It's almost the close of the season -- hurry up, close of the season! -- and the next loss will be the one hundredth. Again.
Surely, better times are ahead. How can they not be? On the Die Hard scale, we're about at the point where John McClane drags himself into the bathroom and picks glass out of his bloodied feet. You don't think it can get too much worse than that, and any additional bad news, like the FBI taking over things, is more an annoyance than a calamity. What does it matter if the building is running on backup generators when you're extricating large shards of plate glass from your arches? Fists with your toes, indeed!
But Die Hard also teaches us that just because you've picked the glass out of your feet doesn't mean that other bumps in the road can't happen. You could run into a bad guy set on revenge, or you could be forced to repel down a high-rise roof with only a fire hose at your disposal, or you could find out that even though everyone else is safe your wife has been taken hostage. All is not necessarily roses just because you've hit bottom.
Using such sage source material as a guide, let us begin with the premise that not all will go smoothly starting next year, even if things might not seem as bad as they have been this year. Do not fall into the trap of thinking Karl is really dead just because you've strangled him and left him to withstand a major explosion. Let me, your buddy Reginald VelJohnson, pump a few bullets into that idea. Um, so to speak.
So here's a list of potential perception pratfalls for 2010. Note that some of these perceptions will bear fruit next season. I'm not denying that. But reliance on most of these positions will prove quite frustrating in the end, and reliance on all of them is just plain nuts.
1. Nyjer Morgan's Return Will Make It All Better.
Morgan made his Nats debut on July 3, when the Nats were 15-36. Morgan played his last game this season on August 27, and the team has gone 5-17 since. The Nats are 20-53 this season when Morgan hasn't been on the active roster. Let's stipulate the obvious: Morgan was more or less dynamic from July 3 to August 27. He hit .351 and played excellent defense. But even to the extent that some may have believed that it was Morgan who really got things humming -- and there's enough sentiment out there to make this not quite a straw man position -- the team was all of 31-46 during that time. Put it another way: in July (all with the Nats), Morgan hit .388/.418/.495. And he stole 14 bases. And he played the great defense. And the Nats went 9-18 that month. This isn't a knock at Morgan. A whole lot of awful stuff contributed to those losses. It's merely expressing the reality that the Nats were a very bad team -- no, not an abjectly miserable team, but a very bad team -- even with Morgan playing at what must be considered the absolute peak of his abilities. So yes, Morgan's return might set things right again, but right sucked.
2. John Lannan Is Our Constant.
Look, I'm not going to knock Lannan. I might have at some point, probably way too much, had I continued the blogging thing. But I didn't, and he's long since satisfied my "He's a Nats prospect, so he can't be much good" and "He looks disturbingly like a young David Ferrie" concerns. He's pretty good, and Joe Pesci isn't doing much acting these days, anyway. Lannan's got poise and presence, and he's somehow going to give the Nats a 200-inning hurler. Plus, he broke a dude's hand, so he's got street cred. Cool. But, yeah, it's the strikeouts. I know this has been beaten to death, but there are, generally speaking, two types of low-strikeout guys. There are the Mark Buerhles, and there are the Horacio Ramirezes. There are guys who are in-between, who can succeed for a little while, but those guys are a sub-class of the Horacio Ramirez type. Even Horacio Ramirez himself pulled it off somewhat decently for a spell. Please note that Lannan is not Horacio Ramirez, even the somewhat decent Horacio Ramirez. But there are a lot more of these guys who resemble the Ramirez type than the Buerhle type. Some meddle along for a few seasons like Scott Karl, and some quickly devolve into an ineffective blob of goop like Dave Fleming. Lannan is poised and cool and all that, but to some extent he's simply subject to fortune.
3. Well, Strasburg/Storen Are On Their Way!
No. Please, no. They're not a matched pair. I've seen them referred to that way at places like Nationals Journal, but it's a fairly dumb thing to say. Strasburg is, well, Strasburg. Whether he pans out or not, he inhabits some Super-Cool Rarified Prospect realm. Storen is a big league pitching prospect, all lower case. The only way the matched pair thing works is if the Nats had owned the first two picks and selected Jango Strasburg followed by Boba Strasburg. Would've been a campy thing to do, granted, but undeniably badass. Didn't happen, though, so please don't pretend it did.
4. Okay, Strasburg Is On His Way . . .
Sure, but when? Immediately? Maybe, maybe not. David Price was drafted No. 1 in 2007, signed on August 15 of that year, and debuted in 2008. So far, so good. Except Price debuted in High-A ball, took in the sights in lovely Montgomery and Durham, Frankie Rodriguez Ruled his way onto the big league roster for postseason purposes, and has been sort of erratic this year. But let's say Strasburg is better than Price, even considerably better. Chances are still pretty slight he breaks camp with the team, for a variety of reasons, and there's no assurance that he immediately kicks it into hyperdrive when he does reach the majors. MLB domination is neither a birthright nor a subject Scott Boras can negotiate, and it will require work even for Mr. Strasburg to attain. Best guess is that Strasburg gets at most 20 MLB starts next season. If he goes 8-6, 3.95, will NatsTown vomit with rage? Hopefully not.
5. . . . And Storen!
The early returns are positive, no doubt. But even crediting him with 37 innings of domination at the A, A+, and AA levels, isn't this pretty much in line of what we should have expected? All the pre-draft talk was that he could be a fast riser, and that's what he showed. Then what? Maybe he goes all Gregg two-g's Olson and establishes himself as a closer. Maybe he goes all Greg one-g Olson and becomes a two-month flash in the pan. Maybe goes the way of Craig Hansen and Joey Devine, fast-rising closer prospects of recent vintage, and becomes an organizational headache. Or maybe he goes the way of Zech Zinicola and stagnates after a very nice pro debut. Storen seems more polished than Hansen and Devine, and he seems superior in many ways to Zinicola. So he does rate a decent chance at some degree of MLB success. But he's no sure thing for 2010.
6. Ian Desmond, The Once And Future King.
So that took quite awhile -- it was back in 2005 when Desmond was a spring training monster and Bodes compared him favorably to Derek Jeter -- but perhaps Desmond's prospect status was just a Heinz ketchup commercial writ large. You know: the best things come to those who wait. Unbelievably, he only turned 24 a few days ago. We're past the early September parsing and moaning, and it would appear that the Riggler has no philosophical objection to playing the guy (although the "where" seems completely at random). Hey, I want the guy to play too, but I do think there's a bit of a googly-eye effect going on here. For one, there's the spectacular debut series. For another . . . well, there's the sense of newly requited love. I'd try throwing out a stupid reference like "The last time the Washington Nationals had a decent position player prospect was back when J. Robert Oppenheimer was charming the ladies with his impressive sliderule," but it wouldn't work. Ryan Zimmerman was a much better than decent prospect, and I have no idea if Oppenheimer used a sliderule. But, save for Zimmerman, who was something of a slam-dunk, we've had little except really wild expectations based on a brief glimpse of Desmond years ago. Of course we want him to succeed, and we want him to be a fixture. But be wary of revertigo with this one. He's made strides, but we're still talking a hit-or-miss proposition here. Far better shortstop prospects have failed.
7. Danny Espinosa?
I can't believe that anyone would advocate plugging this guy into the middle infield picture as recently as next season, but I've actually seen it out there, so I thought I'd take a second to bat it down. I have no opinion as to whether Espinosa is a quality prospect, and he did show power and patience this season. But he hit .264 with 129 strikeouts at Potomac. He'd get eaten alive in the majors next year. Give him time.
8. 2009 Zimmerman = 2010 Zimmerman.
I'm going to be a jerk for a moment. Ryan Zimmerman's season has been one of only a handful of highlights in 2009. But does it represent a newly established level of offensive ability? My heart votes yes, but my head merely votes present. Some years ago, a baseball writer named Brock Hanke posited what he called the serpentine perspective on baseball development. The idea, premised on the maxim that baseball is a game of adjustments, is that a young hitter's development resembles more a curved pattern than a linear form. There are ebbs and flows as the hitter learns the game, as the league adjusts to the player's talents (through scouting and other means), the player matures to account for those adjustments, and so forth, until things settle. Zimmerman is still a few days away from turning 25. He's young, and, for all the walkoff homers, he hasn't been a tremendous league-wide concern until this season. He's OPS'ing .874, 50 points above his previous full-season career high. It's hard to maintain an OPS of .874. It's taken a .290 batting average and an isolated power figure of about .250 for him to get there now. Should Zimmerman maintain the batting average but lose 50 points of isolated power, his OPS drops into range of his .822 career mark thus far. If he even splits the difference, that should probably be viewed as a positive. There's no shame in being very good, rather than excellent, some years.
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Well, that's all the notable action points for now. I could talk about other stuff, like whether Mike MacDougal should be trusted as a closer, but it's not even certain he'll be back. And who out there would trust him anyway? Toodles.