By The Associated Press
12:00 AM EDT, March 30, 2011
The Washington Nationals are tired of losing.
With the last two No. 1 overall draft picks — Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper — in the organization, along with $126 million man Jayson Werth, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and some young building blocks, there certainly is some reason to look forward to the future.
The present still could be tricky. Strasburg is recovering from reconstructive elbow surgery and isn’t expected to help the rotation in a meaningful way before 2012; Harper will begin this season at Class-A Hagerstown.
“I’ve always said I’m up for a challenge and I pull for an underdog,” said Werth, who’s used to playing in World Series with his old club, the Philadelphia Phillies, not languishing in last place, where his new club finished the last three seasons. “We’re in a situation here where it’s going to be a challenge. We’re going to do some things here that most people think (are) impossible and we can’t do. I love that position.”
The Nationals are counting on Werth — whose seven-year signing stunned baseball — and fellow free agent Adam LaRoche to boost a lineup now missing cleanup hitter Adam Dunn and his year-in, year-out production of 38 homers and 100 RBIs.
Werth and LaRoche also are expected to play roles in improving Washington’s defense — and outlook.
“Obviously, we brought in some really talented players. We’ve got a lot more leadership. Guys that know how to win are telling you, ‘Hey, this is what needs to be done to win.’ It’s a completely different feeling in the clubhouse,” said reliever Drew Storen, part of what could be a closer-by-committee in 2011. “We still have a lot of work to do, but it’s been a good change. I’m excited to see how it translates over the season.”
While general manager Mike Rizzo figures his lineup and defense are better, he was not able to fulfill his stated top priority heading into the offseason: Landing a front-line starting pitcher.
The team will count again on elder statesman Livan Hernandez to eat up innings. After that, there are plenty of question marks in the rotation. Jordan Zimmermann is unproven and coming off the same surgery Strasburg had, and probably will be limited to about 150-160 innings this season.
Jason Marquis had bone chips removed from his pitching elbow, John Lannan spent time in the minors last season, and fifth starter Tom Gorzelanny is a sub-.500 pitcher over his career.
If the rotation is problematic, the Nationals are enthusiastic about a lineup that now includes Werth, who hit .296 with 27 homers and 85 RBIs for Philadelphia in 2010, and LaRoche, who had 25 homers and 100 RBIs for Arizona last season.
Rick Ankiel is the new starting center fielder, replacing the traded Nyjer Morgan, and Michael Morse takes over in left field for the traded Josh Willingham.
Looking down the road, the Nationals are upbeat about younger players such as shortstop Ian Desmond — whose promise at the plate was overshadowed by a majors-high 34 errors in 2010 — second baseman Danny Espinosa and catcher Wilson Ramos, who will split time with Ivan Rodriguez.
The Nationals went 187-298 over the past three seasons, and last year’s record of 69-93 marked a 10-win improvement from 2009 — while leaving them last in the NL East again.
Tack on 10 more victories in 2011, and the team still wouldn’t finish above .500.
Everyone connected with the team is convinced that playing winning baseball is on its way to the nation’s capital, eventually.
Lannan points to a signing such as Werth’s as being key to the change.
“We’re sick of losing. We’ve got some guys who have won the past couple of years, and they’re bringing that attitude with them. I think it’s contagious, just as if a losing attitude is contagious,” Lannan said. “Right now, I think we all have a winning attitude. We’re all hungry to win.”