So, they’re going to give it another go.
At least, that’s the message general manager Mike Rizzo sent to the Washington Nationals on Tuesday when he doubled down on their current roster. Aside from Brandon Kintzler, who was traded to the Chicago Cubs in what was reportedly an effort to rid the team of a whistleblower, the Nats’ roster is completely intact — Bryce Harper and all.
“Bryce is not going anywhere,” Rizzo told The Washington Post. “I believe in this team.”
The early returns are in, and if the Nationals’ 25-4 drubbing of the New York Mets is any indication, they’ll be in good shape. But the reality is that Washington is still five and a half games behind the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East after both they and the Atlanta Braves joined the Nationals in the win column Tuesday night.
Fifty-six games remain on the schedule for Washington, who enters play Wednesday with a record of 53-53. It’s by no means an impossible deficit; just last season, the Minnesota Twins entered August three games under .500 and fresh off selling at the trade deadline. They won 35 of their final 59 contests and made the AL Wild Card Game.
Although the Nationals can’t really be considered sellers, they certainly weren’t buyers either. Kintzler’s departure opened up a roster spot for impressive Dominican rookie Wander Suero, so the already strong bullpen won’t take much of a hit. The rest of the holes on the roster, however, still remain.
Matt Wieters will not relinquish his role as the team’s starting catcher. While Stephen Strasburg is hopeful for a quick return off the 10-Day DL, a fifth starter would’ve created some much-needed depth in the rotation. Harper, sans his two doubles Tuesday night, isn’t going to return to All-Star form overnight.
Rizzo asserted that he believes in the Nationals’ roster as it’s currently constructed, but he wasn’t willing to mortgage the future for a few extra pieces that might give them the edge in a potential playoff run.
Both the Phillies and Braves made several moves, going all in on a year in which the shift in power of the division appears to be moving in a new direction.
Rather, Rizzo decided to hold. He found the price tag for the Miami Marlins’ J.T. Realmuto to be too high, and one can hardly blame him. The Marlins reportedly sought both Washington’s top prospects in Victor Robles and Carter Kieboom — an astronomical price even considering Realmuto would have two more years of control after this season.
It’s puzzling, however, that the Nationals didn’t make a bigger push for Wilson Ramos. The Phillies acquired the former Nats’ catcher for a player to be named later, which seems like a bargain compared to what the Marlins were asking for with regards to Realmuto. If Rizzo does believe in this team — and with the payroll already exceeding the luxury tax — why not address a need or two and take advantage of the relatively cheap cost of rentals in a buyer’s market?
But all things considered, at the end of the day the Nationals’ biggest problem all season hasn’t been the catcher spot or pitching depth. It’s been the production (or better yet, the lack thereof) they’ve received from their star players.
Harper’s struggles are well documented, but these issues go way beyond him. Daniel Murphy was slow to find his rhythm after spending the first two and a half months of the season on the shelf. Ryan Zimmerman, who has been sidelined extensively for an oblique injury, is hitting just .232. Trea Turner is hitting .216 since July 8.
Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark endured two of the worst stretches of their careers simultaneously. While Stephen Strasburg has made just one start since June 8, he also hasn’t been his usual self on the mound (3.90 ERA, 1.3 HR/9; both career worsts). Even Jeremy Hellickson, who was so reliable early on in the season, sports a 5.52 ERA over his last six starts. (Granted, a big chunk of that came in a start in which Hellickson was sick and allowed eight earned runs in four innings.)
Buyers or not, the Nationals weren’t going to make the playoffs if their disappointing stars didn’t start living up to the bill. Between the trade of Kintzler and Shawn Kelley being designated for assignment Wednesday, the team is clearly attempting to rid itself of clubhouse cancers so that its players can focus on the product on the field.
Whether or not that will be enough to get the Nationals back in the playoff race remains to be seen, but for now we can only watch as Washington attempts to save its season.
For better or for worse.