Sunday, April 22, 2018

It Was Not Dusty's Fault

In recent years, no baseball team has won more preseason World Series titles than the Washington Nationals. Like clockwork, experts and prognosticators gush over the team’s talent and promise that this is the year they will get over the hump and bring the nation’s capital its first World Series title in almost 100 years. The expectations are understandable. Since 2012, the Nats have won four NL East titles and more regular season games than any other team except the Dodgers. Their pitching staff is anchored by Max Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young award winner and their number two, Stephen Strasburg, is becoming a threat to pick up his first. The everyday lineup stars Bryce Harper, the 2015 league MVP and other young stars like Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner. 

Of course, the team’s futility in the playoffs is well-documented. For all their regular season success, the Nats have been ushered out in what feels like successively more excruciating ways each October. The most recent failure cost the team’s manager, Dusty Baker, his job, even though he had piloted the team to division titles in both his years at the helm and 95 and 97 wins, respectively. Exit Dusty, enter Dave Martinez, the Cubs former bench coach who was expected to bring some of that Joe Maddon magic from the Windy City.

But in another year of World Series hopes, the Nats are sinking, and sinking fast. The team got off to a strong start by sweeping a three-game series in Cincinnati, but that has turned out to be fool’s gold. Not only are the Reds by far the worst team in the league, but since then, the Nats are 7-11. They are in fourth place in the division, four-and-a-half games behind the Mets. And here’s the thing, commentators can talk about slow starts and unusually cold weather, but for the Nats to get to 90 wins this year, they will need to go 80-61 (.567), to get to 95 wins, their mark in 2016, they will need to go 85-56 (.602) and to get to 97 wins, they will need to win 87 of their last 141 games, a .617 clip. In other words, a team playing .500 ball will have to play better baseball than division winning teams did over the entire season. 

Granted, the Mets and Phillies, the early division leaders, will come back to the pack. The Mets are relying on pitching that has not held up in recent years and the Phillies are a (mostly) young team that as recently as last year, was the league’s worst. But the Nats cannot count on other teams’ failures and the squad this year does not inspire much hope. Ryan Zimmerman, last year’s comeback player of the year, is back to his pre-2017 production, which is to say, very little. Adam Eaton, who the Nats gave up their three top pitching prospects for, missed most of last season with a knee injury, and after playing a handful of games this year, is again injured. While Harper is playing well, he’s getting little help from the rest of the squad, and the one bat the team desperately needs, Daniel Murphy, is still two weeks from returning. The pitching has been mediocre, the bullpen shaky (shocker), and yet, Martinez seems to be avoiding blame while offering precious little in terms of solutions. 

This state of affairs is depressing for a Nats fan. Everyone understands this may be Harper’s last year with the team and management was handed a surprise gift when last off season’s free agent class lingered far longer and many players signed for far less than expected. The Lerners are the richest owners in the sport and can be profligate spenders when they want to be, but they could not pony up $75 million over three years for Jake Arrietta? They did not think that a better back-up plan at first base than Matt Adams made sense? 

With Harper and Murphy a year away from free agency and Rendon a year behind then, why the Lerners did not go all in, especially when so many free agents were in the bargain bin, is beyond me. And what message does it send to Harper, Murphy, and Rendon that you are not willing to spend when the championship window is open? I know there is “a lot of baseball” left to be played, but we have also seen this movie before. In both 2013 and 2015, coming off dominating regular seasons that ended in playoff heartbreak, the team fell flat, missing the playoffs and finishing just above .500. It may be too early to say that will happen again, but the early returns do not look promising. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

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