The calendar read Friday, April 13th at the end of these first eleven games, but there was little bad luck involved in their start – no, the losing is by design. The losing is a product of fielding one of the league's youngest teams (average age 27.9), with one of the league's lowest payrolls ($37.3 million, nestled between Florida and Pittsburgh by USA Today's measure).
This is the burden that fans of the league's least-expanded expansion team carry: to believe in this team, you must believe in The Plan.
The Plan is youth, as represented by 22-year-old third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the unofficial face of the franchise. Zimmerman hits for power (20 HR last year) and average, runs the bases a little, and has the skills to be a very good fielder, and isn't afraid to shoulder all the responsibilities of being both the team's best and youngest hitter - he stepped into the No. 3 spot in the lineup and lead the team in RBI with 110.
By all accounts, Zimmerman is a cornerstone player, and proof positive that The Plan is working. We could say: Look out Milwaukee! Look out Florida! Cuidado, Arizona! The next assembly line of major league talent flows right through the Beltway!
But no, that would be asking for some rah rahs once again. And as you already know, there is no rah-rah-ing the Nationals. Youth Not Served
After five years of being collectively owned by the Major League Baseball, the once fertile player development system of the Montreal Expos became as barren and lifeless as my equally neglected back yard. The benevolent old men of MLB installed Omar Minaya as the team's general manager, and gave him a mandate to do whatever the hell he wanted, as long as he didn't spend any of their money, or make any of their teams any worse.
Thus it was that Vladimir Guerrero, perhaps the franchise's best hitter ever – though his legacy faces competition from sluggers like Larry Walker, Moises Alou, Andre Dawson, and Tim Raines – and certainly its most valuable trading chip, reached the end of his contract and simply walked away in 2003. While it would certainly have been in the Nationals' (then still cloaked in that embarrassing Montreal baby bleu) best interest to use the exit of this superstar to jumpstart its rebuilding, it would have required the consent of the 30 co-owners who would have not benefitted one whit from the deal.
In a sense, the then-Expos played 81 away games per year in their "home" stadiums, playing for fans in Montreal who would only show up if promised a hot meal, and for tourists and bored soccer fans in Puerto Rico. In neither city would these vagabond players find a faithful core of Expos fans. In each alternating series, Minaya would arrive into one of his 31 co-employers' home parks like a traveling saleman for Omaha Steaks, peddling the freshest cuts of meat while his team played increasingly meaningless three- and four-game sets.
Some of the young players traded away during this run of ignominy: Jason Bay, Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, Carl Pavano (when he was good), Michael Barrett, Javier Vazquez, and current San Diego breakout pitcher Chris Young.
Out of the total return from this bloodletting of talent, the Nationals can boast only two players on their current 40-man roster: would-be ace of the rotation John Patterson (currently on the DL), and first baseman Nick Johnson (also on the DL). And both of these men arrived as a result of the Vazquez deal.
It is one of the perverse statements of this sport that Minaya could prove so competent at his ruthless task – stripping a team to the bones, but quietly – that he was able to replace Steve Phillips as general manager of the New York Mets (following a brief Jim Duquette interlude), one of the three richest teams in baseball, and immediately build a playoff contender. It is doubly galling for the fans of the Nats that this new gorilla of the NL East is built on two amazing young talents in David Wright and Jose Reyes, suggesting that Minaya is either an excellent judge of talent and knew exactly what he was giving up in those years with the Expos, or is the luckiest bastard on the face of the Earth.
(Conversely, it is an equally perverse statement on the coverage of the sport today that the incredibly incompetent Phillips, who annually turned $100 million in payroll into a steaming pile of excrement, is now the resident "voice of reason" on ESPN's formerly peerless program Baseball Tonight.) The End of the Trail of Tears
How many men does it take to find a new home for the Expos? Just one to come up with the idea, and twenty-nine more to placate Peter Angelos.
And so in 2005 the baby bleus were discarded in favor of the cursive W and throwback reds, and baseball in Washington began for the third time. By this time, Omar Minaya had been succeeded by Jim Bowden, the GM who cobbled together the Cincinnati Reds' last playoff team in 1995, but a man who had worn out his welcome in Ohio.
Bowden inherited a dirt farm. When Zimmerman was drafted in 2005, he immediately became the team's best prospect, and was already possibly its best hitter. Accordingly, the kid was rushed from single-A to the major leagues that same year, after only 67 games of riding the bus.
Bowden has a history of having an eye for young hitters, though. In the process of rebuilding the Reds after their injury-wrecked fall from grace, he drafted Adam Dunn, Austin Kearns, and Aaron Boone, and acquired Sean Casey and Felipe Lopez as minor leaguers. His golden touch has never extended to pitchers, though – his highest-profile young pitcher was Danny Graves, who has flamed out spectacularly as both closer and starter, and now pops up as the 12th man in the bullpen of a new team every year, arriving with all of the surprise and fanfare of a burning sack of dog turd.
Bowden also has a history of always being ready to make a deal, never worrying about burning bridges along the way. In fact, it was three deals in three days of a miserable 2003 season that prompted his exit from Cincinnati. In that short span of time, Bowden sent the team's leading batter Jose Guillen to the first-place Oakland A's for a minor league pitcher (current Reds ace Aaron Harang), its closer Scott Williamson to the wildcard-chasing Red Sox for another minor league pitcher, and its franchise third baseman (and leading base-stealer) Aaron Boone to the New York Yankees for two more prospects.
Even after he was broomed by an infuriated Cincinnati fan base, though, he would pull one last deal as GM of the Nats that still haunts the Reds to this day.
New Reds GM Wayne Krivsky, perhaps overenthusiastic about his team's chances of stealing the Central from the Cardinals, was desperate to beef up his bullpen. With so many teams in contention, though, very little was on the market… but Jim Bowden is always ready to make a crazy deal, right? Krivsky, who saw a surplus of hitting, offered Bowden two of his old favorites: Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez (hitting a combined 25 HR, 80 RBI, 30 SB at the time); Bowden offered back an old-timer with a bum shoulder, Gary Majewski, and a prospect with only 23 innings of major league experience, Bill Bray.
Like a drunk in a Vegas wedding chapel, Krivsky said "yes" and instantaneously regretted it. Majewski pitched fifteen terrible innings, losing two games in a very winnable pennant race, and then hit the DL. Bray pitched well for a rookie, but not well enough to cover up the increasing stink of this deal.
While Kearns and Lopez have not flashed All-Star form in Washington, they provide some much-needed young spackle for their leaky lineup, and a nice coup de grace for their GM. How Does the Plan Work?
The Marlins and Diamondbacks are setting a quick pace for rebuilding in the National League, reemerging out of the muck in about four years' time, by aggressively moving their top free-agents-to-be for top-shelf prospects. By comparison, the Milwaukee Brewers languished in the basement for the better part of twenty years, steadily acquiring draft picks that have formed the foundation of their current success; teams like the Pirates and Rockies have nearly put in that much time themselves without any sustained success, or even evidence of a working plan.
All this serves as a cautionary tale for us, the ashy-faced Cardinal fan who sees our team with one foot in the grave. Are we ready to rebuild? Are we ready for the pain? Are we truly ready, as Washington's fans have done, to embrace The Plan?