Tom Boswell has a great column in today's Post. Alone among most columnists, Boswell has both cheered the team's arrival in Washington and demanded that it stay focused on winning. While many others have been happy just to have a team, Boswell has made clear that a true fan should demand more.
He's fundamentally correct in arguing that the Nationals are still in the race and that their wild card opponents haven't done much to earn the title, and we agree that it's still possible for the Nats to win the race. We, probably like all Nats fans, are still glued to the race and still hope the Nats can come out of their death spiral.
The real problem is that the Washington Nationals aren't a mature organization right now, and a mature organization is more likely to win the race. The team has no direction from ownership, largely because ownership doesn't care much about the team's future. The owner--Major League Baseball--is concerned only with getting the highest price possible for the team in a sale and therefore isn't going to do much to try to win this year or secure the team's future.
The General Manager has to operate in this difficult environment, and he's not doing a very good job of it. If you were trying to build a stable, yet creative, franchise that challenged for the pennant every year, you probably wouldn't hire Jim Bowden. His explosion on Sunday at the team and its players for not hitting and not winning wasn't a sign of a mature GM, especially when you consider that the team is made up mostly of average or below average hitters. It's sort of like an urban planner angrily criticizing the Washington Monument for not being taller.
The combination of these two factors--a disinterested owner and a substandard GM--have prevented the team from improving itself at the trade deadline and down the stretch. The Nationals could have catapulted themselves from a basement franchise into one of the league's premier franchises, but they missed that chance. Now, they're an overachieving team that's no longer overachieving. That's not a good prescription for winning the wild card.
The Nats also don't have much a farm system to call upon down the stretch. Yes, they have Ryan Zimmerman, but he's not likely to do much this year, and they don't have much else. A more mature team would have built up the minor league system over a period of years through trades and the minor league draft, but the Expos depleted their farm system both by calling up young, productive hitters only to trade them away and by losing good management personnel.
The Nationals did have a player they could have brought up to try to plug their gaping hole at shortstop--Rick Short--but they didn't do that. A career minor leaguer, Short was the perfect call-up: he was hitting well, he could play a position at which the Nats needed help, and bringing him up wasn't going to undermine his development. When the alternative is one of the worst hitters in baseball, why not take a chance on Rick Short?
But Boswell's right: the wild card race isn't populated with superb teams this year. All of the teams in the race are flawed, and that's a race the Nationals can win--if they start hitting. In the end, there's no way the Nationals can win the race hitting like they have since the All-Star break. Can they turn it around? Yes; most major league hitters can get hot in a 32-game stretch. It doesn't help, of course, that the GM is telling them that not only aren't they any good, but they might lose their job at any moment.