No more gaffes, no more laughs for suddenly respectable Nationals

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If there was a low point for the Nationals in their mostly hopeless first five seasons in Washington it likely came in February 2009. Their top international prospect, Esmailyn Gonzalez, had been proven to be four years older than he said he was -- and not named Esmailyn Gonzalez. General manager Jim Bowden was under federal investigation for alleged bonus skimming. They had lost 102 games in 2008, and the franchise hadn't finished above .500 since relocating to Washington in 2005.

Just 15 months later, however, the Nationals' fortunes have already reversed significantly. They are 20-19 and tied for second place in the National League East six weeks into the 2010 season -- the latest the club has been over .500 since '05 -- with reinforcements on the way: Last year's No. 1 pick, Stephen Strasburg, is expected to arrive in the majors by early June; the No. 10 overall pick, reliever Drew Storen, made his major-league debut Monday night; and Washington once again has the No. 1 pick in three weeks, a selection many presume they will use on 17-year-old power-hitting phenom Bryce Harper.

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Much of the turnaround can be traced back to that single Friday in late Feb. 2009, when then-assistant general manager Mike Rizzo essentially assumed control of Nationals management. Rizzo stood in the corner of the Space Coast Stadium pressbox in Viera, Fla., having returned to their spring training facility after completing a whirlwind 72 hours in the Dominican Republic in which he was charged with rebuilding the club's player academy and restoring order amidst the chaos of scandal.

Flanked by team president Stan Kasten and two other club officials who aided him in the D.R., Rizzo was there to be celebrated for his work, a public display rarely reserved for an assistant G.M. With weariness in his eyes, he started recounting his Dominican odyssey with a botched recitation of the famed opening crawl from Star Wars, saying, "A long, long time ago in a place . . ."

Rizzo can be forgiven for the slip-up -- he had barely slept in three days, after all -- but already that downtrodden moment in franchise history is starting to feel like it was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Two days later, Bowden resigned as GM and shortly thereafter Rizzo took over on an interim basis (he would be given the position full-time during midseason). The Nats very quietly made strides during the season. They signed Strasburg right before the mid-August deadline, and after playing to an MLB-worst .299 winning percentage before the All-Star break, they were at .440 after, good for a more respectable 22nd in baseball. Realistically, the Nats are still a year or two away from true postseason contention, but their early success this year offers even greater promise for the future.

"We feel we've come a long, long way from that particular day," Rizzo said last week about his return from the Dominican last February. "We're a vastly improved organization and franchise because of the people we've brought in since then."

The change didn't happen right away. The Nationals lost 103 games in 2009, finishing in last place for the fourth time in five years, and endured a series of embarrassing gaffes. Among others, the jerseys of their best two players, Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman, were misspelled "Natinals" during a game last April, and a postgame fireworks display last June was abruptly shutdown when debris landed on the D.C. fire chief.

Since then Rizzo, who was the Diamondbacks' director of scouting before coming to Washington, has been able to focus on remaking the Nationals from league laughingstock to competitor, a change he's enacted by continuing the development of the farm system while acquiring veterans in key positions to bring stability to the club and implement a greater level of professionalism at the major-league level.

That started with a roster re-do. At the end of the Bowden era, for instance, Washington featured eight players in overcrowded rotation for first base and the two corner outfield positions. Not one of them was properly suited to play center field, forcing Lastings Milledge to man the position -- where in 2008 he was the majors' worst defensive center fielder, according to Ultimate Zone Rating -- until he was traded to the Pirates for Nyjer Morgan, who was the NL's best defensive outfielder in 2009, per UZR.

Milledge isn't the only one from that logjam to have departed. Elijah Dukes, Austin Kearns and Wily Mo Peña are also gone. Rizzo wasn't done: veteran second baseman Adam Kennedy signed before the season; prospect Ian Desmond won the starting shortstop job even though incumbent Cristian Guzman is the club's second priciest player (in annual value); and future Hall of Fame catcher Ivan Rodriguez signed a two-year deal, the final and perhaps most important piece of what Rizzo called a "conscious effort" to improve themselves up the middle of the diamond.

Rodriguez's impact on the young pitching staff is quantifiable. Through the season's first 10 games the Nationals' starters were averaging 4 2/3 innings per outing with a 7.58 ERA. Since April 17 -- with the rotation having made nearly two full turns, giving Rodriguez ample time to grow comfortable with each pitcher -- Washington's rotation has gone nearly six innings per start with a 3.38 ERA in games he's caught. In one recent five-game lap through the rotation the Nationals starters had a 1.44 ERA, a .191 batting average against and a 27-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. And he's working this magic with the majors' softest tossers, a starter group that averages just 87.8 miles per hour with their fastballs. It helps, too, that Rodriguez is batting .336 in 110 at bats.

"These guys look at Ivan Rodriguez as an iconic type of player," Rizzo said. "Once he's learned the pitchers, learned what they can do and learned their nuances, they trust that the fingers he's putting down are the right fingers because of his professionalism and his preparation for each start for each guy."

Nationals lefty John Lannan was six years old when Rodriguez made his major-league debut in 1991 and credits his veteran catcher with improving his approach.

"Just different kinds of pitches I had never thought of throwing before in situations," Lannan said. "That just comes with his experience and what he's seen before."

The insertion of veterans in key spots has helped all over the diamond. Desmond says the hard work Kennedy and Rodriguez put in is "contagious," and on road trips the young shortstop has started sharing a cab with Kennedy to the ballpark, rather than wait for the team bus, so the two can take extra groundballs.

"I pretty much follow his shadow the whole way," Desmond said, before adding shrewdly, "He's got more [service] time, so he pays for the cab."

Desmond beating out Guzman was one of only two position battles this spring, along with right field, which was a revolving door for the first few weeks, though Roger Bernardina has at least temporarily claimed most of the playing time there. The lack of prevailing uncertainty has made a difference in the clubhouse.

"The last couple of years we've had guys in and out the whole time," Zimmerman said. "This year was the first time we came to spring training knowing what our team was going to be. We didn't have an open competition for five out of the nine spots. It helps to know who's going to be there. It has a more professional feel.

"In the past we've had some guys that, if they weren't with this organization, they might not be in the big leagues yet. That's not their fault, it's just a really hard place to learn."

Rizzo's influx of veteran talent included seven World Series winners, six of whom who were new to the franchise since Bowden left. One of those players with championship rings, however, is reliever Brian Bruney, who was just designated for assignment to make room for Storen, who has been called upon to shore up Washington's bullpen. In 16 2/3 innings split between Double A and Triple A, Storen had a 1.08 ERA and 15 strikeouts.

While the Nationals' farm system, despite a series of high draft picks, is a work in progress for depth -- Baseball America rated it No. 26 out of 30 this offseason -- Storen and Strasburg are a pair of young talents who ought to make meaningful 2010 contributions that could keep the Nationals at least on the edge of contention into mid-summer.

And that's an achievement that has been a long, long time coming.