Three years ago, the Washington Nationals burst into prominence with a young team full of potential and an old-school manager full of swagger. The team, coming off years of sub-.500 records, broke out, winning a league-high 98 games with a pitching rotation loaded with young arms and burgeoning everyday talent. The team suffered a crushing Game 5 loss in the National League Division Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, but most baseball people assumed it was a question of when, not if, the team would make it to the World Series. The team had a "window" when their young stars would still be under manageable contracts and Davey Johnson was a proven winner with a World Series ring and a no-fucks-to-give attitude that had him proudly proclaiming "world series or bust" when spring training opened the following February.
Flash forward to the depressing final days of the 2015 season and the question of a trip to the World Series is just the opposite - no longer a matter of when, but if. The team was passed by the Mets and will not even make the playoffs this year. How did we get here and what should the team do in order to contend in 2016 and beyond? The 2015 campaign began with sky high expectations. The Max Scherzer signing appeared to solidify one of, if not the deepest rotations in baseball. Bryce Harper was ready to fulfill his potential, and younger players like Anthony Rendon and Ian Desmond were expected to continue playing at an all-star level.
While it is fair to apportion some of the blame on factors outside anyone's control, injuries crushed the team from top to bottom - Denard Span, Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Doug Fister, and Stephen Strasburg all missed significant playing time - every team has to deal with injuries during the season and the team was still in first place at the All-Star break. No, the problem was not simply injuries, there were greater factors at work:
- Trading For Papelbon: It is no coincidence that the Mets flew past the Nats around the trading deadline. While the Amazin's picked up utility players, relief pitching, and Yeonis Cespedes (admittedly, I don't think anyone expected him to do what he has done), the Nats sole move was taking on Papelbon's $13 million contract and demoting Drew Storen, who was having the best season of his career, to a setup role. Having questioned Storen's ability once before in signing Rafael Soriano before the 2013 season, it should not have been surprising that Storen imploded when the front office questioned his talent again. Sadly, Storen's old running mate, Tyler Clippard (who the Nats foolishly traded in the off-season) was available, but instead of bringing back a quality set-up man (a team need who landed with the Mets instead) and restoring some good clubhouse karma, Mike Rizzo brought in a cancer who has done nothing to help the team contend.
- Matt Williams: Handing the keys to a Ferrari to a 16-year old is probably unwise unless the car is simply going in a straight line slowly, but let him out on the highway and bad things will happen. So it has been with Matt Williams. As long as he was not called upon to make difficult decisions, he was fine, but he was woefully out managed in the NLDS by Bruce Bochy and his poor handling of this year's pitching staff has been well documented. Simply put, he is out of his league, not experienced enough as a manager to make the types of choices a more seasoned skipper would make. Too bad we had one of those, but he was run out of town because he was too nice to players or something.
- Mike Rizzo: I hate to diss Rizzo, who I have written about favorably in the past, but for all the credit he gets for building a contender (and rightly so), he deserves scorn for more recent decisions, be it the aforementioned Soriano deal, trading away Clippard, failing to resign either Ian Desmond or Jordan Zimmermann (more on them later), or the head scratching signing of Scherzer when the team could have used that $210 million in other ways and to fill other needs, Rizzo's track record of late has not been good. The Papelbon trade is the kind of karmic kick in the balls anyone could have seen coming a mile away.
- The Lerners: For billionaires, the Lerner family has a frustrating penchant for being cheap and profligate without explanation. I will never understand why it was unwise to give Clippard $8 million for one year when he was the linchpin of the bullpen but ok to give Scherzer $210 million when he was past the age of 30 and a player (Zimmermann) two years younger and home grown, could have been re-signed for less money.
- Dissing Home Grown Talent: It sends an incredibly poor message when you spend big to bring in free agent talent but let home grown talent, particularly home grown talent that has been with the team for so long, walk out the door, as is likely to happen in the off-season when Desmond and Zimmermann will become free agents. This is a particularly unsettling trend as players like Strasburg, Harper, and Rendon become free agents in the next few years.
So, what to do?
- Stephen Strasburg: Speaking of Strasburg … It is hard to know if the team has messed with his head between the innings limits, pitching to contact, and expectations, or if he simply is a diamond in need of additional polishing, but he is a free agent after next season and the team needs to figure out if they want to fish or cut bait (and get some decent pieces back for him in a trade).
- Get A Manager That Knows What The Fuck He Is Doing: Williams is only signed through next season, so eat what's left on his contract and get a manager in here that does not need on-the-job training.
- Show Some Love To Your Own Players: Pull out the checkbook and resign Zimmermann and make a more concerted effort to show the players you have drafted or traded for early in their careers that being a part of the franchise means something.
- Make Trades: That said, dumping Werth on an AL team who could use his bat and have him DH part time and floating Gonzalez, who is still affordable at $9 million a year but clearly has maxed out his potential, makes sense. The Scherzer contract is going to be an albatross, might as well lighten the load in places where we can to free up money for other priorities.
- Drew Storen: The relationship with Storen is probably beyond repair at this point, but the fact is, he is still only 28 years old and was having an outstanding season until Papelbon was foolishly added to the bullpen. While baseball is a business, Storen is way too talented to give up on.
This shit matters because the Mets, Cubs, and Pirates are all loaded with young talent, the Dodgers basically print money, and the Cardinals and Giants are only two of the best run franchises in all of Major League Baseball who between them have won four world series in the last 10 years. If the Nats don't take steps to improve, their window may have already closed.
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