Story by Leander Schaerlaeckens
When it was called the Montreal Expos, the franchise was long-considered a joke. It couldnâ€™t hold on to decent players, draw a crowd or consistently win games. The club even had to live through the embarrassment of being bought by Major League Baseball because of the lack of interested buyers. Turning the club around has been a long and frustrating process, but better days are ahead for the Washington Nationals.
In 2005, its inaugural year in Washington, the club led its division for several weeks before ending with a 81-81 record, which deserved better than last place in a freakishly strong division. Although the team will end in last place once again this year, it has put in place the building blocks that will support the club for years.
If the team is to have any chance of being successful, however, it must avoid the yearly exodus of talented and young free agents that has been marring the club for decades. Over the years, the clubâ€™s inability to hold on to its stars has cost the team players such as Vladimir Guerrero, Pedro Martinez and Larry Walker.
The emergence of 22-year-old Ryan Zimmerman, a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year, coupled with the front officeâ€™s commitment to re-signing superstar Alfonso Soriano should secure the offensive nucleus of the club for years to come. They will be supported by a young and talented supporting cast: closer Chad Cordero, 24; outfielder Austin Kearns, 26; shortstop Felipe Lopez, 26; and first-baseman Nick Johnson, 28. In the past 10 years, the Expos and Nationals have ended last or second-to-last nine times. This foundation of players should put an end to that.
The financial stability that the new stadium will bring will be pivotal in putting the club into a position where it will be able to compete for a spot in the playoffs every season. The money brought in by the new ballpark, which is to be built near the Anacostia River and scheduled to open before the 2008 season, should provide the team with the funds needed to retain core players and attract free agents to complement them.
General manager Jim Bowden especially should improve the pitching staff. Other than all-star closer Chad Cordero, Bowden has given manager Frank Robinson very little pitching to work with. By allowing Esteban Loaiza to leave for the Oakland Athletics as a free agent and trading ace Livan Hernandez to the Arizona Diamondbacks, Bowden crippled an already poor staff. Serving as an indicator of the stark pitching situation, Ramon Ortiz led the team with a paltry 5.31 ERA and a mundane 11 wins through Sept. 28.
Attendance at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium has dropped off considerably since last year and isnâ€™t likely to improve next year â€“ their last in the converted football stadium. It is clear that the Nationalsâ€™ temporary housing isnâ€™t fit for baseball, but it will always be remembered as the stadium where the Nationals changed from being a badly written soap opera to a genuine team in the major leagues. The potential is there. But then again, it has been for years.