Nationals will be most improved cellar dweller in 2010

We might never again see a worst-to-first story comparable to the 2008 Rays (from 96 losses in 2007 to the World Series in ’08), but that doesn’t mean a last-place team can’t grab some headlines for impressive year-to-year improvement. This past season, for example, the Mariners rebounded from a 101-loss disaster to finish eight games above .500. But which last-place team from ’09 will be the most-improved in 2010?

Chris Bahr explains why the Diamondbacks should make sizeable gains in the win-loss column, but Stan McNeal says the Nationals will show even more improvement:

Saying the Nationals will be baseball’s most improved last-place team is kind of like telling your mom that she looks pretty nice … for someone her age.

But, hey, a backhanded compliment is better than no compliment. And the Nationals are due some sort of compliment after putting themselves in position to end their streak of 100-loss seasons at two. Don’t expect them to threaten the Phillies or even escape last place, but they should be able to pull off a 10- to 12-game swing in the standings.

Washington’s seven-game winning streak to close out the 2009 season has nothing to do with this thinking. It’s more about what the Nationals have done since June.

They drafted — and signed — Stephen Strasburg. No matter how well the phenom pitches in spring training, he is unlikely to begin the season in the majors. But look for him by summer.

"I had this kind of situation with Kerry Wood in ’98 where he was the most dominant pitcher in the Cactus League and we sent him out," manager Jim Riggleman says. "It was tempting to keep him from Day 1. Now I don’t know if that would have been a bad decision, but he started in the minors and joined us pretty quickly. I hope the same thing happens with Stephen." If it does, Strasburg will have plenty of time to make an impact as a rookie.

Adam Dunn will be better at first than in the outfield.
Adam Dunn will be better at first than in the outfield.

They moved Adam Dunn where he should be. As much as Dunn fancies himself a left fielder, he isn’t. He is a decent first baseman, though, as he showed once he knew the position was going to be a full-time gig. Josh Willingham hardly is a Gold Glover in left, but Washington’s defense — an MLB-worst 143 errors — is improved with him in the field and Dunn at first.

They have helped themselves this offseason. Signing righthander Jason Marquis "was exactly what we needed," Riggleman says. That is, he is a veteran innings-eater "who gives us a chance to match up against the other club’s higher-end starters."

The bullpen has been bolstered with the additions of Matt Capps, Brian Bruney and Eddie Guardado. "We’ve added three guys who all have pitched late in ballgames," Riggleman says. Pencil Capps in as the closer but have your eraser ready. "I don’t care who gets the save as long as he’s a National," Riggleman says.

Pudge Rodriguez turned 38 in November and hit only .249 last season, but the Nationals were happy to sign him — even if it meant giving him a two-year deal. "He is in great shape and still a good player," Riggleman says. "He’s still hitting line drives. Pudge hit the ball much better last year than his average indicated. By the law of averages, some of those line drives will find holes this year."

If he doesn’t, Elijah Dukes showed enough last year that he might be ready to handle such responsibility. "He drove in 58 runs about 350 at-bats (actually 364), which computes close to an 100-RBI season," Riggleman says. "He’s still a young guy and coming along. He’s coming to that point where it’s time for him to take the next step and become a solid regular player in the big leagues."

That, too, could be interpreted as a backhanded compliment. Guess that’s all the Nationals are warranted. For now, anyway.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

We might never again see a worst-to-first story comparable to the 2008 Rays (from 96 losses in 2007 to the World Series in ’08), but that doesn’t mean a last-place team can’t grab some headlines for impressive year-to-year improvement. This past season, for example, the Mariners rebounded from a 101-loss disaster to finish eight games above .500. But which last-place team from ’09 will be the most-improved in 2010?

Chris Bahr explains why the Diamondbacks should make sizeable gains in the win-loss column, but Stan McNeal says the Nationals will show even more improvement:

Saying the Nationals will be baseball’s most improved last-place team is kind of like telling your mom that she looks pretty nice … for someone her age.

But, hey, a backhanded compliment is better than no compliment. And the Nationals are due some sort of compliment after putting themselves in position to end their streak of 100-loss seasons at two. Don’t expect them to threaten the Phillies or even escape last place, but they should be able to pull off a 10- to 12-game swing in the standings.

Washington’s seven-game winning streak to close out the 2009 season has nothing to do with this thinking. It’s more about what the Nationals have done since June.

They drafted — and signed — Stephen Strasburg. No matter how well the phenom pitches in spring training, he is unlikely to begin the season in the majors. But look for him by summer.

"I had this kind of situation with Kerry Wood in ’98 where he was the most dominant pitcher in the Cactus League and we sent him out," manager Jim Riggleman says. "It was tempting to keep him from Day 1. Now I don’t know if that would have been a bad decision, but he started in the minors and joined us pretty quickly. I hope the same thing happens with Stephen." If it does, Strasburg will have plenty of time to make an impact as a rookie.

Adam Dunn will be better at first than in the outfield.
Adam Dunn will be better at first than in the outfield.

They moved Adam Dunn where he should be. As much as Dunn fancies himself a left fielder, he isn’t. He is a decent first baseman, though, as he showed once he knew the position was going to be a full-time gig. Josh Willingham hardly is a Gold Glover in left, but Washington’s defense — an MLB-worst 143 errors — is improved with him in the field and Dunn at first.

They have helped themselves this offseason. Signing righthander Jason Marquis "was exactly what we needed," Riggleman says. That is, he is a veteran innings-eater "who gives us a chance to match up against the other club’s higher-end starters."

The bullpen has been bolstered with the additions of Matt Capps, Brian Bruney and Eddie Guardado. "We’ve added three guys who all have pitched late in ballgames," Riggleman says. Pencil Capps in as the closer but have your eraser ready. "I don’t care who gets the save as long as he’s a National," Riggleman says.

Pudge Rodriguez turned 38 in November and hit only .249 last season, but the Nationals were happy to sign him — even if it meant giving him a two-year deal. "He is in great shape and still a good player," Riggleman says. "He’s still hitting line drives. Pudge hit the ball much better last year than his average indicated. By the law of averages, some of those line drives will find holes this year."

If he doesn’t, Elijah Dukes showed enough last year that he might be ready to handle such responsibility. "He drove in 58 runs about 350 at-bats (actually 364), which computes close to an 100-RBI season," Riggleman says. "He’s still a young guy and coming along. He’s coming to that point where it’s time for him to take the next step and become a solid regular player in the big leagues."

That, too, could be interpreted as a backhanded compliment. Guess that’s all the Nationals are warranted. For now, anyway.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

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