As the month of July comes to a close, the Washington Nationals have left themselves a razor thin margin for error. They currently sit in third place in the NL East, 5 games behind the second place Braves and 5.5 behind the Phillies. With nine current members on the roster eligible for free agency after the season, including high profile Bryce Harper, Mike Rizzo had a potential franchise defining choice in front of him.
- He could try and trade off players like Harper, Gio Gonzalez, Daniel Murphy, and Kelvin Herrera to try to pick up pieces that would be more likely to help the team contend in 2019 and beyond.
- He could try and patch the holes on the roster to take a run at the Phillies and Braves and take one last shot at postseason glory before some of the core of this team moves on in the offseason.
There’s an argument to be made for the prudence of either of those options, I suppose. Let’s start by tackling the first option.....
Why should the Nationals have sold?
Honestly, this is the stance that I would take, but I’m going to give a little time to the argument that buying wouldn’t have been completely illogical later on. Why should the Nationals have tried to cash in players like Harper, Gio, Murphy, and Herrera for future assets? Let’s spotlight a handful of reasons, starting with the obvious one.
The Nationals are facing a 5 game deficit behind not one, but two teams
The Wild Card is even more complicated (though the Nats are still just 5 games back there), since they’re behind five teams in that race. Let’s just stick to the division, where the Nats find themselves 5.5 games out of first, with two teams ahead of them. This means that the Nats don’t just have to be better than the Phillies or the Braves the rest of the way.... They have to be at least 6 games better than both of them to win the division race. Is it plausible to expect that the two young teams ahead of them struggle in the spotlight of a pennant race a bit? Sure.... but will one of them implode a bit down the stretch? Will both of them?
The Nationals haven’t performed well for two months
Of course, whether the Braves and Phillies both drop off dramatically down the stretch is irrelevant unless the Nats start to play up to the track record that Mike Rizzo referred to as the deadline passed. Surely, he’s looking back on the past six years, which has been the best six-year span in the history of the Nationals (or the Expos). That’s fair, but it’s hard to ignore their performance in 2018 as well.
- The last time that this year’s Nats won a series against a team with a winning record was from May 10-May 13 when they swept the Arizona Diamondbacks.
- The Nats have gone 19-30 over the past two months, being shut out ten times in that span after being shut out just seven times in each of the past two full seasons (and once in April and May combined).
- While Tanner Roark has turned things around in his past couple of starts, the Nationals rotation has basically been Max Scherzer and “Pray for rain” in the past two months. Stephen Strasburg hasn’t been able to stay healthy. Gio Gonzalez, who led the majors in walks last season, has actually seen his walk rate spike to 4.49/9 IP while losing the BABIP luck of last season. Jeremy Hellickson has been up and down.
Are the Nats capable of turning things around in August and September? Of course. However, given the inconsistency of the offense* and the lack of depth in the rotation right now, it doesn’t seem likely.
*Sure... This is being said after the Nats erupted for 25 runs against the Mets Tuesday night. Remember, just this past weekend, they hung 19 on the Marlins in the first two games before combining for 1 run in the final two.
The Nationals run a serious risk of losing all of their free agents for next to nothing
Let’s be honest. When the season is over, which of the Nationals’ nine remaining impending free agents are they going to re-sign? Obviously, they intend to make every effort to re-sign Harper given how much he’s going to command. Let’s save the Harper question for another day, though*. They’re going to attempt to re-sign him. If they can’t, they’re going to get draft pick compensation, which will be minimal given the current state of the payroll (over the luxury tax). Beyond Harper, though?
*I tend to ramble enough. How about next week? Same bat-time, same bat-channel.
- Barring his two outlier seasons (2012 - 138 ERA+ & 2017 - 150 ERA+), Gio Gonzalez has been a slightly above average starter in his seven years with the Nats. He’s had four seasons where his ERA+ has ranged from 104 to 113 and another (bad) outlier in 2016, when it was at 93. He’s above average in the strikeout department, but he’s also led the league in walks twice in his career (2011 in Oakland and 2017 with the Nats). Gio will turn 33 before the end of the season, and this is probably going to be his last chance to cash in. They may try to re-sign him, but should they?
- Daniel Murphy has been terrific when healthy in his three-year tenure with the Nats, but he’s also 33 years old and has missed much of this season due to injury. If the Nats can sign him at a discount, maybe he’s worth it?
- Ryan Madson will turn 38 in late August and it appears he’ll be coming off a down year.
- Kelvin Herrera.... OK... I can get behind trying to retain him, but at what cost? Is it possible he’d prefer to go someplace else where he feels he has a better shot at closing when he hits free agency? He’s going to want closer money regardless.
- Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Adams have been pleasant surprises, but do either of them try to parlay their strong performances this year into a bigger payday elsewhere?
- Neither Matt Wieters nor Shawn Kelley are going to be Nats in 2019.
I suppose a case could be made that the Nats will try to retain up to five of these players. There’s also a case that could be made that they won’t (or shouldn’t) retain any of them.
Even if they do lose those nine players, there’s enough talent so that the Nats could be a player or two away from contention next season
The Nats still figure to have a devastating one-two punch (errr... if healthy) atop the rotation with Scherzer and Strasburg next season. They also have a quality third starter in Tanner Roark still under contract. Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, and Trea Turner each figure to be among the top players in the majors at their positions. Sean Doolittle will still be around to lead the bullpen. Victor Robles should be showing why he’s considered one of the top five prospects in all of baseball. Heck, maybe Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Eaton could find ways to stay on the field and show how deep the lineup could be.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen what the high minors have to offer in terms of MLB-ready pitching prospects to add depth to the rotation behind Scherzer, Strasburg, and Roark. Erick Fedde, Jefry Rodriguez, and Austin Voth have basically been disasters filling in at that sixth spot. Tommy Millone will take his second shot at filling that need while Strasburg recovers from his latest DL stint. Years of making even minor deals to buy at the trade deadline have depleted the farm system. While Harper was probably the only asset the Nats had that may have had the trade value to add a roster player plus a prospect or two, it’s hard to imagine that Gio or Herrera couldn’t have netted the Nats a prospect or two who could have been ready to contribute by 2020 at the latest.
The players that are eligible for free agency account for nearly $90 million of this year’s payroll, so there should be some money to splash in free agency this offseason. Players like Anthony Rendon, Tanner Roark, and Michael A. Taylor will get raises through arbitration, but there will still be room under the cap. Still, the value of adding a cheap young player to slot into the 2019 rotation or a shiny young position player with six years of club control could have made that money go a lot further.
Why should the Nationals have bought?
I can understand the “track record” argument. This is a Nats team that has pretty much run this division since 2012. The Braves and Mets each managed one division title during that run, but the Nats have won the division twice in a row and four times in the past six years. The cores of those teams are largely intact in 2018, even if they haven’t quite shown that in the first four months of the season. If the Nats perform in August and September as they have for six years now, they should be able to get themselves back into the race.
Of course, there are significant holes on the 2018 roster. If the Nats front office decided that they wanted to throw their chips in on one final run with the core of this team before they lose a handful of them to free agency, they should have done what they could to fill those holes.
- If Strasburg is going to be out for another couple of weeks, they’ve already wasted the luxury of having Tommy Millone (or Austin Voth.... or Jefry Rodriguez) fill that spot in his absence.
- If Matt Wieters hasn’t been able to hit his weight in the first year and half of his two-year deal, the Nats can’t afford to keep running him out there... particularly when Wilson Ramos is being dealt to a division rival for a player to be named later.
If you’re going to go for it in your last shot before a handful of your key players are going to hit the open market, go for it! There’s a colorful phrase about getting off pots that I can’t use here at FBB, but pick one or the other. When you’re 5.5 back with 2⁄3 of the season gone, there isn’t time to waffle back and forth anymore.
All of this leads to our conclusion
What did the Nats do at the non-waiver trade deadline? A whole big bowl of nothing! OK... They traded Brandon Kintzler for a 23-year-old reliever who hasn’t made it out of A ball yet, which is essentially nothing. Mike Rizzo drew his line in the sand and said that this roster was going to make a final stand. He’s taking one final run at glory with this core that he’s built and saying “World Series or Bust!” If this team fails to make the playoffs and at least finally win a round only to lose Harper to free agency, the risk will have had no reward.
Rizzo’s tenure as the GM and President of the Washington Nationals has generally been a glorious one. They’ve enjoyed more success during his run at the top than the franchise ever had before. Hopefully, the decision to do nothing at the 2018 deadline won’t be what he’s remembered for.