Dave Nichols: Dawn of a new era for baseball in the District

Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson has been in this business for 50 years. He was a world champion as a player and again as a manager, and has specialized in taking teams on the precipice and pushing them over the edge to greatness. So he’s seen this movie before from the inside. This season has had plenty of storylines, but the biggest story of all to emerge might just require hindsight to see it after a couple of years - years that Nats fans hope are filled with deep playoff runs.

In 2008 and 2009, this franchise won 59 games, mere games above the modern mark for futility. In 2010, the Nats upped that to 69. This season with three games remaining, the Nationals stand at 78 wins, picking up at least another nine games over last season. Should they sweep the Marlins in Florida this week they would finish the season with a winning record for the first time since the move from Montreal in 2005. That’s upwards of at least 19 wins over two seasons, which is a remarkable feat in modern baseball.

It tells us two things, really, about this organization. First, that the teams of 2008’09 - the product of neglect by the league offices and abuse by former general manager Jim Bowden - were truly horrible teams that barely qualify for the definition of major league. And second, that the talent base that is in place now under the direction of GM Mike Rizzo is such that they not only withstood a two-month absence from their best player and season-ending injury to their free agent first baseman, but actually thrived.

“It just tells you (about) the young nucleus that’s coming along,” Johnson explained after the Nats’ 3-0 win Sunday, taking two of three from the fighting-for-their-playoff-lives Atlanta Braves. “It’s just a tribute to the whole organization to be at this point. We lost two key veterans, one most of the year and the other about a half of the year, and young guys that we’re trying to establish carried the bulk of the load. So I mean, I tip my hat to everyone in the organization from scouts all the way down. The job they’ve done getting to this point is outstanding.

“I think, through the whole year, there’s been a gradual kind of settling here and growing up here,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of pride on this ballclub. I mean there’s a lot of guys who really are not satisfied with this year. You can probably ask everybody in that room, and everyone wishes the season started tomorrow again.”

If this team is going to progress from near-.500 to a playoff contender, it’s going to happen because of the young nucleus that Rizzo has put together. It starts with Ryan Zimmerman (who turns 27 on Wednesday), who is but two years from becoming a free agent, and runs through the organization to Bryce Harper; not yet 19 but possibly already in the plans for next season. Add in a completely healthy Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann and some of the others from a talent-rich pool of pitchers and one can clearly see the future ahead for this team. You can bet rival National League executives have noticed.

This team still has some holes to fill. They need a true top-of-the-order, high on-base percentage leadoff hitter. With all the young pitching, they could use a quality, dependable veteran in the rotation. The bench needs to be upgraded. The first base situation needs to be sorted out. But for the first time, since this franchise made the District its home, there are more answers than questions going into the offseason.

How will this season be remembered? The Nats - and their long-suffering fans - hope that it will be remembered as a building year, one that took them out of the category of perennial loser into respectability. Maybe in 2012, with health and a little luck they’ll take another step toward becoming truly competitive. Once that is accomplished, the core of this team’s talent will be in the prime of their careers. Dare to dream, NatsTown.

Dave Nichols covers the Washington Nationals for Nationals News Network. Read Nichols’ Nationals observations as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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