New-culture Nats should be improved

First, a disclaimer: When I told a rival general manager Friday that I was picking the Nationals as my surprise team, he responded, “they’re going to finish last,” calling their rotation “terrible, absolutely terrible.”

The GM’s remarks gave me pause, but he hadn’t seen the Nationals play. Two scouts tracking the Nats are much more effusive. One notes the team’s increased athleticism and says the lineup might be as dangerous as any in the NL East. The other praises the team’s newfound emphasis on playing the game properly.

“They’re a better team — definitely,” the second scout says. “You can see the attention to fundamentals. Before, you knew they’d find a way to screw up. But they’re playing smart, fundamental baseball. You know the old saying, ‘You’ve got to change the culture.’ The culture has been changed.”

Does that mean the Nationals will win the NL East? No. Both the Phillies and Braves are much better than the Nats. The Marlins, a team with a rotation far superior to Washington’s, probably are better, too. But the Nats stand a reasonable chance of jumping from 69 wins to a record near or at .500.

If they generate just a little momentum, look out.

Ace right-hander Stephen Strasburg is expected to make a full recovery from Tommy John surgery by 2012. Outfielder Bryce Harper, who is 7-for-18 with three doubles at age 18 in his first major-league spring training, also could join the team by then. And once those two become fixtures in the nation’s capital, they won’t be alone.

Ryan Zimmerman is one of the game’s best third basemen. New right fielder Jayson Werth is coming off a season in which he ranked sixth in the NL in OPS. Shortstop Ian Desmond and second baseman Danny Espinosa form a young, dynamic middle-infield combination, with one scout predicting that Espinosa will become a star.

Ivan Rodriguez, 39, remains the starting catcher, but Wilson Ramos is at least pushing him. Roger Bernadina, Rick Ankiel and Jerry Hairston Jr. likewise are pushing Nyjer Morgan in center field — and few scouts will be surprised if Bernadina beats Morgan out.

Then there is Michael Morse, who is 12-for-25 with four homers in his bid to win the left-field job this spring. Morse, one scout says, looks like Mike Piazza once did at the plate, holding his hands high, swinging down through the ball and generating “incredible backspin.”

OK, enough.

Nats GM Mike Rizzo knows that the team’s 9-5 record in the Grapefruit League is irrelevant, and most of the players’ individual stats probably are, too. But the vibe in camp is indeed more professional, and the difference was noticeable when I visited the Nats a few weeks ago.

“That part of it, I know it’s real,” Rizzo says.

Zimmerman concurs, saying, “The attitude around here is the biggest change.”

Rizzo says veterans such as Zimmerman, Werth and Rodriguez frequently stay all nine innings instead of bolting early like most veterans do in spring training. Together, they send their teammates a powerful reminder: Don’t get sloppy. Keep playing hard.

New veteran reserves such as Hairston, Alex Cora and Matt Stairs also set strong examples. And Rizzo, from the moment he signed Werth to a seven-year, $126 million, free-agent contract, has talked up Werth’s leadership qualities.

“Nothing fired me up more than when I saw (Evan) Longoria take (B.J.) Upton to task,” Rizzo says, referring to an incident with the Rays last June when Longoria questioned Upton’s effort in a heated dugout spat.

“That takes guts for Longoria to do that, open himself to all sorts of problems. Now he’s got to be the guy, do it right every time. Otherwise, he’s a hypocrite. We did our research. Werth will do that for us.”

The problem, of course, is that Werth can’t pitch.

Each of the Mets’ top three starters — right-hander Mike Pelfrey, lefty Jon Niese and knuckle-baller R.A. Dickey — might be better than anyone in the Nationals’ rotation. Still, the Nats’ picture isn’t necessarily as bleak as it appears.

Barring injury, the top four starters likely will be right-handers Livan Hernandez, Jason Marquis, Jordan Zimmermann and lefty John Lannan. Four others — lefties Tom Gorzellany and Ross Detwiler and righties Yunesky Maya and Chad Gaudin — are candidates for the final spot, giving the Nationals greater depth than in the past.

Marquis, who made only 13 starts because of elbow surgery last season, and Lannan, who started Opening Day and later was demoted to the minors, are “back” according to Rizzo. But the greater excitement comes from the possibility of the Nats using four homegrown starters — Strasburg, Zimmermann, Detwiler and Maya — in ‘12.

Zimmermann, who underwent Tommy John surgery in Aug. 2009, should evolve into the No. 2 behind Strasburg; he was throwing 94 to 96 mph early in the spring, Rizzo says.

Detwiler, who underwent hip surgery in February 2010, is the bigger surprise; he is throwing 92-93, and Rizzo says his stuff is second only to Zimmermann’s among the current rotation candidates.

The bullpen, fourth in the NL in ERA last season, is anchored by another homegrown pitcher, closer Drew Storen. Prospects such as righty A.J. Cole and lefty Sammy Solis lead the next wave of young pitching talent.

Hey, I could be wrong about the Nationals. I even can see the Marlins becoming a bigger surprise if their young players ignite, right-hander Javier Vazquez thrives in his return to the NL and shortstop Hanley Ramirez continues his unexpected emergence as a leader.

The NL East is strong. The Nats probably will not even contend. But at long last, they at least look like a real team.

“We’re going to play clean games, be an exciting team to watch. We will grind out and play each game with our hair on fire,” Rizzo vows. “For the first time since I became GM (in March 2009), we’ll go into each game thinking and expecting we can beat the pitcher — no matter who is on the mound — and win the game.”

Sounds crazy, I now. But check back at mid-season, and Rizzo’s words might not seem as bold as they do now.

 

NOTES

 

I barely had to ask a question Friday when I spoke by phone with Rizzo. Once I mentioned that rival scouts were praising his team, Rizzo launched into an impassioned state-of-the–Nats address.

Here are some more of his quotes:

• On the team’s improved culture: “We chipped away. It’s a slow process. Guys are under contract. It takes a year or more to change the culture of a clubhouse, No. 1, and the attitude of a team, No. 2.”

• On the team’s baserunning (Rizzo says the team ranked 27th in the majors in going from first to third last season and 30th in scoring from second): “That has taken a 180. It’s not only because of getting bigger, faster, more athletic players. It’s also the mindset we’re teaching: ‘This is what we’re going to do. Or we’ll find somebody else to do it.’”

• On the addition of free agent Jerry Hairston, a switch-hitter whom the Nats signed Jan. 19 to play second base, shortstop and third and also serve as a right-handed-hitting center fielder: “Not often do you identify a utility player that you need to get early in the offseason. But he was a utility player we needed to get.”

• On outfielder Mike Morse, who batted .289/.352/.519 in 293 plate appearances last season and is off to a hot start this spring: “People keep saying last year was a mirage, that he can’t get to good fastballs, hit No. 1 starters. But he just keeps improving with the bat. He works his butt off. He works hard with (hitting coach) Rick Eckstein. He’s making a case to get everyday at-bats.”