[Joe Posnanski is now a NBC Sports columnist and recently visited Nationals camp]
By Joe Posnanski
VIERA, Fla. – There probably have not been 10 teams in all of baseball history that were quite as hopeless as the 2009 Washington Nationals. They lost 103 games — the second year in a row that they lost 100 — and were the worst team in baseball.
But it was worse than that. The Nationals had just moved into a new park a year earlier … and nobody in the nation’s capital seemed to care. They were 13th in the National League in attendance. Their television ratings appeared to be a misprint. The Nationals averaged just 12,000 homes. That’s “Wayne’s World” territory. And that was WAY UP from what their ratings in 2008.
But it was worse than that. Their farm system was seemingly barren. Baseball America ranked them 21st among the 30 teams. They did not have a single prospect ranked in anybody’s Top 30. The future seemed about as hopeless as the present.
But it was worse than that. The present wasn’t just hopeless, it was hideous.
Their right fielder, Elijah Dukes, had been involved in so many off-field incidents, the team hired a former police officer to watch him at all times (though not too well since Dukes would talk later of smoking pot before Nationals games). To play center field, they acquired Nyjer Morgan, who said his on-field name was “Tony Plush” and would show a special talent for barreling into catchers.
Their best player, Adam Dunn, was so bad defensively in left field and at first base that despite hitting 38 homers and posting a .398 on-base percentage, the Wins Above Relacement (WAR) statistic still rated him worse than a replacement player (his minus-43 fielding runs is the worst fielding performance in baseball history).
The pitching staff’s 5.00 ERA was the worst in the National League. The starting pitching was such an irreparable mess that, in desperation, they signed 34-year-old Livan Hernandez, who had pitched for five teams the previous four years. And one of those teams was the Washington Nationals.
When it gets this bad, what do you do? Where do you even begin? And how does it then become baseball’s best team in three years?
“Step by step, without skipping steps,” GM Mike Rizzo says.
Can it really come down to a simple cliche?