spring training highlight for 2009). Rizzo is also the guy who has made a lot of baseball people start rooting for Washington, because he's as popular as Bowden was unpopular.
When I mentioned the Nationals to one National League East executive this week, he said, "Boy, I'd love to see them finish ahead of the Mets."
And when I relayed that to another NL executive Tuesday, he said, "I would walk to Washington to see that happen. I don't think it will happen, but it would be incredible."
Nobody really believes the Nationals are ready to contend, and even Kasten talks about the team's winter improvement by saying the Nats now have "a real rotation" and "a real lineup."
That's actually a good way to describe it, because it feels like the Nationals are a real team now.
As one Nationals person put it, "It's just more professional now. We don't feel like we're laughingstocks anymore. Two years ago, we had 70-something guys in camp, but we really only had one starter. Now we have legitimate major league guys."
But let's also be honest. The two big reasons to watch the Nationals this spring are Strasburg, who you already know, and Storen, who you may not know.
Strasburg was maybe the most-hyped top draft pick ever, a right-hander from San Diego State who regularly tops 100 mph with his fastball. Storen was a relatively unknown No. 10 pick until he did well in the minor leagues last summer and even better in the Arizona Fall League, flashing a 98 mph fastball.
Strasburg gives the Nationals an ace-to-be. Storen gives them a closer-to-be.
|Nats since moving to D.C.|
It's almost a given that neither will make the opening day roster, but scouts who have seen them give both a real chance at contributing in the big leagues sometime this year.
Add them to third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and first baseman Adam Dunn, to free agent signings Jason Marquis, Pudge Rodriguez and Matt Capps, to center fielder Nyjer Morgan, and at least you have the makings of a competitive team.
Better than the Mets? Not unless we're about to see another Mets collapse, as we did last year.
But far better than anything we've seen from the Nationals in their dismal past.
"It's easy to say we're going to be better than we've been the last two years," Zimmerman told the Washington Post.
The key is Rizzo, who one colleague compared to Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik.
"I know 'Z' is getting a lot of ink this winter, and rightfully so," the official said. "But Mike's got the same instincts. He's doing the same thing."
For now, Rizzo doesn't have a Felix Hernandez or a Cliff Lee. Strasburg is the best bet to become one, but he has yet to throw a pitch in the minors (though he has pitched in the Fall League), let alone in the majors.
Rizzo won't commit to where Strasburg or Storen will begin this season (or where they'll finish it), saying only that the team has a plan that could be altered depending on how the pitchers look this spring.
"We want to see where they're at in the development process," Rizzo said. "We want to see where their development is. We want to develop them for success long-term. We're not looking for a quick fix."
This upcoming season will be the Nationals' sixth in Washington, so the fix certainly hasn't been quick. But there's a definite sense out there that something is changing with the Nats, that something already has changed.
This spring, I want to see it.