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.

Mattitude?

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The Nationals are reportedly going to name Matt Williams as their next manager. This comes as no surprise since Williams has long been rumored for the job due to his relationship with Nats GM Mike Rizzo from their days together with the Diamondbacks when Williams was a player and Rizzo was their Director of Scouting. Let’s look at what the Nats can expect from Williams.

Running the games

In 2007, Williams managed very briefly for the Diamondbacks organization in Double A. He managed in the Arizona Fall League last year. He’s been a coach in the Major Leagues with the club for four years. As much as experience is routinely ignored in the hiring of managers today, it matters.

Williams doesn’t have much managerial experience. For a team like the Nats, a concern for an inexperienced manager will be handling the pitching staff and making pitching changes – something Williams has never done and initially might not be adept at. He’ll need an experienced bench coach and pitching coach who he’ll trust and listen to and not men who are selected for the oft-mentioned “loyalty to the organization.” Those guys are generally there and will be there whether the manager succeeds or not creating the potential for mistrust.

It hasn’t been decided whether pitching coach Steve McCatty will return and Randy Knorr, who was passed over for the managing job, was the bench coach for Davey Johnson over the last two seasons. One would assume that both will stay.

The relationship with Rizzo

Rizzo has had high-profile dustups with the two managers he hired as Nats GM, Jim Riggleman and Johnson. Riggleman quit after 55 games in 2011 when he wanted his contract option exercised and Rizzo refused. Johnson disagreed with the Stephen Strasburg shutdown, openly chafed at the overseeing he had to endure in today’s game and threatened to quit/dared Rizzo to fire him. Had Johnson not been retiring at season’s end, it’s likely that Rizzo would have done just that at mid-season and replaced him with Knorr.

If Williams is thinking that the prior relationship between the two will put him in a better position than Johnson, he’s mistaken. Rizzo is in charge and he lets the manager know it. Considering Williams’s quiet intensity as a player, a disagreement between the two could become a problem. He’s not going to simply nod his head and do what he’s told.

The team

Williams is walking into a great situation that probably won’t need much hands-on managing. With the Bob Brenly-managed teams that Williams played for with the Diamondbacks, there wasn’t much for Brenly to do other than write the lineup and let the players play. The veterans policed the clubhouse and Brenly was sort of along for the ride. The same holds true for the Nats. Apart from tweak here and there, the lineup is essentially set. The starting rotation and bullpen are also going to be relatively unchanged.

The one mistake Williams can’t make is to walk in and decide that he has to put his stamp on the team by doing “something” like deciding they’re going to rely more on speed and inside baseball. Writing the lineup will be more than enough. The decision to consciously keep his hands off what doesn’t need to be changed is a window into a manager’s confidence. While Brenly wasn’t a good manager, his style was similar to that of Barry Switzer when he took over the powerhouse Dallas Cowboys in the mid-1990s – he knew enough not to mess with it. It worked and the team won. Of course, no other team was going to hire either man to manage/coach for them, but that didn’t have a bearing on the job they were hired to do and they did it.

Williams is going to benefit greatly from the improved health of Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos; he’ll be free of any constraints with Strasburg; the team is loaded. All he needs to do is be the serious, stern competitor he was in his playing days and he’ll be fine. Saying it and doing it are two different things and with a brand new manager who’s never done it before, there are still a lot of traps he could fall into and won’t know how to get out of. That’s what he has to look out for. Apart from that, it’s a great opportunity…as long as he doesn’t screw it up.




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An All-Around Bad Year for Rizzo and the Nats

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Mike Rizzo said that the Nationals have a “run left in us.” There’s a precedent for teams coming out of nowhere in the final month of the season and making the playoffs. The Rays and Cardinals both did it in 2011 with the Cardinals winning the World Series after having trailed the Wild Card-leading Braves by 10 1/2 games on August 25 of that year. The Cardinals and Reds are currently the National League Wild Card leaders. The Cardinals have been ravaged by injuries; the Reds haven’t played consistently; and the NL Central leading Pirates are still young and collapsed in both 2011 and 2012. There’s some justification for Rizzo not to quit. Prior to yesterday’s game, the Nats claimed David DeJesus from the Cubs. It was seen as a signal that they’re still trying to add to win now and perhaps have a player in DeJesus they can use in 2014.

The assertion that the Nats are still “in it” would likely have been better-received had the team not gone and immediately responded to the GM’s confidence and gotten hammered by the Cubs 11-1. The DeJesus acquisition wouldn’t have looked like Rizzo and his staff are a bunch of screw-ups if there was a hint that they truly wanted DeJesus and it wasn’t a waiver claim mistake that they tacitly admitted by placing DeJesus back on waivers immediately after getting him. And the team might have had a better shot in 2013 if they had played like a cohesive unit with a definition of purpose from the first day of the season rather than an arrogant, self-important group that believed winning a division title in 2012 automatically meant they were going to be a playoff team every single year based on talent alone.

Rizzo isn’t going anywhere, but manager Davey Johnson won’t be back in 2014. This was meant to be his final year in the dugout with the hope that it would be a logical step in the innocent climb from first round playoff loser to World Series winner with Johnson’s experience being a key. Instead, Johnson’s warts—his riverboat gambler’s mentality; the trust in his players; open insubordination—reared their heads. Barring a late-August hot streak, Rizzo might relive him of his duties for the final month in a similar fashion as the Phillies did with Charlie Manuel. The Phillies wanted to have a look at Ryne Sandberg. The Nats might want to do the same with Randy Knorr.

The Nats are dysfunctional mess. The Stephen Strasburg shutdown from September of 2012 is being used to symbolize the organizational hubris and it’s a perfect example of why nothing can be taken for granted.  In 2013, they don’t have to worry about any innings limits or shutting anyone down because the rest of baseball is doing the job for them by sending the Nats home, far from where they thought they’d be and currently having more questions than answers as to where they go from here.




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We Know What’s Wrong With The Nats, But How Can It Be Fixed?

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The Nationals were expected to dominate. Instead, the team that won 98 games in 2012 and seemingly improved over the winter is under .500, out of contention and facing a large number of changes this off-season. It’s not hard to diagnose what went wrong and here’s a brief synopsis:

  • Injuries

The Nationals lost Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos and Ross Detwiler for extended periods.

  • Underperformance

Dan Haren was signed to shore up the back of the rotation and has been awful. Drew Storen is out of his element as a set-up man and wound up back in the minors. Denard Span has been a disappointment. And Danny Espinosa’s numbers (.158/.193/.272 split with a .465 OPS and 3 homers) are worse than those of Cubs’ pitcher Travis Wood (.267/.298/.489 split with a .787 OPS and 3 homers).

  • Bad approach/bad luck

The Nats are seventh in the National League in home runs and next-to-last in the league in runs scored. They’re twelfth in the league in walks and fourteenth in on-base percentage. In 2013, they’re thirteenth in the league with a BAbip of .282; in 2012, they were fourth at .308.

  • Poor defense

The Nats’ catchers have caught 13 percent of the runners trying to steal on them. Anthony Rendon is a third baseman playing second. Ryan Zimmerman is in a defensive funk that’s gone of for the better part of two years.

  • Dysfunction

Manager Davey Johnson has openly clashed with general manager Mike Rizzo. Tyler Clippard ripped the organization for their demotion of his friend Storen. The players appear to have thought they’d have a cakewalk to the playoffs given the hype and star power.

In short, the Nats have gone from an embarrassment of riches to a plain embarrassment. With 2013 essentially over and 2012 long gone in the rearview mirror, what do the Nats have to do to get back to where they were supposed to be? What should they do?

With Rizzo having received a promotion and contract extension, it’s his baby. The luck/design argument is irrelevant. The Nationals happened to be the worst team in baseball two years in a row when once-a-generation talents were sitting there waiting to be picked first overall in Harper and Stephen Strasburg. That’s no one’s fault and to no one’s credit. It just is. Rizzo put a solid team together, but there’s been a semblance of overkill with the signings of Haren and Rafael Soriano. Haren’s performance in 2013 is indicative that his decline that began last season with the Angels was not an aberration. Soriano has pitched well, but he was not really a necessity for the Nats. He was available, they didn’t trust Storen and preferred Clippard as the set-up man. In retrospect, both were mistakes.

The question of who the manager will be going forward is vital. Johnson bears a large portion of the responsibility for this team’s underachievement. As great as his record is and as much as the media loves him for his personality and candor, Johnson’s style was a significant reason the 1980s Mets failed to live up to their talent level. He doesn’t care about defense, he trusts his players far too much in preaching aggressiveness, and the festering anger over the 2012 Strasburg shutdown—that I’m sure Johnson thinks cost his team a World Series—has manifested itself in open warfare between the manager and GM. If Johnson weren’t retiring at season’s end, Rizzo likely would’ve fired him a month ago along with hitting coach Rick Eckstein, or Johnson would simply have quit.

Johnson’s positives (he wins a lot of regular season games) don’t eliminate his negatives (he’s insubordinate and his teams are fundamentally weak). Thirty years ago, Johnson was seen as a computer geek manager. Nowadays, he’s considered a dinosaur. In reality, Johnson is and always has been a gambler and an arrogant one at that. His attitude is that the team he’s managing needs him more than he needs it. He doesn’t want people telling him what to do and he’s never taken well to front office meddling. The Strasburg shutdown and firing of his hitting coach are two instances in which Johnson would like to tell the front office to take a hike and let him run the team his way. Rizzo had problems with Johnson and his predecessor Jim Riggleman. With the next hire, he’d better get someone younger and on the same page. That doesn’t mean he should hire a yes man, but someone who he can work with sans this lingering tension and open disagreements.

With the personnel, a lesson can be learned from the Big Red Machine Reds from 1971. In 1970, GM Bob Howsam and manager Sparky Anderson had built a monster. The Reds won 102 games and lost the World Series to the Orioles. Widely expected to repeat as NL champs, they fell to 79-83 in 1971. With cold-blooded analysis, Howsam realized that the Reds were missing the elements of leadership, speed, intensity and defense, Howsam traded 39-homer man Lee May and starting second baseman Tommy Helms with Jimmy Stewart to the Astros for Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, Jack Billingham, Ed Armbrister and Denis Menke. The clubhouse was transformed and they were suddenly a faster team with Gold Glovers at second base and in center field. In fact, it was that decried move that spurred their run to greatness.

Rizzo needs to look at the team’s deficiencies in the same way that Howsam did and act decisively. If that means getting a defensively oriented catcher, trading Ian Desmond, Clippard and some other names that are supposedly part of the team’s “core,” then they have to explore it. If a team underachieves from what they were supposed to be, there’s nothing wrong with dropping a bomb in the clubhouse. In fact, it’s necessary in order to get back on track. With their youth and talent, the Nats can get back to where they were with the right managerial choice and a gutty trade or two.

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Early Season Underachievers: Washington Nationals

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Just a note: these “underachievers” are based on what the majority of the prognosticators thought prior to the season and not what I thought. For example, I had the Phillies at 79-83 in my book (which, for the record, is now available on I-Tunes). The majority of the predictions I saw had the Phillies as contenders. I had the Nationals winning 103 games.

For a team as loaded as the Nats to have a .500 record after almost 20% of the season is unexpected. Is it something to be overly concerned about though? The answer is no.

Both Adam LaRoche and Danny Espinosa are proven players who are batting under .200. That won’t continue. The starting pitching and bullpen are deep and diverse and as the season moves along, GM Mike Rizzo will find a lefty specialist somewhere—Wesley Wright, Mike Dunn—because several will eventually become available.

That’s not to say there’s not potential for things to go wrong. They’re leading the Major Leagues in errors and manager Davey Johnson made a typical Davey Johnson managerial move when the Nats were playing the Mets two weeks ago and it neatly summed him up for better or worse. With the Mets leading 2-0 in the top of the eighth inning Mets reliever Scott Rice gave up a single to Steve Lombardozzi, walked Denard Span, and went to 3-0 and Jayson Werth. Werth was given the green light, swung at a low, outside pitch and grounded into a 6-4-3 double play. The Mets won the game.

That’s Johnson. It’s always been Johnson. It always will be Johnson. With the Mets in the 1980s, the lack of discipline, overaggressiveness and arrogance in believing that the fundamentals would be unnecessary as long as they pitched and hit home runs cost them playoff spots multiple times to teams like the Cardinals who were schooled in playing the game properly. Whitey Herzog’s hardline treatment of his players was well-known and if they didn’t do what they were supposed to do when they were supposed to do it, they didn’t play.

Is it a problem for the Nats? Yes and no. One of the reasons he’s been so successful is that the players love him and know he’s going to put the game in their hands. There wouldn’t be a debate if Werth hit the ball out of the park. It’s not the strategy that was the issue, but the execution. Werth was overanxious and swung at a bad pitch and criticizing him or Johnson won’t matter because telling Johnson what he did was wrong is only going to accomplish one thing: he’s going to do it more just to prove how smart he is and how dumb his critics are.

The Nats are too talented and deep to play in so mediocre a fashion for much longer.

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The Phantom Link Between Strasburg and RG III

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The connection between what the Nationals did with Stephen Strasburg in shutting him down at a preplanned innings limit and what the Redskins did with Robert Griffin III only exists in the minds of those desperately searching for one.

It was again mentioned in today’s New York Times in this piece by Harvey Araton. To Araton’s credit, he references that an “a-ha moment” was a “surface comparison” with the unsaid inference that RG III and Strasburg were in no way connected except as a lukewarm defense to what Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo did in shutting Strasburg down and as an indictment for what Redskins’ coach Mike Shanahan didn’t do in leaving Griffin in the team’s playoff game against the Seahawks only to see Griffin severely injure his knee, possibly costing him the entire 2013 season and a portion of the running ability that made him so special.

The equating of Griffin and Strasburg is ludicrous. Because the Nats chose to end Strasburg’s season, the old-school types considered it heresy. Bolstered by the Nats’ loss in the NLDS to the Cardinals, the ill-informed and agenda-driven arguments suggest that had Strasburg been available, the Nats would have blown past the Cardinals and possibly gone on to win the World Series; that Rizzo’s overprotectiveness cost the Nationals that rare opportunity to win a championship—one that is not guaranteed in the future regardless of teamwide talent levels.

The truth is that the Nationals should have won the series against the Cardinals and only blew it because of a mistake they made during the season and it wasn’t shutting Strasburg down. The mistake they made was reinstalling Drew Storen as the closer as if he was a veteran along the lines of Mariano Rivera who deserved to return to his job by status after having missed the majority of the season with an elbow problem. Tyler Clippard had done an admirable job in the role and should have been left alone at least for the remainder of the season. Manager Davey Johnson, however, chose to be his iconoclastic self and hand the ninth inning back to Storen. Storen blew the fifth game of the NLDS after being within a strike of ending the game and the series three separate times with what began as a 2-run, ninth inning lead. Storen was not a veteran who had earned his stripes and had the right to walk off the disabled list and right back into the ninth inning, especially with a team that was streaking toward the playoffs. In fact, Storen didn’t regain the closer’s role until the playoffs, making the choice all the more questionable. (Notice I said “regain” and not “reclaim.” The job was just handed back to Storen based on nothing other than him having been the closer before.)

To make matters worse, this off-season the Nats decided that Storen wasn’t even going to be their closer for the next two and probably three years by signing Rafael Soriano to take the job. So what was the purpose of naming Storen closer for the playoffs if: A) he hadn’t re-earned the role; and B) he’s not their long-term solution?

The Strasburg shutdown was based on paranoia and out-of-context “guidelines” that gave Rizzo the impetus to do what he wanted to do all along: protect himself rather than protect his pitcher. Innings limits and pitch counts are tantamount to the architect of the parameters saying, “If he gets hurt, don’t blame me.” It’s selfishness, not protecting an investment.

Strasburg had already blown out his elbow once while functioning within the constraints of innings limits and pitch counts that went all the way back to his days under Tony Gwynn at San Diego State. The object of this style protectiveness is to keep the player healthy, but nothing is said when the player gets hurt anyway. Compounding matters, they continued down the road of self-interested and random limits based on whatever advice and statistics supported their decision.

If Strasburg gets hurt again, the shutdown will be seen as useless; if he stays healthy, it will be seen as the “why” when it had just as much chance of having nothing to do with it as it did in him needing Tommy John surgery in the first place.

As for the RG III-Strasburg link, no common bond exists other than that Shanahan made a mistake in leaving RG III in the game to get hurt and the Nats yanked Strasburg from the rotation in the interest of “saving” him.

In retrospect, as a guardian of his young, star-level quarterback, Shanahan should have taken RG III from the game, but he didn’t. That’s separate from what the Nats did with Strasburg because retrospect hasn’t come yet and if it does, there won’t be the aforementioned “a-ha” moment in either direction. Both players play for teams based in Washington; both are once-a-decade talents; and both had injuries. Apart from that, there’s nothing that places them in the same category except for those looking for a reason to justify or malign, and that’s not the basis for a viable argument.

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What To Watch For Over The Final Month—National League

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I discussed the American League and what to watch for over the final month on Thursday along with a warning for those seeing the Wild Card as an oasis in the desert. It’s not.

Now let’s take a look at the National League.

The Nationals shutdown of Stephen Strasburg

I’m planning a more in-depth discussion of this in an upcoming post, but Strasburg’s imminent shutdown has become the dominant story for a team that should be talking about the positive aspects of their rise to a legitimate championship contender instead of this Strasburg silliness.

I’m beginning to believe that they’re not going to shut him down and as an organization, they’re coming up with alternatives to: A) keep his innings limit within reason and use him in the playoffs; and B) create a story to sell to the media as to why they fudged on their prescribed innings limit.

A really isn’t all that difficult. Their lead in the division is secure enough that they can give him extra rest in September. B shouldn’t even be a factor, but since GM Mike Rizzo has been so stupidly forthright regarding his plans, it is a factor.

Don’t be shocked when Strasburg is standing on the mound and starting in game 2 of the NLDS.

Chipper Jones’s farewell tribute from the Mets

I gotta see this thing.

Jimmy Rollins’s behavior

He’s being selfish and setting a terrible example for the rest of the team with his lack of hustle, embarrassing for the supposed “heart and soul” and clubhouse leader. Manager Charlie Manuel’s benching of Rollins and Rollins’s subsequent apology isn’t worth much since he’s definitely going to do it again over the final month, probably multiple times.

Rollins is guaranteed $22 million for 2013-2014 and he has a vesting option for 2015 that he won’t reach based on the contract kickers of plate appearances (the Phillies won’t let him), but if the contract doesn’t vest, the club has an $8 million option that they won’t exercise and Rollins has a $5 million option that, at age 36 and with his performance declining and his reputation soiled, he very well might exercise to get one last paycheck. So the contract actually calls for him to make $27 million through 2015.

The “everything is hunky dory” tone of the Rollins apology story glosses over the facts that he’s declining as a player, is signed for several more years, and the Phillies on the whole are old, expensive and not good.

The Marlins attendance

They’re currently 12th in attendance which is a step up from finishing last every season, but in context with a beautiful, brand new park and a team that had spent money to try and win, one would think they’d have been better than 12th—a position they’ve held steady from the beginning of the season until now.

They’re in last place and traded away most of their stars. They’re not likable, nor are they fun to watch. Football season is starting next week. No one’s going to pay attention to the Marlins and no one’s going to go to the games.

I’m not sure where they, as an organization, go from here. The fans just don’t care.

Dusty Baker’s contract

It’s not right that Baker has the Reds steamrolling towards the playoffs, has done a fine job in handling the club from top-to-bottom, and is functioning without a new contract. One would assume that he’s safe, but he also led the Giants to the World Series in 2002 and was out of a job that winter in a contract-based dispute that turned ugly. I would say he’ll definitely be back, but in 2002 I would’ve said the same thing.

The Dodgers playoff push

With all the headline-blaring moves they made, their playoff spot is far from guaranteed. Now they may have lost closer Kenley Jansen for the season with a heart ailment. He’ll find out on Tuesday if he can pitch again this season. If they lose Jansen, they have two options: 1) use someone they already have on the roster like Brandon League; 2) trade for someone for the month of September to make the playoffs and use Jansen when he’s able to pitch again.

Considering the moves they’ve made this season, I’d say they’re going to lay the foundation to trade for someone who can do the job if League falters and Jansen’s out. GM Ned Colletti is probably making calls now to that end.

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Strasburg Ambiguity Mars The Nationals’ Magical Season

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How can anyone involved with the Nationals justify looking into Stephen Strasburg’s face and telling him that while the team is on its way to the playoffs and is a legitimate World Series contender that because of a random number of innings and the edicts of one person’s dictatorial, unchecked authority, he can’t be a part of it?

The number (supposedly 160 innings or thereabouts), so random and capricious with no ironclad guarantee that it’s going to help him stay healthy over the long-term, predicates that Strasburg should resist and use his power over the situation to escape it.

There are so many compelling stories with the Nationals that the looming shutdown of Strasburg is marring all they’ve accomplished and it’s coming down to the self-proclaimed final word, GM Mike Rizzo. Given the number of GMs who’ve been celebrated in recent years and either found themselves fired (Omar Minaya); on the hotseat (Jack Zduriencik, Dan O’Dowd); or seen their reputations shattered (Billy Beane), Rizzo might not even be there in 2015. Manager Davey Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty are going along to get along, but Johnson’s style in his prior stops and the atmosphere in which he spent his formative baseball years—the Earl Weaver Orioles of Jim Palmer throwing 300+ innings—do you really think Johnson, at age 69, wants to hold back on the once-in-a-lifetime arm of Strasburg when he might be writing his ticket to the Hall of Fame with another World Series win? A win that could hinge on Strasburg being allowed to pitch? Do you believe that McCatty, who saw his own career demolished by Billy Martin’s and Art Fowler’s abuse, doesn’t understand the limits of a pitcher and when he needs to have the brakes put on? It’s inexplicable to hire qualified people to do their jobs and not let them do them; to have experienced baseball people whose in-the-trenches understanding of the game are dismissed in the interests of self-protection and “I’m not gonna be the one that’s blamed if he gets hurt.”

That’s what Rizzo is doing. It’s got nothing to do with studies or protecting the player; Rizzo is protecting himself. No one else.

The implementation of pitcher workloads has become a circular defense and is a logical fallacy. Because Jordan Zimmerman underwent the same Tommy John surgery as Strasburg and was limited to 160 innings last season, it’s presented as validation for Strasburg’s final number of 160 or so innings. But they’re two different pitchers with two different levels of talent and two different thresholds along with dozens of other variables that aren’t being publicly accounted for in the interests of a short and sweet, salable list of “reasons” to place Strasburg on the sidelines as the kid who has to take his piano lessons while the other kids in the neighborhood out enjoying the sun and playing ball.

No one’s saying to abuse him as the Cubs, chasing a dream and trying to slay ghosts, did to Kerry Wood in 1998. But to just say STOP!!! and be done with it is a different form of abuse.

Strasburg doesn’t want to have his season ended prematurely, but if the Nats get to the playoffs or World Series, he’s not going to be a participant; or if he is, it will be after a month of barely pitching. It’s ludicrous and could also hinder his career rather than save it. Strasburg has to have some recourse. Saying all the right things and being a willing accomplice are separate. If I were Strasburg and his representatives, I’d push back. Agent Scott Boras, no stranger to hardball as a former player and negotiator, knows the terrain of arm-twisting organizations in the interests of his clients. Strasburg and Boras have a large share of the say-so in this situation. The point of power is to use it. If it’s put out publicly that Strasburg won’t sign any long-term deal with the Nationals if they continue to put their constraints on his career, what’s going to happen? Strasburg could refuse to report to the club next season and force his way out of Washington; he could be a test case because the Nats are not operating in his best interests. The blowback of Strasburg tearing at his chains legally and in a public relations blitz would be fierce and Rizzo wouldn’t have a choice but to back down.

The number of great players in sports who have been part of teams that made it to the pinnacle of team achievement or came thisclose but didn’t close the deal are legion. Ernie Banks, Don Mattingly and the new Hall of Famer Ron Santo are three of dozens of examples who would’ve traded years of their careers for a title shot.

Exacerbating this travesty is that the Nationals—or simply Rizzo and Rizzo alone—didn’t take steps such as the 6-man rotation to specifically prevent the need to end Strasburg’s season in September.

It’s easy to suggest that what the Nats have built will be sustainable and they’ll have multiple opportunities to make it back again and again; that with Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and the young pitching staff, they’ll be contenders for years to come. Facts and history say otherwise. It’s not true that they’re absolutely going to have chance after chance. Ask Dan Marino if he’s stunned by never having made it back to the Super Bowl after his sophomore season in which he demolished the NFL record books and carried the Dolphins to the NFL’s ultimate game. Then ask him if he’d have sat by quietly if the coaches and front office decided that he’s thrown too many passes after 13 games and they were sitting him down to lengthen his career. You can say it’s not the same thing, but it actually is the same thing. Strasburg is a baseball player; he’s a pitcher. Sometimes, regardless of how they’re handled and babied, they get injured as happened with Strasburg two years ago. Nothing is to be gained by sitting him down with numbers that have no basis in reality. Yet that’s what the Nats are doing and it’s not about protecting anyone other than the GM of the team, which makes it exponentially worse.

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It’s Not 1998 And The Yankees Are Not 46-10

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Did  the Yankees start the season 46-10 and I missed it?

I must’ve because the tone of the Yankee-centric media and fanbase implies that they’re still in the midst of a dynasty that ended 12 years ago.

Or maybe I didn’t miss anything. Maybe there’s such an overtone of arrogance that surrounds the Yankees’ organization in general and extends to everyone within some semblance of its orbit that they think they’re the world champions even when they’re not the world champions.

It never ends. If you watch the YES Network, listen to Mike Francesa or Michael Kay and have any ability to sift through the propaganda and see reality, you’ve sensed it too.

Here’s reality: the Yankees are not 46-10. They’re a mediocre 31-25 with an aging starting lineup, a shaky bullpen and a starting rotation that has found itself dependent on a returning hero who had retired after the 2010 season. This idea that the Mets are going to enter Yankee Stadium starstruck and spend the entire 3 game series at Yankee Stadium gazing longingly at the pinstripes and wishing that they were plying their trade across town rather than in Queens feeds into the monster that has created this lie.

During his team report on WFAN, Sweeny Murti was talking to Francesa about Nationals’ rookie sensation Bryce Harper. He related a story from spring training when the Yankees were playing the Nats and Harper was watching the Yankees take batting practice with an intensity that bordered on hypnotized. Apparently one of Harper’s favorite players is Mickey Mantle, which makes perfect sense for a 19-year-old to idolize someone who hadn’t played since 1969 and has been dead since 1995. That same someone who is the poster child for misplaced idolatry engaged in by the likes of Francesa in spite of being the epitome of a once-in-a-lifetime talent who threw much of that talent away with drinking and carousing.

Suffice it to say I would not want Harper to emulate Mantle.

Harper was so engrossed and googly eyed at the sight of the Yankees (according to Murti) that Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo went over to Harper, pulled him aside and (again, according to Murti) said something to the tune of, “Look, we know you’re gonna be with the Yankees when you become a free agent, but for now you’re a Nat. Watch them from the dugout.”

Really?

Is that what happened?

Is this hyperbole on the part of Murti or did Rizzo actually say that to his prize prospect?

Either way, it’s ridiculous. The days of the Yankees getting every free agent they want ended with the new collective bargaining agreement and the conscious decision not to spend so much money on players of other teams. That the players themselves might have a say in the matter is irrelevant to the blind Yankees supporters, but Cliff Lee decidedly said no to the Yankees and signed with the Phillies because he preferred a team other than the Yankees.

It does happen.

Trust me when I tell you that if Harper is everything he’s hyped to be, the Nationals are not going to let him smell free agency and will lock him up long-term. In fact, they might try to do it in the next year or two to make sure they have him until he’s at least 30.

It’s this type of thinking that led to the appellation of the word “tragedy” on Mariano Rivera’s season-ending knee injury.

Tragedy?

Anyone who thinks it’s a tragedy should consider themselves lucky that they’ve never experienced such an actual tragedy that a baseball player’s injury is judged as such.

YES’s website still doesn’t have any information on the injuries to Manny Banuelos or Jose Campos. They never mentioned Brian Cashman’s off-field issues with his stalker and are loathe to discuss the nightmarish trade that netted them Michael Pineda and Campos.

YES is no more of a “sports news” network than a paid televangelist channel or something Kevin Trudeau would come up with. It’s not designed to disseminate sports information in a bipartisan way. It’s there to promote the Yankees. Any “reporter” who works for the network in any fashion knows that and tailors their work accordingly. They’re not reporters, they’re PR people wearing a press pass.

General support for the team a network focuses on is completely understandable—even expected. But with the Yankees, it’s turned into a general sycophancy that requires this fantasy of superiority even where one doesn’t exist.

The Yankees mandate is World Series or bust. That has extended to the spoiled rotten fanbase that throws a self-indulgent tantrum when things don’t go the way they’re “supposed” to go. It’s systemic and disturbing. With that mandate, it’s indelibly connected to their success or failure and by that metric, they’ve only been successful in one season since 2000. How can that be called success? And how can it be called success when the team has made the playoffs every single year but one and gotten bounced each time except in 2009? How can that be called success when they spend $200 million a season on payroll while most teams spend half of that and less? Shouldn’t their financial might beget more than one title in 11 years?

The adjustment of the expectations are stark. Before, when they were winning every year, it was because they’re the Yankees. Now that they’re more likely to lose in the playoffs than win, the concept of the playoffs is at fault and—as Moneyball stated as an excuse for Billy Beane’s clubs losing every year—it’s a crapshoot.

If you want to see a crapshoot, check out the draft.

Yankees’ apologists have said such ludicrous idiocies as “the Yankees do most of their draft damage in the 20th round and beyond”.

Damage?

What damage?

Any player taken past the 10th round who makes it is a product of late blooming, an alteration in their game or pure luck. But because in 1990 they drafted a skinny infielder named Jorge Posada in the 24th round and a lanky lefty named Andy Pettitte in the 20th round, it was Yankees’ foresight and mystique.

If it’s damage, it’s retrospective damage on what they became, otherwise known as serendipity.

I hate to break it to you, but two picks in the 20th and 24th rounds doesn’t imply design. Since it happened 22 years ago, it doesn’t have any connection to the Yankees draft in 2012 nor their drafts from 1991-2011.

What you have is a clinging to the myth of the Yankees being superior to other organizations based on history, but that history has nothing to do with now. They’re a contender with holes. They have the money and prospects to fill those holes, but as of right now they’ll have to fight their way into the playoffs.

Alex Rodriguez is aging and has to cheat (not in the PED sense) to be able to catch up to a good power fastball—sometimes he does, most of the time he doesn’t. They’re reliant on Pettitte, grasping for a way to patch together their bullpen with the absences of Rivera, David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain and navigate mangaer Joe Girardi’s still odd and questionable pitching decisions.

In short, this isn’t 1998. The Yankees are not dominating anyone and there’s no reason for an opposing team to walk in and stare at their array of stars as if they’re beaten before the games start. They’re 31-25. That’s their record. That’s what they are. Those are facts. You can accept them or you can tune into YES and WFAN.

It all depends on your concept of truth.

The dynasty is over whether you like it or not; whether you believe it or not. And no amount of denial is going to bring it back.

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