On Sunday, June 11th, the Nationals lost, in part due to their bullpen. Sound familiar?
This iteration of the Nationals, in nearly every way but one, is the best in the team’s young history. As every single person affiliated with the organization, from fans to beat writers to columnists, have remarked, that will all be forgotten if the team doesn’t fix their league-worst bullpen.
Granted, Sunday’s loss couldn’t completely be attributed to the bullpen’s four-run meltdown. The Nationals’ offense looked dull and were nowhere near their previous record-breaking selves, swinging at any pitch within what looked to be five feet of home plate and rolling it over for a ground ball.
The only player that didn’t seem as if he were either exhausted from a nine-game road trip to the west coast or hungover from the Nationals’ Dream Foundation Gala the night before was Max Scherzer, whose 7 1⁄3 innings of one-run, three-hit ball weren’t enough to carry the lifeless Nats to what would have been an—albeit, undeserved—victory.
After Anthony Rendon’s error in the eighth inning allowed Delino DeShields to reach first base, Scherzer walked Jurickson Profar, his final batter of the day as Dusty Baker called on Oliver Perez in relief to face Shin-Soo Choo.
Perez walked Choo, and Blake Treinen’s passed ball allowed DeShields to score. One triple and sac-fly later, the Rangers had a commanding 5-1 lead.
Scheduling the Gala—which is important and serves a great cause—for the evening before an off day, or at least not in the middle of the team’s most tiring stretch of the season that included a nine-game west coast road trip, instead of before a day game, may be a wise move in the future.
Everyone—players included—will be more well-rested, and therefore considerably happier for that.
However, on the requested to-do list for the Lerner family, who own the Nats, the gala can wait in comparison to fixing the team’s atrocious bullpen.
This Nationals’ bullpen is perhaps the most infuriating instance of the team’s management being unwilling to trade valuable prospects or spend money in order to improve the team to bring it to the place it needs to be to win a World Series.
When putting together the bullpen, it’s almost as if the Lerners read Dan Snyder’s book: “How to Infuriate Your Team’s Fans To No End and Look Bad Doing It! (with prelude written by Albert Haynesworth)”.
Over the offseason, the Nats (thankfully, for both baseball and personal reasons) missed out on signing Aroldis Chapman, as they did (thankfully, but only for baseball reasons) with Mark Melancon.
That left two legitimate options for filling the closer slot: signing then free-agent Kenley Jansen, or trading for White Sox closer David Robertson.
The Nationals and the Los Angeles Dodgers—the team Jansen came up with—were the two potential destinations for the closer. Washington offered him $80 million for five years, with another $5 million deferred. The Dodgers, banking on Jansen wanting to stay with his hometown team, offered him $80 million for five years, without the deferred money.
If the Nationals legitimately expected Jansen to choose a new team, to change his entire life, based on $5 million, they lost any chance of acquiring him.
$5 million dollars, especially when deferred, almost certainly did not mean anything to Kenley Jansen. It was the equivalent of adding a maraschino cherry to an ice cream sundae, putting it across the country from an otherwise identical ice cream sundae next to the right-hander, and asking him to choose.
If the Nationals really wanted Jansen, they could have had him. Adding $10 or $15 million dollars to the contract may have swayed him. Five million—especially deferred—did not.
The Nationals can play the TV rights card all they want; it’s true that they’re the only club in baseball that doesn’t receive a substantial amount of money from the TV station that broadcasts their games.
Ted Lerner, whose net worth is placed at $5.5 billion dollars by Forbes, immediately invalidates that card.
If Jansen had come to the Nationals after he received Los Angeles’ final offer, saying “Here’s what they’ve offered me, how much better can you do?”—which he likely did, seeing as that process is a normal part of most free agent negotiations, the Nationals had more than enough capital to sway Jansen. They chose not to use it.
That left Robertson. Per USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, Mike Rizzo had a deal set with the White Sox: farmhands Jesus Luzardo and Drew Ward for Robertson, with the White Sox eating about half of the remaining $25 million on Robertson’s contract.
The deal—shockingly—got hung up over the money. To be exact, it got hung up over a little more or less than $12.5 million, or about 16 percent of what the team planned to pay Jansen.
So the Nats were left to pursue other options. Greg Holland, coming off of Tommy John surgery, was available. The Rockies offered him $7 million. The Nationals, hung up on the money (again per Nightengale), didn’t make a better offer. Holland, by the way, is currently pitching to a 1.14 ERA while playing half his games at Coors Field, the best hitters’ ballpark in the country.
Even with Dusty Baker, almost assuredly a future Hall of Famer, the Nationals have struggled to spend where they have to, waiting and waiting to extend Baker’s contract, something that should have been done (and most likely for lower than what Greg Holland was paid) long ago.
Ask yourselves: Is Dusty Baker as valuable as a closer?
Yes, the Lerners are not walking banks (though as far as humans go, they are pretty close, as the richest owners in all of Major League Baseball). But the family has a fundamental misunderstanding of the business of baseball.
If the Lerners want one of their investments—the Tysons II mall, White Flint Mall, Chelsea Piers in New York—to succeed, they need most of or all of the businesses to do well at least most of the time.
The Lerners emulate this strategy with the Nationals by fielding good—not great—teams season after season that reach the playoffs year after year, but are never built for the World Series. For that to happen, the Nats need a good team in the majors, and a slew of good prospects in the minors.
Therein lies the problem: In business, good is good enough. In baseball, it’s not.
The Nationals, with a fear of not having the money to spend in the future, or not having said valuable prospects to contribute later on, never make the plunge, never truly go quote-unquote “World Series or bust”.
It’s time for that to change.
The Nats need to put everyone not named Victor Robles—and maybe even Robles—on the table at the deadline. Big contracts cannot be reasons not to acquire a closer and other relievers— they’ll just have to mean that the team won’t be spending as much in the future on contracts.
Yes, this means that the Nationals will, at some point, go through a period of mediocrity (even if it’s a more subdued version, seeing as guys like Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, and Koda Glover will keep the team fighting for a wild card).
That will be okay. If the team gets its World Series ring, or at least gets close, the fanbase will be forgiving. If the team doesn’t go for it, they’ll be less forgiving — disenfranchised, perhaps, because at some point, the team will be bad, which will be beyond painful if the Lerners never “went for it”.
Baseball teams are not shopping malls. They are not renovated once and then functional for the following twenty or thirty years. They are fluctuating, changing establishments, ones that, because they were good but wanted to be the best, will have to be bad as an unavoidable consequence later on.
Baseball teams that are good, and just good forever, never have parades, trophies, and rings. They have endless division pennants, lining a wall year after year until the team finally falls apart for one reason or another.
If Mike Rizzo is able to accept that his team may be rebuilding at some point in the early 2020s and plan ahead, the Nats could be back to contention after only three or four years of mediocrity — a small price to pay for a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.