Washington Nationals owner, Mark Lerner, penned a letter to fans on Tuesday to try and explain the fire-sale he green-lit. The club sent Daniel Murphy to the Chicago Cubs and Matt Adams to the St. Louis Cardinals. It feels kind of anticlimactic. Much like this letter, in which Mr. Lerner writes:
When something isn’t working, you evaluate the situation and take the necessary steps to improve it. You don’t just stand by, cross your fingers, and hope for the best.
And therein lies the problem: a lack of self-awareness. It was pretty obvious the Nationals were in trouble around the trade deadline. Sean Doolittle was still on the DL, Stephen Strasburg was a question mark, and Tanner Roark had only just begun to find himself again. Was Bryce Harper really going to start hitting like Bryce Harper again? The Nationals could have traded for another pitcher. Lance Lynn was available, as were Cole Hamels and Chris Archer. They could have gotten a steady yet average value reliever, like John Axford or Zach Duke. I think what I and most other fans really wanted was for the Nationals to just do something to show they were committed to making this the year the Nationals finally see the Championship Series.
Instead, the Nats front office looked at their team, crossed their fingers, and hoped for the best.
The Nationals cling to the wrong people and they devalue their best assets. In a recent interview with the Athletic, Dusty Baker revealed that Nationals ownership wanted to get rid of Jayson Werth in the middle of the 2017 season. They clearly did not value what Werth brought to the team if they were willing to let him go in a $21 million contract year. The lack of clubhouse leadership is one of the prime suspects in the Nationals’ poor play this season, and more than a few people suspect Werth’s absence has something to do with that. This is one case where ownership was clearly not taking a player’s intangible value into account.
I wrote a piece last October on how the Nationals screwed Dusty Baker and may have doomed themselves in the process. Dusty said the Nationals forcing his departure was “the hardest wound to close” for him, and Dave Martinez simply isn’t Dusty Baker. Dusty had those intangibles just like Jayson Werth did. He had forged relationships in the clubhouse and his departure combined with Werth’s just looks bad. When the rest of the team is essentially the same, in looking for the cause of a season that looks all but lost we have to look at the variables which changed. Again, the Nationals chose not to see the potential consequence of letting these two players go.
"For context, as well as shock value, it’s useful to recall that this team was so ultra-confident that Martinez had players practice home run trots and walk-off celebrations in spring training, as well as holding golf shot contests." https://t.co/6nS9d7e0q5— Dan Steinberg (@dcsportsbog) August 20, 2018
Then there is the actual baseball value of other players like Shawn Kelley. When he threw his glove down and glared into the dugout, it did not matter that for more than half a season Kelley’s bullpen role had remained undefined. His frustration was finally on display and Mike Rizzo made it clear that it was “disrespectful” and Kelley was “in the way” of the Nationals’ playoff hopes. They nearly came blows, according to the Washington Post, and Kelley was sent to the Oakland A’s to pitch alongside fellow Nationals alum, Blake Treinen.
That quote about Kelley being in the way rings hollow because in his 4.1 relief innings since being traded Shawn Kelley has faced 15 batters and only given up one hit. Good for a 0.00 ERA. Oh, and while the Nationals sit seven games back in the division, the Athletics are a mere one game behind the Astros for the division lead. They also have a good hold on the second wild card spot, so it’s looking good for the As. How can one of the better pitchers in a bullpen be “in the way?” Shawn Kelley got in the way of the image the Nationals tried to project, but he was not a roadblock to the postseason. For that, they need to look in a mirror.
Last year, shortly after the Nationals fired Dusty Baker for no good reason, Mike Rizzo said,
Something Mark Lerner echoed in his letter to fans.
“Most importantly - our goal has not changed - we want to bring a World Series trophy home to Washington, D.C.”
So what are they doing to get there? Firing their managers every other season, always playing it safe at the trade deadline, and placing blame everywhere but the front office? This letter is frustrating because Lerner does not lay out a path forward. He says, “Mike Rizzo and his team will be busy during the offseason making sure we have all of the pieces necessary to come back and be competitive next year.” But how is that any different from all the failures that have come before?
Admittedly, I was put off by the contrast in which Lerner spoke about Daniel Murphy, “one of my favorite Nationals,” versus Matt Adams, “consummate professional.” That is not the way to send off the guy with the second-most home runs on your team. I may be biased, but he hit eighteen home runs primarily as a bench player! He is a great guy, basically spoken about as a light in the clubhouse wherever he goes. Big City is just the latest example of the Nationals obviously not valuing that sort of thing.
The goal may not have changed, but perhaps it would do the team some good to look for the root of the problem off the field.
Audrey Stark is a Contributor at Federal Baseball. You can follow her on Twitter @HighStarkSunday.