A Long-Term Concern With The Nationals’ Slow Start

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The time to worry about an underachieving team or to celebrate an overachieving team is August and September, not April and May. For teams like the Nationals that had great expectations coming into the season and have, up to now, been a disappointment with a 25-23 record due mostly to an offense that hasn’t produced, it’s not time to panic. Eventually they’re going to hit and be in playoff contention. But being in playoff contention isn’t the same as being in the playoffs or being guaranteed of being in the playoffs which is a luxury the Nationals had last season by mid-to-late August.

While the decision to shut Stephen Strasburg down in September and sit him out for the playoffs didn’t overtly cost the Nationals the NLDS against the Cardinals, its residue may stain the organization for years to come if they don’t come through and build on their progress and rapid ascent of 2012 by making an extended playoff run in the next few years. We’ll never know if the NLDS would have gone differently if Strasburg was pitching in the series, but the concept that the Nationals would “definitely” be back in that position on an annual basis with Strasburg and Bryce Harper leading the way ignores how circumstance and reality can sabotage even the most foolproof plans.

The Nationals’ struggles in 2013 should be an indicator that the run to the World Series with their young core isn’t fait accompli and the decision to shut Strasburg down could come back to haunt them within the next three years if they don’t make that playoff run and Strasburg leaves as a free agent after 2016. What they will have done is to save Strasburg’s bullets for the next team to use him rather than cower and give in to paranoia as a reason to “protect” him and not let him do what they paid him to do: pitch and help them win.

This is not about whether or not a few more innings would have resulted in cumulative damage that would injure Strasburg, nor is it about the medical studies and theories that predicated the shutdown. It’s about succeeding in achieving the ultimate object of playing in the first place: winning. Considering who Strasburg’s agent is and that the puppet strings in his usage dictates have been pulled by Scott Boras from the start with Strasburg a willing accomplice and the Nationals a witting (or unwitting) collaborator, do the Nationals think they’re going to get a discount when Strasburg’s free agency approaches?

Along with having two once-in-a-generation talents available as the number one pick in the draft and having the backwards good fortune of being so terrible that they were the first team picking for two straight years also comes with the caveat that, by today’s standards, they’re going to have to pay those players contracts of $200+ million for Harper and $180+ million for Strasburg. Boras represents Harper as well and the Nationals may not be able to keep both. Considering that it’s Boras, they’re less likely to take a long-term, team-friendly deal to sign. Boras doesn’t do that unless the player tells him to as Jered Weaver did and it was presumably over the heavy objections of the agent.

Let’s look at a worst case scenario independent of Strasburg getting hurt. What if the Nationals never return to the position they were in last season with this group and it gets to 2016 with Strasburg fully evolved and the best pitcher in baseball with Cy Young Awards, dominance and pending free agency? Then he leaves. Will the decision to shut him down in 2012 have been worth it? For Strasburg, Boras and the team that signs him (Yankees? Red Sox? Dodgers? Angels?) it will have been. For the Nationals, not at all.

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6 thoughts on “A Long-Term Concern With The Nationals’ Slow Start

  1. One thing people tend to forget about with the Nationals is that they have one of the very richest ownership groups in baseball. They COULD easily afford to hang on to both Strasburg and Harper. The question is whether they will have the will. If old man Lerner, who desperately wants to see a World Series trophy before he dies is still kicking in a few years, I suspect both players will be wearing the Curly W for a long time to come.

    1. Lerner can absolutely pay them, but he’s kept the pursestrings within a reasonable number. They might sign them preemptively, but you have to remember who the agent is. Boras might use the two players as fulcrums to get one another paid by someone. And he doesn’t care who pays them. I don’t think Strasburg has any deep affinity nor attachment to Washington. He’s from the West Coast. If he had a choice, I’m sure he’d prefer to play in the warm weather year-round. If I had to choose between the two, it’s a no-brainer. Keep Harper. Let Strasburg walk.

  2. Neither one of them is even arb-eligible yet. I think Stras is next year, Harper two years after that. But Strasburg has pitched quite well except for a couple of bad starts, and he just hasn’t had the run support. So his arbitration case is going to be veeeerrry interesting, assuming he finishes the year the way he’s started it, and Boras probably will want to go to arb with him unless they make him an offer he can’t refuse. It could be a preview of what’s to come with the Mets and Harvey in 2016.

    1. I don’t see Strasburg taking a long-term deal to preclude his free agency nor do I see the Nats paying him enough to make it worth his and Boras’s while. He’s pitched well and the Nats should try to lock him up, but it takes two to tango and I don’t know if Boras is going to let Strasburg take a deal that’s going to hurt him maximizing his income for the long-term. Maybe something with opt-outs could happen to buy out the arbitration years and give him his free agency the first year he’s due, but no way he’ll forego free agency unless it’s for a Verlander contract.

  3. Thomas Boswell touched on a topic that I also talked about earlier this year; the Nats schedule thus far has been filled with 2012 playoff teams.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/nationals/washington-nationals-schedule-is-getting-easier-giving-reason-for-hope/2013/05/24/a58d92fe-c3f2-11e2-914f-a7aba60512a7_story.html

    However, in June and July they go 8 straight weeks without playing one single 2012 playoff team.

    http://www.nationalsarmrace.com/?p=6561

    The Strasburg shutdown is an old topic. People long have stated their opinions. For me, Boras had nothing to do with it, it was a decision made by Rizzo with the medical staff. People seem to forget that small fact; the doctor who operated on Strasburg recommended the innings limit and controlled come back. The team did the same thing with Zimmermann the year before with no fan fare, and teams routinely shut down young pitchers in September for the same reasons (see Samardzija last year). The over-reporting on the topic was unfortunate and in a lot of cases unwarranted. When you have your closer on the mound with a 2 run lead in game 5 and he blows it, it is really hard to blame a missing starter for the series loss (even more so considering that Strasburg’s replacement in the rotation Detwiler gave the Nats their best start in the playoffs last year). At least some national pundits actually recognize this and see the forest for the trees.

    I don’t see any reason why players won’t continue to sign here, especially Boras clients. Rizzo has a great relationship with Boras, continues to sign Boras players who don’t seem to have good alternatives (see Soriano last year) and clearly Washington is now a destination site for FAs. As long as the team stays competitive and is a playoff destination and is willing to pay for players, guys will want to come here.

    Nats struggles this year are easy to see. Some under-performing hitters (Espinosa, the entire bench), several under-performing relievers (Storen, Duke), some defensive struggles (Zimmerman’s scatter arm) and some injury issues (Ramos, Werth, Zimmerman, now Mattheus, and Harper’s post-wall crash splits are pretty distinct). Strasburg’s run support has been abhorrent; he’s not a 2-5 pitcher. He leads the league in ERA during losses, a pretty telling stat.

    But, all is not lost. Its May, they were a game out before the Braves recent winning streak coupled with the Nats running into several bigtime arms in their West Coast trip (there’s no shame in losing to Kershaw, Greinke or Cain). But if they don’t blow it out in June and July (i’m hoping for 20-8 months or something like it) then yeah i’ll concede that something is really amiss.

    1. The scheduling issue isn’t irrelevant, but a team like the Nats who many (including me) had winning 100 games shouldn’t be playing .500 ball on Memorial Day. They’re 3-6 against the Dodgers, Cubs and Mets. A team as loaded as the Nats should not be losing 6 of 9 against those teams.
      You’re kidding yourself if you think Boras wasn’t involved in the Strasburg shutdown. You keep bringing up Zimmerman, but there’s a major difference between the two: with Zimmerman, the Nats were not a playoff contender and with Strasburg they were. With There were other methods they could have used—a brief mid-season shutdown, inserting extra days of rest, going to a 6-man rotation for 3-4 turns—that would have allowed them to use Strasburg for the whole season including the post-season which might have been extended had he been pitching. I mentioned that his absence didn’t overtly cause the playoff loss and we don’t know what would’ve happened had he been pitching—he might’ve gotten shelled—but you shut down your best starter and lose, it’s going to be second guessed and rightly so.
      Whether Boras has a good relationship with Rizzo won’t influence business. Boras has his “go-to” people to get his players paid when they don’t appear to have a landing spot, but with someone like Strasburg he won’t be hurting for a market and isn’t going to let personal feelings interfere with getting his player paid.
      I think the Nats are too good to play like this the whole season and will be contending at the end. The point is that they had their opening last season and should’ve gone all-in to get the title. That required fielding the best team by using Strasburg in the playoffs and they didn’t do it.

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