Can the Washington Nationals take a step back record-wise in 2011 and still progress as a team? It's an interesting question to ponder. Because as things stand right now, it looks more and more likely the team the Nats field next season will be filled with the same questions as last season. Or worse.
It's clear now that first baseman Adam Dunn won't return to the Nationals. This has been about the length of the contract all along, clear and simple. Even the dollar figures aren't as important as the length of the contract.
GM Mike Rizzo has remained streadfast in not going over three years for the hulking slugger. Dunn's agent is insisting on a four year deal, and rumors floated yesterday that the Detroit Tigers were willing to even offer a club-option on a fifth year. Dunn will get what he wants in this market. But it won't be from the Nats and he'll have to surrender his glove to make it happen.
This was never about the defense -- for either side.
Word came out yesterday that Rizzo is satisfied with stringing left fielder Josh Willingham along on a series of one-year deals as well, that is if they don't trade him or refuse to offer him arbitration.
And Rizzo himself the other day said on the radio that he wasn't going to "delude myself to the fact that we have a great chance of landing Cliff Lee," and that it would be very difficult this off-season to entice any difference-making pitcher to join the Nationals.
So, where does that leave the 2011 Washington Nationals?
It's entirely possible the off-season goes by with the Nats failing to acquire any real significant major league talent. Sure, they'll be able to claim they were in pursuit of Lee, de la Rosa, Crawford or Werth. But in the end they will be outbid by contending teams, offering similar deals in terms of dollars but with the added enticement of potential playoff baseball.
They'll also be able to say that they kicked the tires on Zack Greinke, Matt Garza and the like via trade. But again, the asking price will be just too steep, considering the Nats should be building their stable of prospects and close-to-the-majors talent, not trading it away.
All of the Nats real talent base is still younger than 26, led, of course, by Ryan Zimmerman. Ian Desmond. Danny Espinosa. Wilson Ramos. Bryce Harper. Those position players represent the core of the Nats lineup, none of which are approaching their peak years.
The pitching staff is similarly situated. Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Drew Storen all have yet to reach their 25th birthday. It is here where the Nats still, after six years in the District, need to add to the stable.
Mike Rizzo knows this. He knows that it will be 2-3 years before this core grows up and is ready to contend -- IF they all develop as he thinks they will.
But he also has to deal with an eroding and ever-frustrated fan base that is growing impatient for wins on the field NOW.
Last year's crop of free agents were brought in with the idea of stabilizing the Major League roster while letting younger players develop -- and avoiding 100 losses, which they were able to do barely.
Matt Capps. Ivan Rodgriguez. Jason Marquis. Livan Hernandez. Adam Kennedy. Brian Bruney.
Stop-gaps all. And mostly failed stop-gaps, at that.
I warn Nats fans to expect more of the same this off-season. Expect a few fiscally conservative moves to attempt to bolster the pitching staff. Expect a reclamation project (or two). Maybe a couple role or bench players. All in the pursuit of avoiding 100 losses.
Take a good look at last season's free agent class again. Weren't we taking about these same problems at this time last year?
I think that come spring training the names might be different, but the type of players -- and the problems -- will be about the same.
Yes, eventually the Nationals are going to have to go out into the free agent market and sign players to contribute to a winning team. But they just aren't ready to do that. The core of the talent on this team is still too young to justify signing older free agents whose contracts and Major League viability will be over by the time these guys are ready to contend.
And the thing is: Mike Rizzo knows this. It would really help if the Nationals organization were transparent about their plans, instead of leading their fans on with failed promises of the pursuit of free agent all-stars.
There are three ways to acquire talent in Major League Baseball: drafting, trading and signing free agents. But signing free agents is a way to supplement the talent you already have with older players, not a way to build a franchise.
This team is still building.