The Washington Nationals aren’t exactly having a season to remember, but it’s getting better. Ryan Church figures it could be worse. A whole lot worse, really. “You have to remember that some people were predicting in spring training that we were going to lose 130 games this season,” observed the Nationals left fielder. “I knew we weren’t going to be that bad. No major-league team can be that bad.”

No, the Nationals aren’t that bad–they’re 52-63 and tied for fourth place in the National League East with Florida. That the Nationals would have one of the worst records in the major leagues just two years after relocating to the nation’s capital from Montreal is not really a surprise. Nationals ownership made it clear long before this season ever started that 2007, the franchise’s last season at decrepit RFK Stadium before moving into a new ballpark along the Anacostia River next April, was going to be one of retrenchment. The Nationals cut the payroll from $63 million to $37 million, and made only a token bid to retain star left fielder Alfonso Soriano before watching him sign an eight-year, $136 million contract with the Chicago Cubs as a free agent.

Basically, they went into a rebuilding phase. “What’s going on isn’t a surprise,” Church said. “Ownership has a plan, and they have made that plan very clear not only to the players but the fans. They want to find out which young players can be part of the future here and who they can build around going into the new ballpark. Everyone comes into the season wanting to be a contender, but we knew that probably wasn’t going to be the case. But we’ve definitely showed that we have some good young talent here and I think we’re taking the first steps toward following the plan ownership has to eventually make this team a contender.”

That is why Manny Acta’s energy level remains high in his first season as a major league manager, although at 38, he is the youngest manager in the big leagues. Acta developed a reputation as one of baseball’s top managerial candidates during the past five seasons as a third base coach in Montreal (2002-04) and then with the New York Mets (2005-06), and he took the Nationals’ job even though he knew his record might suffer in the early going.

“It was an easy decision for me because of the vision that ownership and (General Manager) Jim Bowden has for this franchise,” Acta said. “I really believe we have a solid plan in place that is going to make the Washington Nationals a very successful franchise.”

The Nationals shored themselves up on the cheap with a pair of players they signed as minor league free agents after spring training had already started. No one else wanted first baseman Dmitri Young or second baseman Ronnie Belliard, but both were signed to two-year contract extensions last month. Young is hitting .333/.381/.504 in 396 plate appearances with a 33.1 VORP. He was released by Detroit last September during the Tigers‘ march to the World Series after he pleaded guilty to domestic violence earlier in the season following an altercation with his girlfriend. Belliard found no takers after being St. Louis’ second baseman during the Cardinals‘ run to the World Series title, but is hitting a creditable .295/.342/.416 in 359 plate appearances with a 14.0 VORP.

While Young, 33, and Belliard, 32, don’t exactly fit in with a youth movement, they cover up for the fact that the Nationals are devoid of hitting prospects at the upper levels of their farm system. Though the Nationals figure to make a play for some second-tier free agents this upcoming winter with the bump in revenue they will receive from moving into a new park, they are still a long way from contender status.

However, the Nationals do have four young players in their lineup that they feel can be building blocks despite sub-par 2007 seasons: third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, Church, middle infielder Felipe Lopez, and right fielder Austin Kearns. Zimmerman was one of the top rookies in the NL last season but has slipped a little in his second season, hitting .269/.321/.450 in 504 plate appearances. Church has some power and speed, but never seemed to find favor with former Nationals manager Frank Robinson; the Nationals believe he can improve upon his .264/.341/.424 numbers in 416 plate appearances. Lopez and Kearns, acquired from Cincinnati in the Nats’ big July trade last season, are also struggling. Lopez is hitting .249/.311/.363, while Kearns is at .248/.330/.377, poor marks regardless of the fact that they’re playing in an outstanding pitcher’s park like RFK Stadium.

Injuries to Jason Bergmann, Shawn Hill, and John Patterson have left the Nationals with a rotation filled primarily with journeymen. However, Acta believes he has found four youngsters to eventually build a strong starting staff around in rookie left-hander Matt Chico (2.1 SNLVAR), Bergmann (2.0), Hill (1.8), and John Lannan (0.6), another rookie lefty. Lannan began the season in A-ball, but has impressed in his first three major-league starts. He isn’t afraid to pitch inside, as evidenced by his hitting Philadelphia stars Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in consecutive at-bats, which earned him an ejection in his major league debut. He also did not back down against San Francisco’s Barry Bonds this past Monday when the left fielder was one home run away from breaking Hank Aaron‘s all-time record of 755. In the bullpen, the Nats still have the services of closer Chad Cordero, already with 115 career saves at age 25; his WXRL is 2.236 this season.

“We have the beginnings of a pretty good young rotation and that’s where it all starts,” Acta said. “I came into this job knowing things weren’t going to happen overnight, but I see us making progress. This season is a good start. I really believe we’ve taken a lot of positive strides forward, and things are only going to get better down the road.”

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