Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 23, 2018

The Nats Throw In The Towel

Oh for the halcyon days of Spring Training, those long-ago weeks of February and March when all the games of the longest season still lay ahead, and each dawn was bright with hope and possibility. Back then the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals shared space at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, and it was easy for fans to imagine them occupying the same stage again come October, as opponents in the World Series.

Over the months since the first call of “play ball” in a game that mattered, the Astros have largely delivered on that springtime hope. As this is written Houston’s record is the third best in the Great Game. If the Astros spot in the postseason is not yet assured, it is only because their lead in the AL West is just one game over upstart Oakland, and neither the Astros nor the A’s has shaken entirely free of Seattle in the annual race for the consolation prize of baseball’s standings, the second Wild Card. Still, computer projections by Fangraphs give the defending World Series champions a 99.7% chance of returning to the postseason.

Fans in our nation’s capital can only gaze wistfully at that number, for those same projections rank the Nationals ninth in the National League, with just a 12.5% chance of making the playoffs. That number obviously represents long odds, but in context the picture is even bleaker. Colorado, the team in front of Washington in the projections, is given a 41.5% chance, a full twenty-nine points higher. In effect, the playoff forecast makes Washington the first team among the NL’s true also-rans, squads that with five weeks left to go in the regular season no longer have a realistic chance at playing on into October.

While taking into account roster composition and each team’s remaining opponents, the projections more than anything reflect the current standings, which clearly mark the Nationals as an underperforming, middling franchise. After losing the last of a three-game home set with the Phillies Thursday afternoon, Washington is 64-64, right at .500 with thirty-four games to play. The Nats are eight games behind Atlanta in the NL East, and six and one-half games behind the Brewers, with three teams in between them, in the race for the second Wild Card. Since the introduction of that second Wild Card in 2012, the fewest number of wins needed to reach the postseason for a National League team has been eighty-seven. Washington can get to that total only by posting victories in better than two-thirds of its remaining contests, a very tall order for a team that has spent much of the season a game or two on either side of .500.

Back in early July, when the non-waiver trading deadline could be glimpsed over the horizon, fans first expected general manager Mike Rizzo to be a buyer, hopefully shoring up an often ineffective bullpen or adding a bat to fill in a lineup weakened by injuries. But then his team lost thirteen of twenty going into the All-Star break, and did little better after the festivities at Nationals Park. The conventional wisdom flipped, and pundits added Washington to the list of teams that would sell veterans and dump salary at the deadline. Instead Rizzo did neither, choosing to stand pat and rely on a roster that finished July at 53-53.

Eleven wins and eleven losses later, Rizzo’s gamble that his existing group of players would somehow turn the season around has been exposed as a foolhardy roll of the dice. It came as no surprise then, when earlier this week Washington’s management gave up on the 2018 season by trading slugging second baseman Daniel Murphy to the Cubs and first baseman Matt Adams to the Cardinals. The moves, which may be just the start of a fire sale of veterans, were accompanied by release of a letter to Nats fans from managing principal owner Mark Lerner. In it, he told the team’s faithful, “when something isn’t working, you evaluate the situation and take the necessary steps to improve it. You don’t just stand by, cross your fingers, and hope for the best.” There was nothing to indicate that Lerner grasped the irony of his statement, since that’s exactly what his front office had done just three weeks earlier.

Lerner also heaped praise on the two departing players, especially Murphy, who quickly became a fan favorite in Washington after signing as a free agent at the end of the 2015 season. While wearing the curly-W Murphy won a pair of Silver Slugger Awards and was twice an All-Star. He missed much of this season with injuries but was batting an even .300 since his return and .340 over the past month. Overall during his time in Washington Murphy hit .329 with an OPS of .930.

While the owner denied that the Nationals had slipped into rebuilding mode, that is certainly what it looks like. Rumors abound that other veterans in the final year of their contracts are also on the block. Pitcher Gio Gonzalez, first baseman Mark Reynolds, and relievers Kelvin Herrera and Ryan Madson have all been mentioned as possible trade candidates. But by waiting until now Rizzo’s flexibility is limited. In July he could negotiate with every other team and play one contender off against another. Now players must first be placed on revocable waivers. If another team claims a player, the only option is to let him go for free, work out a trade, or pull the player off waivers and retain him. Only if all twenty-nine other franchises pass and the player clears waivers does a deal with any club become a possibility.  That’s why the return to the Nationals for Murphy and Adams was so paltry; just a low-level minor leaguer and cash.

General managers are free to game the system, putting in a claim to block another contender from obtaining a player, or to frustrate a division rival. That’s likely what Atlanta just did by putting in a claim on Reynolds, forcing Washington to pull him off waivers. Rizzo would have had to leave town under cover of darkness if he let a player go to the team the Nationals are ostensibly still trying to catch in the NL East.

Back in those hopeful days in Palm Beach, this was going to be the year that Washington finally broke through. After four NL East titles in six seasons, but no playoff series victories, and with Bryce Harper just one final season away from free agency, this was the time for these Nationals to live up to their potential. But new manager Dave Martinez has never imposed his will on the clubhouse, which at times has been rife with drama. Injuries have piled up, with the Nationals ranking fifth in the majors in games lost to the disabled list. Through it all the team has simply underperformed. Based on run differential Washington has the second biggest deficit in the National League between their actual and expected record.

The full meaning of this week’s decision by Lerner and Rizzo won’t be clear until after the season is over and some other city has held a championship parade. That’s when the Nationals will either sign Harper to a long-term contract or watch the face of the franchise depart. If it’s the former, and Stephen Strasburg can stay healthy for a full season and youngsters like Trea Turner and Juan Soto continue to progress, then perhaps fans will look back on this surrender as a bump in the road. But if it’s the latter, then for fans of the Washington Nationals this week will forever mark the end of an era.

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