No One Hates Last Place Teams: Washington Nationals Make Statement In 2012

Rob Carr - Getty Images

The Washington Nationals had anger directed at them this season over their decision to shut Stephen Strasburg down and their belief that this year was just the first of many in which they'll compete and play meaningful games in September and October.

The Washington Nationals were thoroughly beaten in Game 3 of the NLDS, giving up 14 hits and eight runs in front of a crowd of 45,017, most of them Nats fans, whose enthusiasm was diminished somewhat by a lackluster offensive showing on the Nationals' part. The St. Louis Cardinals welcomed the nation's capital's baseball fans back to the postseason with an 8-0 drubbing of their Nats in the first postseason game played in Washington, D.C. in over 79 years and took a 2-1 lead in the five-game series in the process. The Nationals were humiliated. [ed. note - "That seems strong? Humiliated?"] They were embarrassed. [ed. note - "Well, they probably did want to play better in the first NLDS game in D.C. in 79 years."] And the Nats' loss was applauded and greeted with "laughter and celebration," by rival executives around the league. [ed. note - "I'm not sure what's 'funny' about it? Laughter?"]

"They got what they deserve," was the refrain USA Today baseball reporter Bob Nightengale wrote he'd heard from executives around baseball. So what did those same executives think when the Nationals took Game 4 on the strength of a gutty performance by 26-year-old left-hander Ross Detwiler, the pitcher Washington was "left with" and had to throw since Stephen Strasburg wasn't available to pitch, having been shut down in unprecented fashion?

[ed. note - "You know, outside of the team's treatment of Jordan Zimmermann in 2011. 'It's funny,' Davey Johnson said earlier this summer, 'There wasn't anything said when we shut down Zimmermann.'"]

"It's a whole new scenario," Davey Johnson told reporters after they made the decision to shut Strasburg down official on September 8th, following 159.1 IP in which the 23-going-on-24-year-old right-hander was (15-6) with a 3.16 ERA, 2.82 FIP, 2.71 BB/9 and 11.13 K/9 in his first full-year back following Tommy John surgery, "... but it's the same scenario with Strasburg as it was with Zimmermann," Johnson said. Of course the Nats weren't in contention in late 2011. Johnson admitted that was true. That seems to be the point of contention and the reason executives around the league wanted the Nats to lose.

Mike Rizzo told reporters after the Nats clinched the NL East crown that this was just the start for a Nationals team that was built to remain competitive for years to come. As Rizzo himself put it, "'Four short years ago, we weren't very good. We're scratching the surface. It's a young athletic team. We'll be back and doing this a couple more times.'" According to USA Today's Mr. Nightengale all rival execs heard was that last line:

"'We'll be back,' Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said after they clinched the National League East title, 'and doing this a couple more times.'"

"That was the quote heard 'round the baseball world," Mr. Nightengale wrote, "with general managers and executives making sure everyone saw it." What bothered them, apparently, was that the Nationals were taking for granted that they'd have other opportunities to compete for a World Series Championship, something "everyone" knows is not guaranteed. So shutting down Strasburg and going into the postseason without the "perfectly healthy" ace of your staff on the mound? Unthinkable. Asked for his thoughts on the anger aimed in his direction from around the league, Rizzo speculated in an article by CBSSports.com's Jon Heyman about the potential source of the quotes in the USA Today article:

"'Who knows... maybe the [quote] came from an executive on a team that lost 120 games.'"

In a chat with readers on Monday, Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell considered some other reasons why the Nationals have quickly become hated by rival executives around the league. "That day," Boswell wrote, talking about the day the USA Today article came out, "Rizzo said, '[Jeez], I guess a lotta other GMs must hate me.' He was grinning. That so-maybe-I'm-doing-something-right look... ":

"The Nats do threaten the front offices of other teams. That is true. And if they continue to succeed, I suspect the hostility will grow. The Nats don't buy Moneyball as the main template for team building. They think it's now a secondary tool because EVERYBODY has it. Where is the big edge in that? (Though the A's this year were amazing and it makes you think that Billy [Beane] does more WITH the stats than anybody else.)

"The Nats come right out and say that anybody -- with effort and the right math-mind hires -- can incorporate the New Stats (which the Nats use); but they think that 65-35 emphasis on scouting is where you can now get an edge because the stat-fad wisdom swung so far.

"Also, the Nats are STILL killing people by getting 'unsignable' players to sign in the amateur draft ([Lucas Giolito] this year). It wasn't just the huge haul; in the '11 draft with four high-ceiling players.

In two years, [Giolito] will be back from TJ surgery and still only be 19. If you are a GM, how do you explain to your owner that you said, 'Nah, we can't sign [Giolito]. And if we do, he's got a bad elbow already." The Nats just signed him and never CARED if he'd need TJ surgery some day. They planned on that likelihood. That doesn't make other GMs comfortable."

Rizzo summed up that "65-35 emphasis on scouting" the day he was officially named GM after serving in an interim capacity upon taking over for former general manager Jim Bowden. "I trust what I see more than what I read," Rizzo told reporters, "but it's always nice when what I read corresponds to what I think I see." The Rizzo-led Nats have no problem dealing with Scott Boras. They also have chips on their shoulders and, "... barely disguise their disdain for the way many other teams are run," the WaPost's Mr. Boswell wrote in Monday's chat, and they also took a principled stand in shutting down Strasburg because they thought, Mr. Boswell continued, that it was, "... best for the player and the team LONG term."

As Rizzo put it in his own words repeatedly over the year-plus he talked about the plan for Strasburg and again when talking to reporters including the Washington Times' Amanda Comak after the Nats' 2012 campaign ended, "'We'll take the criticism as it comes, but we have to do what's best for the Washington Nationals. And we think we did." It's up to the rest of the NL East and National League to prove the Nats wrong now and beat the defending NL East champions in the regular season or the postseason for the next few years.

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