Sunday, July 12, 2009

All-Star Break Offers Nats Respite from Futility

[Editor's note: Approximately 16 hours after this story was posted, Manny Acta was fired as manager of the Washington Nationals. Jim Riggleman was appointed interim manager.]

"It's at the point where it's just embarrassing for us," Washington Nationals relief pitcher Joe Beimel reportedly said this past Friday night. "I think everyone in the clubhouse should be embarrassed about the way we play and just the way we lose games.”

He’s right. Now 26-61 heading into the All-Star break, the Nats are on pace to post a 48-114 record this year. Things are getting downright Metsian in the Nation’s Capital.

In their first four seasons—1962-65—the New York Mets won, respectively, 40, 51, 53 and 50 games. The '62 Mets—dubbed Amazin’ by manager Casey Stengel because of their consistently bad play—were 40-120. The 1932 Red Sox were 43-111. Ditto the 1939 St. Louis Browns. The 1905 Brooklyn Superbas (forerunners of the Dodgers) were 48-104. For real futility, you can go back to the other St. Louis Browns—same name, different team, forerunners to the Cardinals—who, in 1897 posted a record of 29-102, and followed that up in 1898 with a 39-111 mark. The 1916 Philadelphia Athletics were 36-117. The Phillies, from 1938-1942, were godawful, averaging 45 wins a year in that stretch. More recently, the 2003 Detroit Tigers were 43-119.

So there have been plenty of all-time bad teams. But even the Kansas City Royals, as bad as they’ve been in recent years, have never won fewer than 56 games in a full season. The Tampa Bay Rays, who until last year always totally sucked, have never won fewer than 55 games.

The Nats are on pace to be the worst team in Montreal/Washington franchise history, and that includes the very first year of the original expansion Expos, 1969. That team finished 52-110.

But what makes the situation in Washington so baffling is that, if you look at the starting lineup, you could conclude that this might be a fairly decent ballclub.

INF—1B Nick Johnson (.305), 2B Anderson Hernandez (.255), SS Cristian Guzman (.304), 3B Ryan Zimmerman (.288, 14 HRs, 52 RBIs)

OF—LF Adam Dunn (.266, 23 HRs, 62 RBIs), CF Nyjer Morgan (.280), RF Josh Willingham (.304, 12 HRs)

C—Josh Bard is hitting .270

Of course, pitching is the bugaboo—team ERA, 5.21— but what’s really frustrating to Nats fans is that it isn’t always that. The team has some promising young arms—including six starters under 26 years of age—and newbies such as Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler and Craig Stammen have had some very strong outings. Lefty John Lannan is 6-6 with an ERA of 3.70. Shairon Martis, only 22, is 5-3 (though with a 5.25 ERA).

The point is that the pitching has kept them in games far more often than most observers might realize. They’ve even gotten some decent outings from newly anointed closer Mike MacDougal, who’s 32 and in there out of desperation but who’s nonetheless done his part. But just when a timely hit from one of those capable hitters would do the trick, they tank out. Talk about bad timing. Or these guys just aren’t what you’d call ”clutch.” In which case, the Nats are in really big trouble.

The M.O. for manager Manny Acta seems to be roll out the kid pitchers, hope they keep improving, and pray the bats don’t completely go silent.

Acta also must pray nightly for improved defense. The recent addition of Morgan should help there, though it still leaves the club with poor defense at the outfield corners. Guzman at short, over the course of his career, averages an error every 7.9 games. That’s really not the worst—about 20 errors a year—but Guzman might be attacked more for the balls he never gets to, never mind what he does with those he does get to.

This is a team that needs to hold onto what good it’s got—especially the young pitchers—and shore up its defense. For the short term, a trade might be nice. I nominate Nick Johnson as bait. He’s a good hitter, plays a decent first base and maybe could appeal to someone looking for a veteran bat for the playoff run. Parting with Johnson would free up first base for Adam Dunn, which is his destiny afield until he becomes an AL designated hitter. Meanwhile, whoever replaces Dunn in left—Willie Harris, Elijah Dukes, virtually anybody—promises some improvement defensively.

Guzman might also bring something in trade, especially if part-time shortstop Alberto Gonzalez, hitting .333 in 41 games, is, at 26, ready for a full-time role.

Acquiring in return a youngish but somewhat veteran starting pitcher whose potential hasn’t quite been tapped, or possibly a similarly positioned hitter who could drive in runs—these might be do-able risks that could improve the Nats’ immediate fortunes and still pay dividends down the road.

Meanwhile, one must view the job security of manager Manny Acta as tenuous. In the middle of his third season on the job in D.C., Acta has compiled a record of 158-252, a .385 winning percentage, with each successive year showing significant decline. It's probably not Acta's fault, but given that keeping him on board promises the completion of a terrible year anyway, it might be worth trying someone else at the helm, if only to experiment.

Acta's only 40, and he could resurface elsewhere after this baptism of fire. Yes, it may be a moldy old cliche, but you still can't fire 25 ballplayers all at once. Managers who don't win, however, are eminently expendable.

Zimmerman represents the Nats at the All-Star Game in St. Louis. He's deserving. His teammates get to stay at home, pondering how they could ever bring some joy into the remainder of the 2009 season.

Well, a 10-game winning streak wouldn't hurt.

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