The two foundational mistakes that really sabotaged the Nationals

MLB

Nats fight

If the Washington Nationals had a history of banding together and overcoming adversity, then perhaps 2019 could be salvaged. Instead, it is another season – their eighth in a row – in which they have had arguably the most cumulative talent in baseball and are well on the way to underachievement and disappointment. Even in the years in which they fulfilled that talent in the regular season with a win total in the mid-to-high 90s, they flamed out in the playoffs, often in spectacular fashion and via self-immolation.

The failures have not been without reason. Certain deficiencies, strategic mistakes and individual underperformance are obvious. However, there is no excuse for a team with the Nationals’ talent to have had half of those eight seasons go beyond not meeting reasonably lofty expectations and devolving into dysfunction, self-interest, apathy and finally in 2019, disaster.

The question is why. Despite points and justifications that can explain away what happened not just in the four seasons in which they won the National League East and lost in the National League Division Series every time, nor in the seasons in which they faltered and inexplicably missed the playoffs entirely, there were inherent, foundational and systemic flaws that largely contributed to the machine malfunctioning; the puzzle pieces failing to click.

Let’s look at the two main issues. One cannot be fixed without a time machine; the other is unlikely to be repaired in time to win with this still-impressive core.

Me before we

No, it’s not a parody of a sickeningly sweet love story from Nicholas Sparks, nor is it an unearthed Ayn Rand treatise to be released posthumously.

The Stephen Strasburg shutdown is repeatedly referenced as a mistake, but few truly comprehend how that one decision to place an individual’s needs above the team needs fomented cracks in the foundation that eventually expanded to cause the current collapse.

A move designed to protect an asset and acquiesce to an agent’s demands, it also served as an omen. It signaled to the players that the individual’s needs would supersede the team’s needs. It also exemplified a caste system where one set of rules apply for the higher-end talent and the Scott Boras clients, and another set of rules were in place for the lower-level players whose needs were secondary in the team concept.

To some degree, all players are out for themselves. This is not an exercise in altruism. They’re not playing for free and they want to be taken care of contractually. However, there are times when the team must be considered in the context of why they’re playing and competing in the first place: to win.

Strasburg deserves a share of the blame for being so willing a participant in the ludicrous shutdown to “protect” his arm. Boras was doing what an agent does by shielding his client and maximizing his income potentiality. The real guilty party is the Nationals. They allowed it; they took part in it; they did not take steps to mitigate how it would impact the team by giving the pitcher extra days off when they were aware that they were likely to make the postseason.

Ignoring that it did not work in any way apart from getting Strasburg the contract he and Boras wanted, that moment served as a portent of the Nationals’ future whether they realized it then or accept it now.

How do you take a once-in-a-generation arm and sit him out at the most important time of the year that makes or breaks a player and can place him into the pantheon of sports history as it has with Madison Bumgarner under the arrogant pretense that they expected their young foundation to give them one opportunity after another to accomplish what every team sets out to do at the start of a season?

Even if it succeeded in its goal of protecting Strasburg from injury, it was still a mistake not because they lost, but because it sent a signal that it was okay for players to look out for personal interests in lieu of team interests.

Again, this is known, but not said. Once it’s said, there’s no forcing that genie back in the bottle and it has directly contributed to the Nationals’ current plight.

Managerial merry-go-round

The Nationals have been hypocritical and cheap with their managers. Adhering to the trend of a manager following orders and taking short money for the opportunity, they have alternated proven managers with neophytes; gotten “name” managers with a history of success and found front office conduits who do as they’re told or else.

The club’s ownership, the Lerner family, has a net worth of nearly $5 billion. They have never shied away from spending money on players. That said, they have been remarkably hardheaded and cheap with their managers.

Jim Riggleman quit when he wanted his contract option exercised after he oversaw the rebuild that allowed them to draft Strasburg and Bryce Harper first overall in consecutive years and had them in position to draft Anthony Rendon and accumulate the assets to trade for Gio Gonzalez and others.

Davey Johnson has a legitimate Hall of Fame case as a manager, but saw his influence mitigated, especially on the subject of Strasburg, and was then unceremoniously dumped when the 2013 team that was expected to piggyback on their 98-win 2012 campaign in which the shutdown took place by taking the “next step” did not do so. It was then they learned that maybe the “next step” doesn’t automatically come like they’re next in line for the throne.

Next came Matt Williams who was familiar to general manager Mike Rizzo from the time they spent together when Rizzo was the scouting director of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Williams was one of their veteran linchpins. As a manager, Williams was overmatched in every conceivable way and after a series of public and private player battles, the most notably being Jonathan Papelbon choking Harper in the dugout, he was dismissed.

Dusty Baker was hired out of desperation to have a veteran manager who could corral the clubhouse. With no other opportunities as a perceived “dinosaur,” Baker took less money than a manager with his resume would normally demand, won back-to-back division titles losing two tough Game 5s in the NLDS and, after negotiating with Rizzo and both expecting to get a new deal done, he was discarded in favor of Dave Martinez ostensibly because the Nationals did not want to pay Baker who had no intention of taking a low-level contract after he cleaned up the inherited mess and won 192 games in two years.

Martinez was a tough, old-school player and served as Joe Maddon’s right-hand man with the Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago Cubs. Like Williams, he certainly had an impressive resume, was willing to do the job cheaply for the chance, and would adhere to organizational edicts without complaint. In practice, his tenure has been poor and speculation has centered around whether he will be dismissed. He might be. But to imply that this situation is solely his fault is granting an undeserved pass to the front office, specifically Rizzo and the Lerners. He didn’t build that bullpen and expect Trevor Rosenthal to rebound at full strength from Tommy John surgery or for journeymen Matt Grace, Wander Suero, Dan Jennings and Joe Ross to vault over their extra guy status and be key factors. He didn’t sign Jeremy Hellickson and Anibal Sanchez expecting them to man the four and five spots in the starting rotation.

They can fire him if they want, but if they do an about-face and, out of the same desperation with which they hired Baker and they’re willing to pay Joe Girardi or even bring Baker back, could they do better than Martinez given the lack of personnel at the manager’s disposal? If they just hire another puppet (or to use the trendy baseball-synonym for puppet, someone who is “collaborative”), what’s the difference?

***

The Nationals are a team with a pockmarked history of selfishness, categorical cheapness, arrogance and basic stupidity. They’ve managed to turn a team that could have and should have been a modern dynasty along the lines of the San Francisco Giants of 2010 to 2014 and won several championships into a forgettable cast of what might have been. Worse, it could all have been avoided had they the fortitude to acknowledge those mistakes and commit to not making them again. Instead, they have stuck to the script with a familiar result. By now, it should be expected. Even to them.

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The Nationals firing Lilliquist doesn’t fix their fundamental problem

MLB

Lilliquist pic

The Washington Nationals firing of pitching coach Derek Lilliquist will elicit analysis, qualifications and questions. Most will point to the Nationals’ other flaws and wonder why the pitching coach is the fall guy just before going into a detailed examination as to why the pitching coach should be the fall guy based on their own philosophical bent.

Regardless, there are several justifications to fire a pitching coach, most of which outsiders – including the media and people from other organizations – cannot possibly know if they are valid in this case. In the end, general manager Mike Rizzo has every right to make a change at any level in his organization. If, as he said when the announcement was made, there were flaws and preparation issues and he wanted to bring a new message to the pitchers, then fine.

However, it’s rarely that simple in any case and particularly complicated with the Nationals.

With the hiring of minor-league pitching coordinator Paul Menhart to replace Lilliquist, the easy answer is to have someone more in line with what the front office wants. It’s difficult to understand what the preparation issues were given that the entire pitching staff is comprised of veterans who have their own routines and know their jobs. Their starting pitching has generally been good. The bullpen hasn’t, but that points to decisions Lilliquist did not make. Mistakes and misuse of the pitching staff fall on manager Dave Martinez, and Martinez is going from inexperienced in 2018 to overmatched in 2019 with the same on-field mediocrity. Are they going to point to Trevor Rosenthal as a reason to fire Lilliquist? By that logic, Rizzo needs to go as well.

What’s often missed in today’s world where large factions of baseball observers and analysts function under the impression that an organization is tantamount to any company where there are executives, managers, supervisors and midlevel workers with duties clear and orders adhered to via clearly delineated lines is that it’s not like that in sports. The players pick and choose what they’ll listen to and if they tacitly decide to tune out a manager, a pitching coach or hitting coach, it’s not the players who will go.

To compound that reality, the Nationals are not a young team where the pitchers have little choice but to listen to the pitching coach and follow organizational edicts. What is Lilliquist, Menhart or anyone else past or present going to say to Max Scherzer if Scherzer doesn’t agree or doesn’t want to hear their recommendations? They’re all veterans. They do what they want.

If it’s a change for its own sake, that’s a reason to do it. To think that it will solve what ails the Nationals – and has ailed the Nationals for eight years – is farcical.

There is a new practice of hiring pure outsiders with new theories, deep analytics, recommendations specifically tailored to the individual rather than an overriding philosophy for all. It might be a trend or it might be the new template. Pitching coaches who pitched in the majors or at least in the minors could go the way of the former player advancing to GM. It doesn’t happen anymore. Whether the change is more about controlling the message than it is about what works and what doesn’t is irrelevant. This is how it is.

Often, a pitching coach’s role is to stand there looking contemplative, go to the mound and say some stuff to the struggling pitcher or to give him a breather, and to try to put organizational edicts into action. Like the puppet managers who proliferate baseball today, many old-school pitching coaches with a track record do not want to stay within those increasingly constraining lines.

Had Lilliquist been an aide-de-camp of Martinez, this could be viewed as a clear shot at the manager telling him that he’s next if the team doesn’t turn around in the next month, but the days of the manager-pitching coach being Siamese twins a la Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan are over. The front office hires the pitching coach and the manager has limited – if any – say about it. There’s a good chance that Martinez was informed after the decision was made and nothing he said or did would change it.

This is a continuing issue with the Nationals. Since 2012, they have had the most talent in baseball. They spend money like a big market club, make savvy acquisitions and develop young players. But they have yet to advance beyond the Division Series in the years they made the playoffs and have had several seasons in which they were preseason favorites and disappointed terribly as also-rans.

Harping on the Stephen Strasburg shutdown in 2012 might seem passé, but it is a flashpoint as to what has ailed this organization and robbed them of at least two championships they should have won led by Strasburg and Bryce Harper. With Harper gone and a young core led by Juan Soto, Victor Robles and Trea Turner, they should be preparing for the next run. Instead, they’re firing the pitching coach in a largely inconsequential maneuver to serve as a distraction for what truly ails them: a fissure in understanding the importance of the manager and a reluctance to pay that manager and give him at least some say in how the team is handled.

They’re fortunate in one respect: the entire National League East is a wrestling match of flaws and mediocrity. This has allowed them to remain relatively close to the top of the division despite their 13-17 start.

Even if they manage to float to the top in this battle of attrition and make the postseason, what reason is there to believe that 2019 will be any different from the other seasons in which they made the playoffs and were bounced in the first round? It does not necessarily need to be another 82-win season to be categorized as a(nother) failure.

Barring a fundamental change in how they treat their on-field staff, what’s the difference who the manager or pitching coach is? They’re not hiring Joe Girardi to manage the team because he’d want to be paid and would want some influence in running the team. Ownership doesn’t want the former and the baseball ops doesn’t want the latter. Firing the pitching coach is cosmetic and does nothing to repair what ails this team and has ailed them for nearly a decade.