Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 24, 2013

Adding Soriano, Nats Look To Close The Deal

If fans of the Washington Nationals are feeling a bit disoriented these days it’s perfectly understandable. As they seek some respite from the frozen dark of January by allowing their thoughts to drift ahead to Spring Training and the new season that lies beyond, the unfamiliar sensation they are experiencing is called anticipation. It is not just the ritual combination of hope and excitement that all fans of the Great Game feel when the reporting date for pitchers and catchers is first glimpsed on the calendar’s horizon. While genuine and a welcome reminder that in time the ice will thaw and spring will return to the world, fans of many franchises know in their hearts that the surge of adrenaline brought on by the annual renewal will be fleeting. Fresh hopes born in Florida and Arizona will crumble before the reality of the longest season. Also-rans will also run, journeymen will continue their long journey to mediocrity.

Nationals’ fans know all too well both that ritual quickening of the pulse and the cruel disappointment which follows. That is especially true for those among them old enough to have rooted for Washington’s earlier big league franchises, the Senators who are now the Twins and the Senators who are now the Rangers. The original Senators played twenty-six seasons in D.C. after their last World Series appearance in 1933. In only four of those years did the team produce a winning record. In five of the last six years before moving to Minnesota they lost more than 90 games. Their expansion successors posted but a single winning season in eleven years while losing more than 90 games eight times. Then fans in the nation’s capital went well more than a generation with no team to root for, only to have the Nats continue the city’s losing tradition by failing to break .500 in each of their first seven seasons after moving from Montreal.

Yet in the midst of all that anguish close observers spotted a hopeful trend. In 2010 Washington lost ten fewer games than in 2009. One year later they trimmed another dozen games off the loss column, finishing just a single game below .500. The luxury of high draft picks and a gradual loosening of ownership’s purse strings were beginning to produce positive results. At the start of the 2012 season the thinking was that if the trend continued and if prospects developed as hoped, in another couple of years Washington just might be a contender.

Instead a young team led by a veteran manager in Davey Johnson tore up the calendar of conventional wisdom. Anchored by a fabulous starting rotation and boosted by an offense that finally jelled in mid-season, the Nationals never spent a day below .500. A win on September 3rd ensured a winning record. Another on September 20th guaranteed postseason play in D.C. for the first time since that 1933 World Series. On October 1st the Nationals clinched the NL East and on October 3rd they laid claim to the best regular season record in the majors, at 98-64.

The first postseason series in D.C. in eight decades ended in crushing fashion for the home fans. Leading 7-5 going to the 9th inning of NLDS Game Five against St. Louis, the Nats bullpen crumbled against the Cardinals. Twice Drew Storen was one strike away from sending Washington to the NLCS, but in the end St. Louis plated four runs to steal the game 9-7 and the series three games to two.

But while the night of October 12th ended in deep disappointment, there was no denying what Washington accomplished in 2012. A team that led the majors in wins does not have a lot of holes, and there were certainly clubs that made bigger splashes through the winter; but Nationals’ general manager Mike Rizzo did not sit idly by. He traded for center fielder Denard Span, giving the Nats a proven leadoff hitter. After allowing pitcher Edwin Jackson to depart as a free agent, Rizzo signed Dan Haren to a one-year deal, adding a veteran presence to his core of young starters. After protracted negotiations he resigned Adam LaRoche, giving the slugging first baseman a two-year, $24 million contract. LaRoche wanted a three-year deal, but Rizzo resisted, opting instead for future financial flexibility as the team’s young stars move toward their years of arbitration eligibility and eventual free agency. With LaRoche set at first and an outfield of Span in center with Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth in the corners, Michael Morse became expendable; and Rizzo engineered a three-team trade with Seattle and Oakland that helped restock Washington’s list of minor league prospects.

In the first few years after the Lerner family won the bidding war for the new Washington franchise and the old Expos departed Montreal for D.C., there was concern among both pundits and fans about whether the ownership would be willing to spend the money required to build a winner. But family patriarch Ted Lerner showed he understood that a team with a history of losing would have to initially overpay to secure top talent when he signed Jayson Werth to a $126 million contract in December 2010. He’s also been willing to pay to secure top draft choices Stephen Strasburg and Harper. Now it is fair to say that Ted Lerner has gone all in.

Just when it seemed that the Nationals were done for the winter, word came that the team had signed free agent closer Rafael Soriano to a two-year, $28 million contract. The Nationals weren’t in desperate need of a closer. Drew Storen filled the role ably in 2011, recording 43 saves. Tyler Clippard stepped in last year when Storen was injured and saved 32 games. But Soriano is among the elite. Signed by the Yankees in 2011 to be the most expensive setup man in the history of the game, he likely saved the Bombers season in 2012 when Mariano Rivera went down with a torn ACL while shagging fly balls before a game in Kansas City last May. Soriano stepped into the role and recorded 42 saves in 46 chances. Two years earlier in Tampa Bay he led the league with 45 saves. Now he’ll wear number 29 for the Nationals and give Davey Johnson a bullpen as deep as his starting rotation.

The success of 2012 and the team’s off-season moves have combined to produce anticipation in Washington based on much more than fantasy or hope. NL Manager of the Year Johnson turns 70 next week, and he has already announced that this season will be his final one in the dugout. The man who skippered the Mets to the 1986 championship has left no doubt about his goal for the coming campaign, proclaiming “World Series or bust!”

Of course the progeny of great anticipation are equally great expectations. Yet as always in sports, until the games are played nothing is guaranteed. Players get injured, or underperform. A deep bullpen can become one in which some pitchers feel underutilized. A locker room in which the affable Michael Morse was a leader and steadying influence may miss his presence. Other teams have not stood still, as Thursday’s trade by Atlanta to acquire outfielder Justin Upton reminds everyone. But only one team led the majors in wins last year, and that team appears to have gotten better this winter. Fans in D.C., long familiar with the false hope of another spring, are now dizzy with a new prospect. Long told to wait for the future, in D.C. the faithful can be allowed to think that at long last, the future is now.

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Responses

  1. Even with the Braves landing Justin Upton, I still think the Nats will take the NL East this year. The Braves, of course, will have a good chance to grab a wildcard slot. It’s interesting that Davey Johnson is the manager of this Nats squad because they do remind me of the mid-’80’s Mets in some ways. The obvious young talent coupled with the infusion of veteran talent. Nice balance. The Mets went from being terrible in ’83 to being good in ’84, excellent in ’85, and unbeatable in ’86. The Nats could be following a very similar trajectory.
    Nicely done,
    Bill

  2. Thanks Bill, I had not thought about those parallels. Maybe Davey can do it one more time before becoming a “consultant,” whatever that means.

    Mike


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