The Nationals ended the regular season with a winning record for the fifth straight year, something no other D.C.-based baseball club was ever able to accomplish.
Over these last five seasons, the Nationals’ three division titles are tied for the second-most in the majors, behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers (5), and the Nats have the second-most wins in baseball over the last five seasons as well (458 from 2012-2016), behind only the St. Louis Cardinals (461).
In spite of all that success in the last five regular seasons, which includes an impressive +509 run differential over that stretch, the Nationals have failed to advance past the NLDS in any of their three playoff runs, with each of their division titles overshadowed by their postseason losses.
In spite of the Nationals’ recent run of success, most of the discussion this winter has been about the window of opportunity pundits see for them over the next two or so seasons with the likes of Jayson Werth (under contract through 2017), Bryce Harper (under team control through 2018) and Daniel Murphy (who is signed through 2018) potentially moving on after the 2018 campaign and changing the face of the franchise in the nation’s capital.
Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo, as he explained this winter, is not one of the people who buys into that two-year window talk.
“I think we have an extremely bright window in 2016,” Rizzo said on the first day of the Winter Meetings in December. “For a two-year period and for well beyond that.”
“The scouting and player development system that we’ve put into place here is second-to-none.
“We’ve got ourselves a good nucleus of a ballclub in the big leagues, we’ve got good prospects to come. The prospects, we can put them into our lineup or we can package them together and trade them for immediate help, so there [are a] lot of different avenues we can go. We’ve got player flexibility and positional flexibility.”
Several days after those comments, Rizzo did, in fact, package a few prospects (Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and 2016 1st Round pick Dane Dunning) in what many saw as a win-now trade to acquire center fielder Adam Eaton, but even that trade, Rizzo said at the time, was made with both the present and future in mind, since the 28-year-old Eaton came with five seasons of team control at a relatively affordable price.
“The fact that we have Adam Eaton for five seasons and control of him for five seasons is a long-term, global type of decision,” Rizzo explained.
“We feel that we put ourselves in a position not only for '17, to be better, but to be better in the long term.”
The talk for the next two seasons, however, will be about the changes that are to come and Harper, the current face of the franchise, who has two seasons of team control remaining before the winter of 2018-19, when the left-handed hitting slugger will hit free agency at 26, expecting to set records with the contract he commands either from the Nationals or on the free agent market.
While you won’t find many outside the nation’s capital who think the Nationals have any chance of signing Harper long-term, especially with that window of opportunity closing and the now-24-year-old coming off a down-year in 2016, he has continually expressed his love for the nation’s capital, and his admiration for players who played their entire careers with one team.
It doesn’t make a lot of sense for Harper to sign now, having won an NL MVP in 2016 and then struggled last season, and if he bounces back this year, he’ll be a year away from a big payday and unlikely to sign before testing the market, though one of his teammates bucked that trend.
Will the Nationals, who signed 2009 No. 1 overall draft pick Stephen Strasburg to a 7-year/$175M deal last summer, before he could reach free agency this winter, lock up the second of their back-to-back No. 1 overall selections before Harper, the top pick in 2010, finds out what the market thinks of his value?
The decision on Strasburg, as the right-hander, his agent Scott Boras and Rizzo said last May, was player-driven, but a pitcher who wanted to stay in the nation’s capital and be part of the franchise and the community.
The decision on Harper will go a long way towards determining what the Nationals’ franchise looks like in the near future.
Are the Nationals Harper’s team for the next two years? The next decade?
Will Rizzo and Co. in the Nats’ front office rely on the scouting and player development that has led them to where they are now to keep producing prospects and competitive teams even if Harper moves on?
Do they have to do the unthinkable and trade Harper if there’s no sign he intends to stay since draft pick compensation ain’t what it used to be?
Will the Nationals finally get past the NLDS... and the NLCS... and bring a World Series championship to the nation’s capital for the first time since 1924?