More than anything else, the Washington Nationals can credit most of their success since 2012 to starting pitching. With all due respect to Stephen Strasburg and his stellar 2019 postseason, it’s clear that the leader of the staff since his arrival via free agency in 2015 is Max Scherzer.
Signing the right-hander might have been the smartest decision Mike Rizzo ever made as the Nats’ general manager. Scherzer won back-to-back Cy Young awards in 2016 and 2017, rewriting the franchise’s pitching record books and tying a major league record with a 20-strikeout game, as he spurred the Nats on to the postseason each year. The past two seasons have been just as dominant.
But before Scherzer, the Nats had another ace, Jordan Zimmermann. Drafted with the 67th overall pick in the 2007 draft, the right-hander was compensation for losing Alfonso Soriano in free agency. Zimmermann won the hearts of Nats fans by putting together a streak of stellar seasons from 2012-2014, culminating with the Nationals’ first no-hitter on Sept. 28, 2014. He became a star after coming back strong in 2010 from Tommy John surgery the year before, setting the template for treatment of Strasburg after he had the procedure 2011.
Heading into Zimmermann’s dominant 14-5, 2.68 ERA 2014 season, his impending free agency was a big issue for Nats fans, columnists and radio sports hosts, who all clamored for the home team to keep its homegrown star.
So let’s climb into the DeLorean and set the time circuits for January 2015, for a look at the alternate timeline, where Rizzo made what might have been the worst move of his career in keeping Zimmermann after missing out on Scherzer...
After the Nats bowed out of the postseason for the second time in three years, fans beseeched Rizzo in the offseason not to let Zimmermann get away. But few were aware that the Nats were in secret negotiations with uber-agent Scott Boras to sign Scherzer. The negotiations were complicated however, and on Jan. 10, 2015, the “mystery team” in the talks (there’s ALWAYS a “mystery team”), the New York Mets, stunned the baseball world by snagging Scherzer for $270 million over six years, one year and $50 million more than the Nats were willing to spend.
With just six weeks remaining until spring training, Rizzo was forced to admit that his ace Zimmermann was really Plan B all along, but he delighted the Nats faithful and rewarded Zimmermann with a five-year, $130 million extension, seemingly keeping him through the 2019 season. Rizzo spent the extra money he would have paid Scherzer to sign World Series hero Pablo Sandoval to a five-year, $90 million deal to play third base, shifting Anthony Rendon to second. Little did Rizzo know that those moves would ensure that the Nats would never see the postseason again before he and manager Dusty Baker were swept away in a housecleaning 50 games into the 2019 season.
The decline started almost immediately. Zimmermann remained the ace of the staff, going 13-10 with a 3.75 ERA and 164 strikeouts, and Tanner Roark continued to pitch well as a starter, winning a dozen games and leading the team in innings pitched. But the rest of the pitching staff underwhelmed, there was no established closer, and the offense was nowhere to be found. Sandoval was injured most of the season and out of shape when he could play.
An injury to Rendon made things worse, and despite Bryce Harper’s MVP-caliber season, the Nats went 80-82 and never seriously challenged for the division lead.
The Mets, meanwhile, stacked Scherzer in the rotation with Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndegaard and Bartolo Colon, rolled to a 95-68 record, leading the division from wire to wire. Scherzer sent Citi Field into a frenzy when he threw his first career perfect game, and his second no-hitter of the season, on Oct. 3 against the Nats. The legendary outing clinched Scherzer’s second straight Cy Young Award, and first of four straight with the Mets. The team hardly missed Harvey after he was inning limited and shut down in mid-September, while Scherzer led the Mets through the playoffs to their first of three straight World Series titles.
The downward spiral in Washington continued in 2016. Zimmermann got off to a strong start, but a neck injury limited him to a 9-7 record in just 18 starts after four straight years of more than 30. Feeling pressure to pick up Zimmermann’s slack, Strasburg was overworked, and the same night the Nats announced his seven-year, $165 million contract extension, Stras suffered a season-ending UCL injury, necessitating the second Tommy John surgery of his career. He never fully recovered and exercised his opt-out clause after the 2019 season, returning to his native California on a minor-league deal with the San Diego Padres.
With their big hitters either underperforming or injured in 2016, the Nats won fewer than 80 games for the first time since 2011.
Zimmermann’s forgettable 8-13 season in 2017 was the beginning of the end of his Nats career. With Strasburg missing most of the season recovering from surgery, the Nats battled Miami all season for the NL East cellar. A strong season from Rendon and surge by Harper before his late-season knee injury were just enough to push the 70-92 Nats past the last-place Marlins. With seemingly nothing to lose, the Nats still signed Baker to a two-year contract extension, while the Marlins said goodbye to Don Mattingly and tapped former Rays and Cubs bench coach Davey Martinez as their new skipper.
Things were even worse in 2018. The Nats opted not to let Harper’s impending free agency become a distraction and sent him to Baltimore in the offseason in a blockbuster deal for Manny Machado and Chris Davis. On the field, the Marlins pushed the Nats permanently into last place after Rizzo traded future stars Juan Soto and Victor Robles for catcher J.T. Realmuto at the All-Star break. The Nats finished with just 60 wins and parted ways with Zimmermann after his 7-8 campaign, trading him to Cincinnati for Tyler Mahle.
Which brings us to the 2019 season, when an atrocious Nats team started 9-41. Owner Ted Lerner staged his famous “Friday Afternoon Massacre” on May 24, the day after closer Trevor Rosenthal extended his major league record by failing to record an out in his 12th straight appearance. After the entire front office and coaching staff were given their walking papers, Davey Johnson reluctantly came out of retirement to nap in the dugout every night while the team stumbled to a 54-108 finish. Meanwhile, the Houston Astros won their second straight World Series, defeating the surprising Marlins amid unproven allegations of some sort of pitch-tipping system. We now await the pandemic-delayed start of the 2020 season to see if new Nats skipper Carlos Beltran, first-year bench coach Ryan Zimmerman and promising young third baseman Carter Kieboom can light a spark under the team.