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What have we learned? (Lineup added edition)

Washington's lineup for Friday:
Guzman -- 6
Lopez -- 4
Zimmerman -- 5
Young -- 3
Kearns -- 9
Church -- DH
Schneider -- 2
Logan -- 8
Langerhans -- 7

Bacsik -- 1

And back to our regularly scheduled post ...

On June 15, 2006 - a year ago today - the Washington Nationals played their 68th game of the season. Here's the lineup Manager Frank Robinson used against the Colorado Rockies at RFK Stadium:

Alfonso Soriano - LF
Marlon Anderson - 2B
Nick Johnson - 1B
Ryan Zimmerman - 3B
Robert Fick - RF
Brendan Harris - SS
Brian Schneider - C
Damian Jackson - CF
Livan Hernandez - P

Tonight, when Manager Manny Acta rolls out his lineup in Toronto for the Nationals' 67th game of this season, only Zimmerman, Fick and Schneider will be among the eligible to appear. The others are gone to free agency (Soriano), trade (Anderson, Harris, Hernandez), injury (Johnson) or the waiver wire (Jackson, still without a job, as far as I know).

That group lost an 8-1 decision to the Rockies (Ray King mopped up for Jason Jennings in the ninth) and fell to 30-38. They lost to the Yankees the following day to fall to 30-39, and the season was slipping away.

Tonight, the 2007 Nationals face Roy Halladay and the Blue Jays in Toronto. A tall order, indeed. But this is a group that has somehow beaten John Smoltz twice, Jake Peavy once (and had him on the hook for another), Cole Hamels and Johan Santana. There's a reason they play the games. And should the Nationals win just once over the weekend, they would be 30-39, the exact same record as last year. Take two of three from the Blue Jays - which would mean an astonishing five straight wins in road series - and they'd be ahead of the 2006 pace.

Now, let's not go haywire here. Last year's "pace" led to a 71-91 record and a secure spot in last place in the National League East. But it might be about time to assess all those preseason assessments, when it appeared the Nationals might be a complete laughingstock. That possibility was driven home in a 1-8 start in which they were outscored 61-21, a blowout every night.

Since that start, the Nationals are 28-29, the 17th-best record in baseball over the period starting April 12, the ninth-best in the National League. Truly middling.

All of this, though, leads to odd feelings of accomplishment when thins such as, say, a sweep of the Orioles occurs. "See," the Nationals can say. "The 'so-called' experts were wrong. We're not even close to historically bad. We're not even really '07 putrid. Have you seen the Rangers and Reds lately?"

More fodder: Those '06 Nationals had a (roughly) $63 million payroll. These Nationals have a (roughly) $38 million payroll.

Team president Stan Kasten and the Lerner family were prepared to go through a really difficult season this year because they believe in this long-term vision they have - don't call it "The Plan", because Stan "Plan" Kasten gets annoyed at that, and I don't like to annoy Kasten. (MLB slogan: "I Live For This.")

But the stretch of decent, competitive baseball - most of it behind fill-in pitchers who weren't in the team's plans, even for Class AAA Columbus, this year - has clearly softened the blow of the stripped-down payroll and roster.

Which brings me to the point, as I await Air Canada 301 here at National Airport: Does a team that basically duplicates last year's performance, given a game or two, mean this franchise is any closer to competing for a championship, which Kasten and the Lerners say is the ultimate goal?

And who among the current team members, two-and-a-half months into the season, do you believe could be a contributing member of such a championship-caliber team?

The team's two best offensive players to this point - first baseman Dmitri Young and shortstop Cristian Guzman - aren't really in that category, are they? Right fielder Austin Kearns, signed through 2009 with a team option for 2010, has 25 RBI, sixth on the team. Ryan Zimmerman, the star-in-waiting third baseman, is hitting .250. Brian Schneider, the now-veteran catcher also signed through '09, is hitting .236 in a year in which Acta predicted he'd hit .270. First baseman Nick Johnson, signed through '09, hasn't played a game. Left fielder Ryan Church is at a solid-but-not-spectacular .269.

The pitchers? We haven't seen the ones who count in about a month, have we? Other than Chad Cordero and Jon Rauch, and we may get a glimpse of Luis Ayala pretty soon.

What do we make of all this - about 2007, and about the future?


By Barry Svrluga  |  June 15, 2007; 8:17 AM ET
 
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