National disaster

Jeff Passan

VIERA, Fla. – Sometimes there are those telephone conversations you wish took place face to face. The person on the other end is so incredulous, so frustrated, so spitting angry that you know he is sporting a look – like the worst bitter-beer face known to man – words can't do justice.

"Where does all this 130-loss stuff come from, all this silliness about the '62 Mets?" said Washington Nationals president Stan Kasten, the example in this particular case.

Kasten is unhappy. See, the Nationals probably are not going to be good this year. They have a chance to be really not good. Some believe they will be really, really not good.

Like worst-team-ever not good.

And people around baseball love to exaggerate, so bad turns into really bad turns into historically bad, and numbers start getting assigned, one scout positing the Nationals could be worse than the '62 New York Mets, who went 40-120, another suggesting it may be 130 losses, and when that gets into the media, well, people like Kasten, who runs the team Ted Lerner purchased for $450 million last year, gets defensive.

"I don't see what they're seeing," he said.

Well, judging on past performance alone, there is some merit to the Nats-will-stink movement. Their projected starting rotation was 2-13 last season. Oh, no, not their No. 5 starter. Their entire rotation.

John Patterson was hurt and went 1-2. Shawn Hill spent most of the season at Double-A and went 1-3 in the major leagues. Matt Chico split the season between Class A and Double-A and will make his big-league debut this year. Jerome Williams went 0-2. Tim Redding went 0-6. The quintet pitched 120 1/3 big-league innings, or less than Jered Weaver, who wasn't called up for good until July.

And that does not including Jason Simontacchi, who had won a rotation spot before getting injured. Simontacchi spent last season in the independent Atlantic League, which is about as far from the big leagues as Chico's Bail Bonds.

Their everyday lineup is better. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman should be one of the 10 best players in the National League within a couple years. Right fielder Austin Kearns and second baseman Felipe Lopez have All-Star talent. Catcher Brian Schneider is an underrated leader. And the bullpen features Chad Cordero, one of the majors' best closers, and the 6-foot-11 Jon Rauch, who was tremendous last season.

Point is, as really, really bad as the Nationals could be, it's really, really, really hard for a team to lose more than 75 percent of its games, which is what it would take to eclipse the '62 Mets. In an NL East division where the champion could easily win less than 90 games, the Nationals aren't stuck in the type of meatgrinder that has shredded the Kansas City Royals to the tune of four 100-loss teams in five years. And even if they were, the difference between 100 and 120 – or 130 for that matter – is almost too enormous to consider.

"Say 140," Schneider said. "Doesn't matter to us."

However laissez-faire Schneider is about Washington's futility being resistant, the whispers have permeated the Nationals. On first-year manager Manny Acta's desk is a paragraph from the story that first referenced the '62 Mets. Someone just printed out the copy and anonymously left it in his office.

Acta is saying the right things. "We're not as far as a lot of people say," and "It's a lot easier to turn this team around and win," and "Anything is possible."

Look at the Florida Marlins last year. Preseason shoo-ins for 100-plus losses, they were in wild-card contention until mid-September and finished 78-84.

"I want better things to happen here," said Acta, who saw the Nationals plenty last season as third-base coach of the Mets. "They didn't even play .500."

Such thoughts are typical with D.O.A. teams. Manufactured hope replaces realism, and it's got to, at least until the Nationals' rebuilding plan takes root.

Kasten devoted the organization to developing talent the same way his Atlanta Braves dynasty did. He wants to seize the expanding international market – particularly Asia – and has taken advantage of his proximity to world embassies by joining foreign emissaries for dinner or bringing them to RFK Stadium. Twelve of the Nationals' top 15 prospects, as ranked by Baseball America, have joined the organization since he took over, he's proud to point out.

Of course, the magazine still rated the Nationals' farm system the worst in the major leagues, which makes the their predilection toward youth a risky maneuver: Can they fill their new $600 million stadium, set to open along the Anacostia River a year from now, with a team sacrificing for the future?

"We're going in one direction at 100 mph, and that's because I don't want to do this again," Kasten said. "I don't want to be one of those franchises that rebuilds over and over."

The Nationals have finished in last place three consecutive seasons, and this year couples that prospect with nearly a 50 percent cut in payroll, from $62 million to an estimated $33 million. First baseman and cleanup hitter Nick Johnson still can't run after breaking his femur last season, forcing Acta to shift his lineup accordingly, which, naturally, means more lumps than a year-old box of sugar.

Or so you'd think.

"You can look at our team and our defense and our pitching staff," Schneider said, "and you go ahead and ask around the league: Teams hate playing us."

Such a supposition seemed fishy, so we did ask around the league: Do teams really hate playing the Nationals? Each NL personnel man uttered some derivation of what one scout put best: "Yeah, like we hate eating chocolate cake."

And yet when pressed further, about whether the Nationals could be 120-loss bad, the scout scoffed.

"No," he said. "No one's that bad."

Baseball is funny that way. The Nationals brought 72 players into their camp this year, 37 of them pitchers. Both are staggering numbers for a 25-man roster and 11- or 12-man pitching staff, numbers of panic.

Then again, teams can do miraculous things. Kasten built one.

"What's always a good reminder for me – and I'm not making a prediction – the last time I had a team projected to finish last was my 1991 (Atlanta Braves) team," he said. "That team lost in extra innings in the seventh game of the World Series.

"It's not a prediction. But it does illustrate the kind of things that could happen as a season unfolds."

When he says this, no longer does he show the incredulousness, the frustration, the anger – and certainly no panic. Stan Kasten sounds hopeful, and right then the phone suffices, because a man who says such things can show only one kind of face: The smirk of a true believer.