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How the Washington Nationals’ July schedule sparked the rebuild… and how things could have turned out differently

The Washington Nationals faced the most difficult part of their schedule a few weeks before the trade deadline. The New York Mets just had a similar stretch, but it’s too late for them to sell now.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Miami Marlins Rhona Wise-USA TODAY Sports

Timing is everything.

After wrapping up June with a fantastic 19-9 record, the Washington Nationals began July just two games behind the first place New York Mets in the NL East. That 19-9 record featured an 11-7 record against the worst division in baseball (their own) and home sweeps of the Pittsburgh Pirates (3) and the Tampa Bay Rays (2).

As hot as the Nats were, though, it seemed clear at the time that the Nats were about to play a stretch that would make or break the season. The weak June schedule disappeared, replaced by a fourteen game stretch in which the Nats would play the three best teams in the National League.

The expectation was that this stretch would tell us what the 40-38 Nationals were made of. Were they the team that went 21-29 in the season’s first two months or the team that had a resurgent June to look like they had a shot at winning the division? Given that this was the same franchise that went from 19-31 to World Series champs just two years ago, the answer to that question wasn’t a foregone conclusion.

Unfortunately, the Nats showed that they were a lot closer to the team that looked like an afterthought in April and May than the contenders they looked like in June.

  • They suffered a four-game sweep at home against the Dodgers, being outscored 26-11 as they allowed at least five runs in each game
  • They managed a four game split in San Diego, though there was a game in here that may have been the low point in the Nats season. Coming off of a 15-5 win with a chance to win a tough series against the Padres, the Nats jumped out to an 8-0 lead on Yu Darvish with their own ace on the mound. Unfortunately, Max Scherzer couldn’t make it out of the fourth inning as the Padres got seven of those runs back. San Diego would tie it in the sixth inning against Wander Suero before walking off Sam Clay in a 9-8 gut punching loss.
  • The Nats then headed up the coast to San Francisco, where they were outscored 18-8 as the Giants swept their way into the All Star Break.
  • Upon returning from the break, the Nats went on to lose two out of three to the Padres, including a brutal 24-8 loss to begin the second half. The Padres outscored the Nats 41-20 in that series.

All told, the Nationals went 3-11 in that fourteen game stretch against the best of the west. They were outscored 111-73. They dropped eight games in the standings, falling from 2 games back in the NL East to 10 games out and dropping from second place to fourth in the division.

While the Nats would go on to win their first two games after this brutal stretch, against the Miami Marlins, another five-game losing streak followed. This included a three-game sweep at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles, who currently own the worst record in baseball. Less than a week later, the Nats made a handful of franchise-altering moves, starting with the trade of Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Bear with me, though. Having that ridiculous stretch in early July where they played fourteen straight games against the best teams in the National League was exactly what the Nationals needed! Even though the Nats are two years removed from winning the World Series (with the oldest roster in baseball at the time), maintaining the status quo with the roster they had before the trade deadline wasn’t a viable long-term strategy.

  • I love Max Scherzer as much as the rest of you, but the fact of the matter is that he’s 37. Since he’s yet to show any real signs of decline, it means he’s unlikely to take much (any?) of a discount in free agency. He’ll likely end up signing a multi-year deal worth north of $30 million a year.
  • The Nationals are paying 33-year-old Stephen Strasburg $35 million a year for the next five seasons. In the first two seasons of that deal, he’s combined to throw 26.2 innings. As great as Strasburg has been when healthy, there have to be questions about whether he will ever be ready to go for a full season again.
  • Patrick Corbin is due $83+ million over the next three years. After getting tagged for six runs Thursday, the 32-year-old saw his ERA balloon to 6.09!

Removing the obvious sentimentality, paying Max Scherzer more than $30 million a year on an extension is something that never really made sense for this organization. They’re already paying about $60 million a year to two other veteran starters who are showing signs of decline, whether those are age-related, injury-related, or both.

Scherzer has yet to show any real signs of decline, but sometimes that decline isn’t gradual, even for some of the greats. Just ask Johan Santana, Roy Halladay, or even Pedro Martinez. All three were among the best pitchers in the league for the better part of the decade. When they dropped off, their ERA rose 1.50-2.00 runs higher than in the previous season.

  • In Santana’s case, he missed the entire 2011 season due to a shoulder injury. He was a shadow of his former self in 2012 and retired at 33.
  • The late Roy Halladay finished second on the Cy Young ballot in 2011 after winning it in 2010. In 2012, at age 34, Halladay’s ERA jumped from 2.35 to 4.49. He hung on for one final season in 2013, ceding a 6.82 ERA in just 62 innings before retiring.
  • Pedro dropped off a bit in his final year in Boston. His 4.9 fWAR in 2004 was his lowest total since 1995. While he bounced back with a great year in 2005, his total fWAR from 2006-2009 was just 4.2.

The Nats had an aging and expensive roster with some significant holes. This seemed pretty clear even before their miserable run in July. Even before Kyle Schwarber’s injury, the lack of offensive depth was being exposed. Turner and Juan Soto were terrific. Schwarber carried the team on his back for much of June, and looked like he might emerge as a corner outfield bat they could think about keeping around. Josh Bell was hot and cold. Yan Gomes was a good hitter... for a catcher. Josh Harrison was a good utility man who was being forced into everyday duty. The club was giving far too many plate appearances to the Jordy Mercers and Gerardo Parras of the world.

When you combine an aging and expensive rotation with a lineup that thinned out (and was loaded with older players on expiring deals) once you got past the first four or five spots in the order, there are really only two choices as the trade deadline approaches. You can either go all out for one final run or you can decide that it’s time to start over. This is why it was so important that the Nats got a real test by playing the three best teams in the National League.

Of the eight players that the Nationals traded, six of them were thirty or older. Only Trea Turner (28) and Kyle Schwarber (28) were under thirty years old. Brad Hand was the next youngest, at 31. Yan Gomes (34), Josh Harrison (34), Daniel Hudson (34), Jon Lester (37), and Scherzer (37) were the rest of the players who were traded. The only one of the eight players that the Nats traded who would have been under contract for next season was Turner.

* Kyle Schwarber has a one year mutual option for next season which is $11.5 million with a $3 million buyout. While all indications are that he enjoyed his time with the Nats, his performance this season suggests that he should do much better than that if he opts for free agency.

Yes... Timing is everything. While some will suggest that getting swept by the Orioles was what cemented that the Nats would be selling at the deadline, falling ten games out with two weeks to go before the deadline set those wheels in motion. If the Nationals had continued to feast on the other teams in the weak NL East for another three weeks and deluded themselves into buying, they could have set themselves back even further. Instead, they added some great young talent when they sold at the deadline.

#LOLMets

There was a team, however, that got stuck with a similarly rough stretch in August to what the Nats faced in July: The New York Mets. From August 13 through August 26, the Mets played thirteen straight games against the Dodgers and Giants.

They began that stretch at 59-55, a half game behind the first place Phillies and a half game in front of the third place Braves. The Mets’ performance against the top teams in the NL was remarkably similar to the Nats’ performance against them.

  • They went 2-11 and were outscored 60-40.
  • The Mets have dropped to third place, 7.5 games behind the first place Braves... losing eight games in the standings to the Braves. When the Nats faced the Padres, Giants, and Dodgers for fourteen straight games, they lost (you guessed it!) eight games in the standings to the Mets.

The Mets didn’t necessarily go all-in at the deadline. They went out and acquired Rich Hill, Trevor Williams, and Javy Baez, but the only prospect they’re likely to miss that they dealt is Pete Crow-Armstrong. However, if they’d had to run that NL West gauntlet at the time the Nats did, they may have taken a different approach at the deadline.

The Mets have quite a few players on expiring deals that could have been sold for future assets if they’d had this colossal drop in the standings sooner. Players like Michael Conforto, Jeurys Familia, Aaron Loup, Marcus Stroman, and Jonathan Villar all would have been sought after commodities at the deadline. While they’d probably love to bring a guy like Stroman back, there’s no guarantee they’ll get an extension done. They’ll now risk losing each of these players for nothing this offseason.

Maybe the NL East race isn’t over?

The Braves certainly took advantage of both the Mets and Phillies (lost 7 of 9, including being swept by Arizona) slipping to make themselves the favorites in the NL East. However, Atlanta figures to have the toughest remaining schedule. They’re about to have their own six game stretch against the Giants (home) and Dodgers (away). They also have road series against the Giants and Padres in September.

This might give the Phillies (5.5 back) or Mets (7.5 back) a real shot at catching them. In fact, the Phillies play just two teams with a winning record (Sept. 6-8 at Milwaukee, Sept. 28-30 at Atlanta) the rest of the way. The Mets still have series with the Yankees, Red Sox, and Brewers before closing the year out with the Braves. It’s going to be interesting to see who ends up winning the worst division in baseball.