Up until the 2019 season, the Washington Nationals’ recent existence revolved around “What If” questions when they needed that one player or one lucky bounce to get over the hump.
What if Drew Storen threw strikes in 2012? What if Matt Williams let Jordan Zimmermann finish in 2014? What if the Nationals traded for middle relief help instead of Jonathan Papelbon? What if the ball had been dead when Javy Baez’s backswing hit Matt Wieters in 2017?
Even though the longing for that elusive first championship is over, it’s interesting to wonder what would’ve happened had the Nats taken their franchise down a different path.
This week for SB Nation, there’s a theme of What If Week, where writers across the network pose the question about various events that could’ve easily happened, but didn’t happen.
After sending out a Twitter poll with a few options, just sneaking in ahead in the voting was this: What if the Nationals traded for Chris Sale?
Following yet another NLDS exit in 2016, the Nationals were looking to make a splash ahead of the 2017 season. They had the prospect-depth to attack the trade market and Mike “pitching is king” Rizzo had his sights set on the at-the-time Chicago White Sox ace.
At one point, the Nats were front-runners for the left-hander with the “teams haggling over final pieces,” according to Ken Rosenthal. But in the end, he went to the Boston Red Sox for a package of Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech, Luis Alexander Basabe, and Victor Diaz.
Reporting following the trade from Chelsea Janes of The Washington Post indicated that the Nationals’ reluctance to include Trea Turner in the trade may have been the deciding factor.
That report says the four-player package did include their two top prospects Lucas Giolito and Victor Robles though. Also, Janes’s colleague, Barry Svrluga, reported the Nats added one of their other top pitching prospects, Reynaldo Lopez, to that deal.
So, let’s wind back the clock and say that GM Mike Rizzo is determined to get his man by any means necessary and puts his prized shortstop prospect on the table in the deal.
However, if we just add Turner to the above three, it’s probably imbalanced towards the White Sox so we’ll switch Giolito for Turner. For the final piece, we have Dane Dunning who, in reality, went to Chicago in the Adam Eaton trade, then that’s probably enough to get the deal done.
With the Sale trade completed and a fearsome rotation fully formed, the Nationals were still looking for an outfielder this offseason. One who could play center field for a season before shifting to left field once Jayson Werth’s contract expired at the end of the 2017 season.
The problem is, Lopez and Dunning, who were key pieces in the Eaton trade are now gone.
With Eaton theoretically off the table without the prospect package to tempt the White Sox, the Nats go to their other trade option, Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen.
The former NL MVP had been linked to the Nationals most of that winter and even from the previous July at the trade deadline. There was mutual interest between the teams to make a swap, but the untouchable nature of Robles in trade talks was the sticking point.
In this scenario though, with Robles now a member of the White Sox, there’s a different trade chip who could be used as the centerpiece here in the now not-traded right-hander Giolito.
After an up-and-down 2016, the Nats clearly were concerned about his future after previously not listening to trade discussions involving him. The Pirates were also in need of pitching depth this offseason, so in the end, this formed a perfect match.
Picking players to go with Giolito to Pittsburgh is tough as not many rumors circulated about this, unlike the Sale trade. But we’ll lean into the pitching theme and send Joe Ross, who now has no place in the rotation with Sale there, and a young high-velocity starter who the Pirates could convert to a reliever, just as the Nats actually did, in Austen Williams.
As for the rest of the offseason, there are some other pretty significant knock-on effects.
The most notable is that the Nationals added a little more salary with this than trading for Eaton. Sale’s annual average value came in at $6.5 million while McCutchen’s was at roughly $8.5 million for the 2017 season, about $10 million more than Eaton’s $4.7 million AAV.
This is nice and easy to solve though, as had the Nats spent that much more on McCutchen and Sale, they likely wouldn’t have signed Matt Wieters and his $10.5 million AAV late in Spring Training and just accepted a hole at catcher given the other improvements.
The other main knock-on effect is that, with Turner elsewhere, the Nats now don’t trade Danny Espinosa to the Los Angeles Angels for pitchers Austin Adams and Kyle McGowin.
Uh oh, that means more of that salary snipping. But, in theory, this should be easy as well as we can simply say the Nationals now don’t sign Joe Blanton for $4 million late in the spring. It’s a little less than Espinosa’s $5.4 million 2017 salary, but it’s enough that not signing him keeps Washington under the luxury tax threshold to begin the season.
Oh, and one last thing. Adding Sale means the Nats’ rotation is full and there are no roster hijinks at the start of the season with Jeremy Guthrie making one of the worst starts of all-time.
Yes, eventually, the Nationals did go over the luxury tax with their midseason additions, but the plan before the season was to at least start the season staying under the threshold.
Now we have the major transactions out of the way, let’s get down to business and figure out how the Nats fare on their World Series quest. Warning, it’s time for some maths...
Based on FanGraphs WAR calculations, we have the following adjustments to the Nationals’ 2017 win total to make given the new configuration:
- Sale was worth around seven extra wins compared to the fifth starter brigade that season
- McCutchen was worth around the same number of wins as Eaton, Robles, and Michael A. Taylor
- In a similar number of games, Espinosa was worth about four wins fewer than Turner at shortstop
- Somewhat of an assumption here: Pedro Severino was worth a similar number of wins to Wieters, who racked up negative -1.2 fWAR that season
So, in short, with Sale and McCutchen in tow, the Nationals gain about three more regular season wins, taking their season’s total up to a nice round 100 wins for the year.
The season plays out in much the same way here with the bullpen looking incredibly underwhelming and the three-headed law firm is still acquired at the trade deadline to take the Nats over the luxury tax threshold for the first time by season’s end.
Unfortunately, those 100 wins are still only good enough for second in the NL behind the 104-win Los Angeles Dodgers. So once again, the Nats end up facing the Chicago Cubs in the NLDS.
This is what the Nationals wanted to acquire Sale for though. Not for those few extra wins on top of what was already shaping up to be an NL East-winning squad, they would’ve gotten him to truly put the team over the top for the postseason.
The first three games go exactly the same as they did in reality, just with Sale dominating in Game 2 of the series rather than Gio Gonzalez putting up a solid outing. So, through three games, the Cubs are up 2-1 with a chance to clinch at Wrigley Field in Game 4.
The Nats could conceivably go with Gonzalez, who was excellent during the 2017 regular season, in Game 4. However, Dusty Baker does just as he did in reality and lets Stephen Strasburg start on a full four days rest, despite feeling under the weather.
Leading 1-0 late in the game, the bases are loaded for...Pedro Severino. Uh oh, now that postseason legend™ Michael A. Taylor is no longer the regular starter in favor of McCutchen, the young catcher is now the 8th place hitter and grounds out to keep the score 1-0.
Nationals fans may be short a few more fingernails than in reality, but still used their A-bullpen to close out that game in a shutout and take the series back to Nationals Park.
NLDS Game 5, a source of torment for Nats fans, but this time it’s Sale starting instead of Gonzalez.
The Cubs still get to Sale in the first and grab a 1-0 lead. But the Nats strike back. The Daniel Murphy solo home run still happens, then Anthony Rendon and McCutchen follow up with back-to-back singles before Espinosa records an RBI groundout to put the Nats up 2-1.
The score stays 2-1 for a while as Sale finds his groove, not walking himself into trouble as Gonzalez did in real life. In the sixth, just like the actual game, the Nationals rally, tacking on another couple of runs to make it 4-1 heading into the seventh.
Now, instead of needing to bring in Scherzer with Gonzalez knocked out after just three innings, the Nats can turn the game right over to their formidable law firm in the bullpen.
Brandon Kintzler gives up a run to make it 4-2, but the Nats hit back with a Bryce Harper sac fly. That’s all she wrote though as Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle shut the door, both firing 1-2-3 innings to seal the deal and the NLDS curse is over two years earlier than reality!
In this fake NLCS, however, while the Nationals play the Dodgers hard, they miss out. Remember, this LA offense was the best in the senior circuit with a 104 wRC+, while the Nats were incredibly hit-and-miss despite a 99 wRC+, leaving them just short in this NLCS.
Here’s the breakdown of the hypothetical series went:
- Game 1: Scherzer v Clayton Kershaw — Nationals up 1-0
- Game 2: Gonzalez v Rich Hill — Series tied 1-1
- Game 3: Strasburg v Yu Darvish — Dodgers up 2-1
- Game 4: Sale v Alex Wood — Series tied 2-2
- Game 5: Scherzer v Kershaw — Dodgers up 3-2
- Game 6: Gonzalez v Hill — Dodgers win the series 4-2
Dusty Baker gets an extension! Because the Nats finally made it out of the NLDS, the Lerners are willing to cede to Rizzo’s desire to keep the popular manager at the helm for another two seasons in the hope that progress will continue and a World Series parade is coming.
With that said, Rizzo has some contract juggling to do though.
After a solid but not spectacular season, the Nats pick up McCutchen’s $14.75 million team option, an AAV about $6 million higher than last season. Meanwhile, Sale’s team option for $12.5 million is also picked up, meaning his AAV is also up about $6 million from 2017.
Thankfully, the Nationals were expecting to exceed the luxury tax threshold this season, providing they were still in contention come the end of the season. That means that the rest of the team’s offseason activity can stay much the same as it actually happened.
The one change here though is that the Nationals move on from Espinosa at shortstop and sign the best shortstop on the market, Zack Cozart for three years and $38 million. To account for the larger contract, the Nationals now don’t re-sign Kintzler, nor do they sign the elusive Joaquin Benoit who didn’t pitch in a single game for the team.
How does the team get on in 2018 this time? Well, even though they have Baker over rookie manager Dave Martinez, and Sale, despite only pitching 158 innings, over the fifth starter brigade the Nats end up just missing the playoffs finishing behind the Atlanta Braves.
The biggest difference is they have to suffer a poor season from shortstop replacements Cozart and Wilmer Difo over Turner who played all 162 games that season. The latter recorded 4.8 fWAR compared to Cozart and Difo’s combined measly 0.7 fWAR.
Another factor is that with McCutchen manning left field and staying healthy the whole year, Howie Kendrick doesn’t end up in the outfield to tear his Achilles. That means the Nats have to wait an extra year until they get to see Juan Soto dominate the majors.
So, going down this path, the Nats still end up as one of the biggest underachievers of the season as the injuries and underperformance for the players were too much to overcome.
Oh, and on another note, the Dodgers finally win a World Series now they face the Sale-less Red Sox in the 2018 Fall Classic. At least we changed the World Series narrative of one team.
Right, it’s World Series or bust for the Nationals now. Baker and Rizzo are in the last year of their contracts and the Lerners are tired of waiting after last year’s stalled season.
Sale’s $13.5 million option is picked up in what will likely be his final year with the Nats.
McCutchen though is now a free agent and once again signs with the Philadelphia Phillies. While Soto is expected to be up at some point this year, there’s still a corner outfield spot to fill...
That’s right folks, Bryce Harper returns to D.C. on a massive 15-year, $350 million deal!
Because the Nationals still have Sale to fill out a dominant top three, they don’t go hard after Patrick Corbin. That leaves enough money to bring back their star right fielder with only a bit of deferred money early on in the contract to keep the payroll lower for now.
On the financial side, the Nats were adamant on staying below the luxury tax threshold this year, so $9 million needs to be trimmed to account for the difference between Sale and Eaton, then another $7 million difference with Cozart in place of Turner, Robles, and Ross.
No Brian Dozier signing saves $9 million, leaving a shirtless, Calma-signing void the What If Nats fans will never know about. Wilmer Difo and Kendrick fill the second base void.
Instead of Aníbal Sánchez’s $9.5 million AAV, the Nationals opt for a cheaper pitcher they were linked with in Wade Miley on a two-year, $8 million contract, a $4 million AAV.
And finally, they opt not to sign Jeremy Hellickson to his one-year $1.3 million deal, opting to just roll with Erick Fedde and Austin Voth in the rotation. That gets us close enough.
The 2019 roster is set, the Nationals are going to bounce back from a poor 2019 season this year!
Well, not exactly. Even though Harper and Rendon are able to carry the offense in the early going, the team’s pitching is poor as they sink to a lowly 19-31 by May 24th. That’s poetic.
Sale isn’t the same Sale of the last two years, Cozart is even worse than he was last season, the bullpen can’t stop imploding again, and the injuries mount up. Early-season acquisition, Gerardo Parra, switches his walk-up song to Baby Shark and the crowd boos emphatically.
This time, without Martinez to keep the team’s heads up in the tough times and with fewer veteran players present than the real 2019, they can’t recover from being 12 games under .500 despite Soto’s phenomenal rookie season, a year later than it really happened.
Summer approaches and the Nationals are still floundering 10 games under .500, Baker and Rizzo receive their marching orders on July 1st, and a trade deadline sell-off begins.
Rendon heads to the White Sox whose kick-started rebuild is now bearing fruits. Matt Adams goes back to St. Louis, again. Miley goes to Houston. Doolittle goes back to Oakland to bolster their bullpen. Kendrick goes to the Astros too as a bench bat. Maybe he’ll clang a walk-off home run off the right field foul pole in Game 7 against the Milwaukee Brewers.
While the Nats could completely sell-off and trade the like of Scherzer and Strasburg too, there’s still a lot of talent in the organization and prospect Carter Kieboom was able to get his feet under him in the second half of the season with the team out of contention.
Regardless, it’s a fresh start for the Nationals after two-straight seasons of disappointment.
Is this timeline perfect? Definitely not. Nowhere close. But it’s interesting to see one version of how making a huge deal like the Sale trade could have several ripple effects down the line.
We’ll never really know what would’ve happened had they acquired Sale. Maybe they do get past the Dodgers in the NLCS or his presence resurrects the disappointing 2018 season. Or maybe the flaws of those teams were just too much to overcome with one or two moves.
Either way, we can all agree that what actually happened to the Nats since then worked out pretty darn good...