Sunday, February 28, 2016

Previewing the 2016 Washington Nationals

As a born-and-bred Washingtonian, I have often remarked that the Redskins are like a first marriage that ends in divorce and the Nationals are a happy, second marriage. The former is wrapped up in a lot of conflicting emotions while the latter offers a purer, but mellower affection.

This has been true whether Livo was tossing out the first pitch at RFK in 2005 or the franchise was circling the drain in 2009 and 2010. Who cared? If you grew up without a baseball team, just being able to wear the “Curly W” cap with live human beings hitting and fielding at RFK was enough. By 2012, a new stadium had been broken in and a swarm of young talent resulted in a 98-win season and a National League East pennant. But is it possible that the franchise’s high water mark was reached over two nights in October of that year when Jayson Werth hit a walk-off home run to win Game 4 of the National League Divisional Series with the St. Louis Cardinals and the team ran out to a quick 6-0 lead at the end of the 3rd inning of Game 5 before melting down spectacularly in the top of the 9th inning?

At the time, losing to the Cardinals was brutal but did not seem history-changing. After all, the Nats went into 2013 with the same stacked line-up and their deep reserve of young talent appeared to have a several-year “window” of opportunity ahead of it. But even as the team has accumulated the fourth-most regular season wins in all of baseball over the past four seasons, success has been elusive. The 2013 team had major injuries and failed to make the playoffs. The 2014 team bounced back with 96 wins but lost a heartbreaking 18-inning playoff game to the San Francisco Giants (a questionable decision by then-skipper Matt Williams to pull Jordan Zimmermann in the top of the 9th will be endlessly debated) before being ousted in four games, and the 2015 squad was overtaken by the upstart Mets and their arsenal of flamethrowing young arms.

Entering the 2016 season, the Nats are at best a second-tier contender and a number of personnel decisions have eroded my once blissful feeling about the team. It was easy to root for the Nats when they sucked and it was exciting to watch the team blossom as young, homegrown talent like Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Ryan Zimmerman, Drew Storen, and Danny Espinosa blended with strategic pick-ups like Wilson Ramos and Gio Gonzalez and hotshot draft picks like Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper to become a contender.

But the Nats got too cute by half and began toying with clubhouse chemistry and fan loyalty, making splashy signings (Rafael Soriano, 2 years, $28 million, Max Scherzer, 7 years, $210 million) and questionable trades (hi, Jonathan Papelbon!) while seeming not to value the importance of taking care of their own or investing in less costly, but important middle relievers and bench players. The huge contract handed to Scherzer could have been used to resign Zimmermann AND Desmond (and have some money to spare) and Papelbon literally strangled Bryce Harper in the clubhouse. Oddly, while Papelbon was not released, the shrapnel hit poor Drew Storen, who got dealt in the offseason after twice being demoted from his closer’s spot even though he had notched more than 40 saves in 2011 and was on pace for at least 40 in 2015 before the inexplicable acquisition of Papelbon at the trade deadline. That move only happened because the team had a lights out (and beloved fan favorite) setup man in Tyler Clippard, but dealt him before the 2015 season because they did not want to pay him $8 million (we’re on the hook for $11 million with Papelbon this season.)

This offseason, instead of resigning Zimmermann (who took a relatively modest $110 million from the Tigers), the Nats tried to throw money around wildly, at Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, Yeonis Cespedes and anyone else (hi, Daniel Murphy!) who would take it. It is all of a piece with the seeming schizophrenic nature of team management. On the one hand, they will hand out a nine-figure contract to a free agent like Scherzer but refuse to eat the modest cost of releasing a clubhouse cancer like Papelbon or reward a team-drafted and cultivated pitcher like Zimmermann. While we may not miss shorter term pick-ups like Denard Span or Doug Fister, they too had ingratiated themselves with the fan base and those losses, coupled with the departures of Zimmermann and Desmond, will result in a much different team taking the field in April.

And the changes are not over. Looming at the end of this season are the potential departures of Stephen Strasburg and Wilson Ramos and two seasons later, reigning MVP Bryce Harper. Missing is the definition of the “Nationals Way.” Is it to cultivate a strong farm system that consistently stocks the team with young talent and is enhanced by strategic free agent signings and trades or is it a team that will dump that home grown talent when it gets too expensive while at the same time handing out enormous contracts to players with no ties to the organization whose contracts will weigh down the team’s future flexibility? 

Lastly, what message is the team sending when it fires a skipper a year removed from winning Manager of the Year but will keep a player who physically assaulted the team’s best player in the dugout?  The Nationals are now on their third manager in four seasons, reduced a lights-out starting pitching rotation into a mediocrity, and has been left scrambling to fill middle relief and infield positions that were either neglected or the team opted against resolving for years. Meanwhile, the Cubs are the new Nats, stockpiled top to bottom with young talent, the Mets have a starting rotation for the ages, and the Giants and Cardinals loom as perennial contenders because of enormously effective general and field management.

Perhaps this would matter less if the team had not tasted success or if the players we have bonded with were not so unceremoniously dumped. But the truth is the Nats are not nearly as likable as they once were and have become both underachieving and unwise in their decision making. I am not quite ready for another DC-sports team divorce, but then again, second marriages dissolve at even greater rates than first ones do. Stay tuned.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

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