In a closed door meeting before the first full team workout yesterday, Washington Nationals' Skipper Jim Riggleman, as he told reporters afterwards, challenged the Washington Nationals to exceed the expectations that come with the improvements the front office made to the roster this winter. The biggest, splashiest addition, former Phillies' outfielder Jayson Werth, later told reporters he chose to sign with the Nats because he wanted to be part of a team on the rise that's capable, in his mind, of doing, "...some things that most people think are impossible or that we can't do," as CSN Washington's Mark Zuckerman reported yesterday in an article entitled, "Werth, Harper share spotlight at Nats camp."
And when it comes to doing things people don't think can be done, there was no better quote out of the first full day of camp than the Nats' 2010 no. 1 overall pick Bryce Harper letting everyone know he had no intention of quietly accepting a fate that's seen as a foregone conclusion. Asked what he expected to get from his first Spring Training since he wasn't likely to be around for long, Harper replied, as recorded by Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore in an article entitled, "Bryce Harper: 'I'm trying to make this club'", that his goal was to make the decision as hard as possible for the Nats:
"'Why can't it be realistic? Why can't I come in here and think that I can make this team? I've exceeded expectations my whole life.'"
The Nats' last no.1 overall pick, '09 1st Rounder Stephen Strasburg entered Spring Training last year with a similar mindset only to be disappointed with Washington's decision to send him into the system, even though he knew the likely outcome before camp began. Harper's path is just as clear as the Washington Post's Mr. Kilgore noted in yesterday's article. Class-A Hagerstown will be Harper's second pro team after the AFL's Scottsdale Scorpions, "That's where Harper will start the first full year of his professional career, period," the WaPost writer reported.
Though the Nats have said publically now as Jim Riggleman told SI.com's Jon Heyman (SI_JonHeyman) earlier this week that they wouldn't, "completely rule out Bryce Harper, 18, reaching majors this [year] if he thrives 'at every level'" the more likely scenario which the Nats' Skipper laid out in an interview earlier this winter has the 18-year-old getting to Double-A this year and Triple-A in 2012 if doesn't force the Nats' hand before then.
The Nats' ten-game improvement last year in Jim Riggleman's first full season as the Nats' Skipper was cited as the reason he was brought back on the Nats' bench. Before the decision to bring Riggleman back for 2011 was officially announced, D.C. GM Mike Rizzo praised the bench manager in an article by MLB.com's Bill Ladson entitled, "Riggleman receives praise from front office", for the job he did guiding the Nats through a "turbulent" 2010 campaign and for his work with Washington's emerging talent:
"'When it comes to X's and O's, he is as good as anybody. He has worked hard during trying circumstance. He has managed young players who are getting better and learning on the Major League level and have shown improvement on the Major League level.'"
Just how much more improvement can be expected this season? The Nationals, as both the GM and Manager said all winter, needed to add starting pitching if they were going to significantly improve. The Nats are hoping the failure to add a no.1-type starter, and the absence of Stephen Strasburg for the majority of, if not the entire season, is made less painful by the contributions a healthy Jason Marquis and Jordan Zimmermann can make to the rotation along with pitchers like John Lannan, who needs to repeat his second-half, Yunesky Maya, who's impressed every he's pitched outside of the U.S., and Ross Detwiler, whose new delivery is making headlines this Spring.
The Nats' newest outfielder thinks the team's on the right path, that's why he signed here (that and the $126M) and though he characterized it as a "ground-up" situation (which is probably not what Nats fans who've patiently -- until recently -- waited for the franchise to field a competitive team want to hear), Werth added (as recorded again by Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore in a Nationals Journal post entitled, "Jayson Werth meets the press") that though there's still room for improvement, a lot of that will come from within:
"'There are some things most people don't know about these guys in here. I've gotten a chance to watch them play from across the diamond. I think we're capable of quite a bit. If we get a piece here, we get a piece there - you know, we got a guy who's out for the season that's probably going to be a pretty big piece of this organization going forward. I'm going to be here for quite some time. I think we're going to be there before people realize it.'"
Harper's intent on challenging the Nats and making the decision to send him to the minors more difficult. Jayson Werth's told the press yesterday that no other position in the outfield but his was guaranteed which puts pressure on the Nyjer Morgans, Roger Bernadinas and Michael Morses on the roster, and he praised the signing of Rick Ankiel, a player brought in to push for one of the aforementioned outfielder's spots. Jim Riggleman's challenging his team to exceed expectations. D.C. GM Mike Rizzo's convinced that if the team continues to improve it will become a more attractive destintation.
There's something different about NatsTown south this Spring, and though it's a feeling that hasn't yet seemed to work its way north, the excitement of Opening Day and a strong start could change the tone of discussions in the nation's capital in a hurry. There's optimism amongst the Nats themselves, who are impressed by the talent they see assembled around them. Why hasn't that enthusiasm extended to the fanbase? Is it the letdown of being turned down by all the big targets but Werth this winter? The memories of the last few years? Or the fact that they know this isn't likely to be the year it all changes? Hopefully Werth's right and the team is closer to competing than most people think. Because in spite of the excitement generated by the start of Bryce Harper's career, NatsTown is a pretty quiet place these days...