Nationals' progress is not enough to contend

The rebuilding project is far from complete. After a nice start to the 2010 season, the Nationals -- at one point sporting a 20-15 record -- have regressed.

They are again in last place in the National League East and 10 1/2 games out in the wild card race. Barring a strong second-half push, they are on pace to finish with a losing record for the fifth year in a row. Washington has never had a winning season since moving to the District in 2005 from Montreal.

Nats notes» After Sunday’s 6-2 loss to San Francisco, Nats general manager Mike Rizzo said his preference is to sign slugger Adam Dunn to a contract extension.» Rizzo also insisted he had to keep the option of trading Dunn open in case a significant offer from another team materialized.» Rizzo also said the organization wants to keep Josh Willingham “long-term” instead of trading the productive outfielder, who still has one year of arbitration remaining.

And yet there are signs the franchise is trending in a better direction. Despite a 6-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants on Sunday afternoon, the Nats head to the All-Star break with a 39-50 record. That's hardly the stuff of champions. But consider at this time last season the Nats were 26-61 and fired manager Manny Acta just hours after concluding the first half with an ugly 5-0 loss at Houston. That's a 13-game improvement -- a nice boost, though still not enough according to some in the organization.

"There's some progress. There is progress," Nats manager Jim Riggleman said. "But we want to get to the point where we're not satisfied with progress. We want to make that next step. This [5-5] homestand it was spinning our wheels a little bit."

Last summer at the All-Star break, general manager Mike Rizzo was still working under an interim tag -- as was Riggleman, who had replaced Acta. And the organization had yet to sign prized No. 1 draft pick Stephen Strasburg and couldn't be sure it would even strike a deal. Washington then lost its first five games of the second half under Riggleman and soon learned top pitching prospect Jordan Zimmermann blew out his elbow and would need Tommy John surgery in early August.

After all that drama, 39-50 -- while far from ideal -- doesn't look so bad.

"With the start of the season we had, we expected to stay around .500 or maybe a little above it," Nats outfielder Josh Willingham said. "But we didn't play very well for about a three-week stretch there, and that kind of got us to where we are right now."