WASHINGTON, D.C.: “We gambled at the deadline, I admit it,” Nationals’ Principal Owner Mark Lerner wrote in a letter to fans after Washington traded Daniel Murphy to the Chicago Cubs for a minor league infielder (Andruw Monasterio) and either a Player to Be Named Later or cash considerations.
The back-to-back, defending NL East champions, who currently sit 7.5 games back in the division, then dealt veteran first baseman Matt Adams to the St. Louis Cardinals for just cash in moves seen by the baseball world as waving a white flag on the 2018 campaign.
“We believed that the talent was still there, and that we would just need inspired play and a few lucky breaks,” Mr. Lerner continued. “The decision then was driven by heart and our desire to give this team every opportunity to turn the season around. We believed we were a few wins and a few breaks away from making a turn in the season, a few games from making a run for the top.”
The breaks didn’t start going the Nats’ way, and they didn’t start winning, putting up a 10-10 record in 20 games after the non-waiver deadline passed before they decided to trade both Murphy and Adams, who were placed on waivers, claimed, and then dealt.
“When something isn’t working, you evaluate the situation and take the necessary steps to improve it,” Mr. Lerner added. “You don’t just stand by, cross your fingers, and hope for the best. Unfortunately, in this case, that means making very tough decisions about our roster.”
“We took a chance at the first trade deadline, and held tight with the belief that that was our best way to compete, kept almost our entire roster intact,” GM Mike Rizzo explained after he made the trades on Tuesday afternoon.
“I still think today we have the talent base on this team to play competitive games at the end of this season,” Rizzo said “... realizing I know what the standings say and what the calendar says, but the talent-level in that locker room is still great.
“These are tough decisions. To trade an ultimate professional like Daniel Murphy and Matt Adams is never easy. We feel that this was the best way to facilitate not only what we’re trying to do in 2018, but beyond.
“As you know we always have the 1-3-and-5-year plan in place, and this helps expedite those plans.”
“These moves,” Rizzo told reporters in the nation’s capital, “... allow us financial flexibility going into the 2019 season, to allocate our resources in that direction. It also allows some of our young players to get valuable major league experience, and also allows us to get the good young prospect players that we’ll need in the minor leagues for the future.”
Murphy, 33, who signed a 3-year/$37.5M free agent deal with the Nationals in 2016, said he was disappointed to have things end like they did.
“I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t think I was going to get claimed,” Murphy admitted when he met with reporters in Nationals Park. “I thought I would slide right through. It was a surprise to me, and my thoughts are it was really bittersweet. I sat at this podium probably 2 1⁄2 years ago, the Washington Nationals were the only offer I had and so they took a chance on me three years ago and I feel very disappointed in myself that it kind of came to this point I guess would be the easy way to describe it. No ill wills whatsoever, it’s just unfortunate that this was an option.”
Murphy was set to hit free agency again, after posting a .329/.380/.550 line over 342 games and 1,380 plate appearances in his two and a half seasons in D.C., and since he’d received a qualifying offer from the Mets before he left New York via free agency, the Nats couldn’t make one to him for 2019 or get a compensatory draft pick when he left.
In dealing him, the Nationals landed one fringe-y infield prospect and a PTBNL.
“We had a strategy in place that we were going to put into play at a certain time. When the names came and the claims were made for Murph and for Matt we discussed it with those other teams and decided that this was the right course of action for those particular players at this particular time,” Rizzo said.
Adams, 29, signed a 1-year/$4M free agent deal with the Nationals last winter, and put up a .257/.332/.510 line with nine doubles and 18 home runs in 94 games and 277 PAs before he was traded back to the Cardinals, who drafted him in the 29th Round of the 2009 Draft.
Only getting cash in return for Adams? It’s one thing when you receive prospects in return in a trade like this, but to only get cash considerations, a reported said, makes it seem like it’s simply a salary dump.
“These are resources we’re going to utilize for player acquisition in the future,” Rizzo said.
“I think that’s the way we think about it in the front office. The money that we are making from the cash considerations goes directly into procuring talent for us to compete in the future.”
Bryce Harper was claimed on waivers as well, reportedly by the Los Angeles Dodgers, but there was no deal there, which didn’t surprise the 25-year-old outfielder, who’s also set to hit free agency this winter if he doesn’t agree on a deal that will keep him in Washington at some point in the next few months.
“I didn’t think I was going to leave at all, or move at all,” Harper said.
“I think I’m part of this organization, I’ve been part of this organization for seven years and I look forward to coming and doing my job every single day and I had no fear of being traded or let go on waivers or anything like that.”
Why didn’t Harper get dealt?
“You have to get a deal that makes sense to trade of the elite players in the game,” Rizzo said, leaving it there with the clear implication that there was no offer for Harper that did make sense.
Rizzo wasn’t willing to say that the moves were a concession that this season is a lost cause.
“We’re the two-time defending NL champs,” he said before the start of a three-game set against the Philadelphia Phillies.
“Until we’re mathematically eliminated, we’re still the division champ and we’re going to play as hard today against the Phillies as we have throughout this season, we’re going to win as many games as we can and let the chips fall where they may.”
The numbers are against them this season, but the team is not heading into a rebuild mode, Rizzo argued.
“We keep hearing about this window that we have that is closing,” he said, “that I could never understand with the talent base that we have, with the youth that is being infused into this ballclub, with the veteran presence that we have, we like the team that we have in 2018, we like the future rosters that we have in place beyond that and we think that we’re going to be a competitive ballclub for a long time.
“The Lerner family has given us the resources to facilitate these things. We had a $200M+ payroll this season, we’re a luxury tax team, and they’ve done everything that they possibly could to keep us competitive. We don’t see that changing. We see this ballclub as a team that has a great big league nucleus, both youthful and experienced, and a farm system and a scouting and player development system that is second to none.”
Rizzo, who signed a two-year extension with the Nationals in early April, was asked if parting with the players they did, and getting what remains of their contracts off the books, would get them below the luxury tax threshold.
“The luxury tax is such a calculation,” he said, “... that it’s so complicated that it’s hard to answer that question. I don’t think it moves the needle in the form of getting under the luxury tax for ‘18, but again, it’s such a complicated calculation that I don’t want to say that firmly.”
What, if anything, did he tell the players who remain in the clubhouse to assure them that the ownership and front office isn’t conceding the division?
“This clubhouse, they don’t need any rah-rah speeches from me or from Davey [Martinez],” Rizzo said. “They know the business at hand, you’ve got veterans such as Adam Eaton and Max Scherzer that convey messages routinely every day. These guys know what’s going on, and I think that it’s a team that gets after it and prepares every day and plays hard each and every game and I expect that to continue.”
“What’s funny is I’ve had guys already come in the office and I don’t think I need to convince them,” Martinez said. “They know what we’re playing for and they’re all in.”
“We’re definitely not in an ideal spot,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman told reporters.
“We had a chance a couple times to gain some ground and couldn’t really string together many wins in a row. We’re still a decent ways out, but by no means are we done.”
“We’re going to go out there,” Harper said, “... and we’re going to take nine guys out there today and try to win this game and do the things we can over the next five or six weeks to possibly sneak in there and get in there. We know what the Braves are going to do and we know what the Phillies are going to do and what kind of teams they are and we’ve just got to go about it the right way and play our game, and I’m not really worried about it.”
Will the team they have now, supplemented by some September call-ups, be the one that tries to make an improbable run over the last 36 games?
In other words, are the waiver deals done at this point?
“We never say never to a deal,” Rizzo said.
“Every player on this roster is going to go through waivers at some time during this period. If a deal makes sense for us in the future to help us in 2018 and beyond, to facilitate that 1-3-and-5-year window to keep us competitive for the long-term we certainly will think about it and address it, but it has to be the right deal. If it’s not the right deal [and doesn’t] make sense for us in the long-term it doesn’t get done.”