As the Washington Nationals prepare for their 10th spring training, expectations for this year could not be higher. Unlike 2013, when the team was undone by then-manager Davey Johnson's "World Series or Bust" mentality, this year's squad has no choice but to embrace that expectation after spending more than $200 million to sign former AL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer; adding him to what is already the deepest starting rotation in baseball and a team that won 96 games last year. Many returning players, like Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, and Bryce Harper are all in, or nearing, their prime playing years and the team has the taste of last October's bitter defeat to the San Francisco Giants in the NLDS in their collective mouths.
But here is the thing, having the best regular season record in baseball, as the Nationals did in 2012 and in the National League in 2014, is no guarantee of post-season success. Moreover, the intangible chemistry that exists in a clubhouse is a fragile and tenuous thing, and there, the Nationals have tinkered with things in ways that may affect this year's squad. Consider the trading of Tyler Clippard, a stalwart 8th inning set-up man and beloved figure for his "fear the goggles" mentality and quirky delivery. That he also doubled as a closer (when needed) is no small thing considering Drew Storen's post-season performance (about which more in a moment). Or look at the looming free agency of Desmond, a player who started with the Expos organization before it moved to Washington and Zimmermann, a homegrown product drafted out of obscure Wisconsin-Stevens Point who has turned into one of the best pitchers in baseball. Neither player has been re-signed and most observers assume one or both will not be returning after this year because it will be cost prohibitive.
These decisions might be defensible if the team was a "small market" club like Kansas City or Oakland or if these players were past their prime, but neither is the case. Clippard was owed a mere $9 million for 2015 (a bargain by today's standards) and Zimmermann is two years younger than Scherzer. Desmond is a unique talent at shortstop who hits for power and average but also possesses a strong throwing arm (though he does make a lot of errors) and is also only 29 years old. Signing Scherzer for $210 million when the starting rotation was already among the best in the business while failing to use that money to take care of home grown talent does not speak well of the organization and sends a message to players who are drafted and come up through the system that they can (and will) be jettisoned for a high profile free agent. And oh yeah, the Lerners are the wealthiest owners in the league, so money really should not be a problem.
Clippard was essentially flipped for a mediocre shortstop (Yunel Escobar) and replaced by Casey Janssen, a former Blue Jays closer coming off an injury-plagued season. Meanwhile, the team has a question mark at first base because they let Adam LaRoche leave via free agency, there is no guarantee Escobar will work at second (the team could have re-signed mid-season pick-up Asdrubal Cabrera but opted not to) and there is still a huge question mark in the bullpen. Drew Storen has now blown two critical saves in the post-season and no matter how many regular season wins the team piles up, none of it will matter if the guy they call on to finish games is incapable of doing so. Last year, Storen was put in a tough spot by manager Matt Williams who, in my view, made an awful decision to lift Zimmermann in the bottom of the ninth inning of game two of the NLDS, but it happened, and Storen blew the game.
No GM bats 1.000 and Rizzo's long-term record speaks for itself; however, in the quest for winning that elusive World Series, the team may be setting itself up for failure. In addition to Zimmermann, Doug Fister, who Rizzo swiped from the Detroit Tigers and was arguably the team's most consistent starter last year, is also unsigned after this year and Strasburg can walk in 2016. The team can't simultaneously discuss a long-term window that requires fiscal prudence while spending lavishly on a shiny toy like Scherzer, who is signed until age 37, well past when he is expected to pitch at a high level.
Instead of making some small changes and focusing on locking down players who have contributed to that success, I fear the team is following a path of teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies, all of whom lost sight of building their farm systems and adding strategic parts in favor of splashy free agent signings. And while the Red Sox won it all two years ago, neither New York or Philadelphia has won a title in more than five years and each is now mediocre at best. Meanwhile, the Giants have won three of the last five World Series without getting drawn into the types of bidding wars that result in contracts that can cripple teams in the long run. Of course, if the Nationals do win it all this year, this will all be moot, but if they do not, the window on future contention may slam shut.
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