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.
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.