As Bryce Harper spoke with a crowd of reporters in front of his locker Tuesday afternoon, rapid change was in his sight lines.
To Harper’s left, Daniel Murphy slung a black backpack onto his shoulders and said goodbye to Trea Turner with a half-hug and pat on the back. Straight across the Nationals’ clubhouse, the contents of Matt Adams’s locker were being packed into a brown box. The Nationals traded Murphy and Adams on Tuesday, just hours before hosting the Philadelphia Phillies, leaving Harper and his teammates to reconcile with the message the front office is sending with 37 games to play.
The return of each trade — Murphy was dealt for two prospects from the Chicago Cubs, while Adams netted “cash considerations” from the St. Louis Cardinals — will not improve the Nationals in 2018, a year now marked by missed opportunity. The deals were made with the future in mind, 2019 and beyond, but the remaining Nationals have no choice but to approach the stretch run as if they still have a slim chance.
“I think you are always surprised if one of your guys or two of your guys are let go, are traded,” Harper said. “But we still got, what, 30-something games left and still got to come to the park every day and try to battle it out, grind it out. We’re only 7½ games back. So we’re going to play till the end and see what happens.”
Harper’s thoughts were echoed, in some form, by veteran first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, Manager Dave Martinez and General Manager Mike Rizzo: These moves were made with at least one eye on the future, but they have not yet declared this season a lost cause. The Nationals are 7½ games back of the division-leading Atlanta Braves heading into Tuesday night’s game against the Phillies, who trail the Braves by one game in the National League East. The Nationals’ playoff odds are plummeting by the day, and they now cling to their playoff hopes without Murphy (their starting second baseman) and Adams (a valuable left-handed pinch hitter who often started against right-handed pitchers).
The organization took a chance by standing pat at the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline, then decided 21 days later that it was time to plan for the years ahead. Martinez said before Tuesday’s game that he did not feel the need to deliver a message to the clubhouse. He noted that a few players had already come by his office and expressed excitement for the matchup with the Phillies, showing him that his players remain “all in” on this season.
“We’re definitely not in an ideal spot. We had a chance a couple times to gain some ground and couldn’t really string together many wins in a row,” Zimmerman said as Murphy’s locker was cleaned out a few feet to his left. “We’re still a decent ways out. By no means are we done. … If you want to call it the business side of it, call it whatever you want to call it, we had many chances to go on some runs and just couldn’t pull it together in the last couple weeks.”
Zimmerman has seen a lot in his 14 years with the Nationals: teams that fell short of sky-high expectations, teams that outdid a low bar, teams projected to lose 100 games that went out and played like everyone thought they would. That is why he was not surprised by Tuesday’s trades; he’s never surprised by what happens in Major League Baseball or any professional sport. Zimmerman did not even express shock that the Nationals, who carried World Series expectations into the season, are under .500 at 62-63 as September nears.
He did, however, want to properly assign blame for the Nationals trading away key pieces when they should be pushing toward the playoffs.
“Any time stuff doesn’t work out, and you haven’t played like you should, you can make all the excuses you want, injuries, people want to blame [Martinez], people want to do this. It’s nobody’s fault but the players,” Zimmerman said. “We have to play better, and when we don’t win games, it’s because of us; it’s not because of [Martinez or Rizzo] or any of those guys. Those guys get the blame all the time, but at the end of the day, if we want to win games, we got to play better. So far this year, we haven’t.”
As for why the deals happened now, ahead of a nine-game stretch against divisional opponents, Martinez looked to the Nationals’ recent play against the last-place Marlins. Martinez called the whole weekend a “disappointment” and added that the Nationals’ 12-1 loss Sunday “said a lot.” The two losses to the Marlins, on Saturday and Sunday, coincided with losses by the Braves and Phillies, meaning the Nationals missed two critical chances to inch back into the race.
Instead they fluttered, and roster moves became imminent. The Nationals started August by winning five of six but have a 4-9 record since.
“I think, now, looking back, you can say, yeah, were there missed opportunities? We didn’t play as well this past road trip as we’d like to and didn’t play as well against the Marlins,” Murphy said before he departed Nationals Park. “But we’re not sitting around every day and — you know, we’re just going out there and competing for one another.”
The Nationals will continue to do so, playoff chances or not, with whoever is in the lineup or bullpen or starting rotation from here on out. And while there may have been mixed reactions to the deals — surprise, Murphy’s disappointment that his Nationals tenure ended this way, Rizzo and Martinez’s insistence that both the future and present can be bright — they all agreed that Tuesday offered another game to play.
“I mean, nobody thought we were going to show up today and have people traded,” Zimmerman said. “But that’s the way it is.”
PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES (68-56)
Cesar Hernandez 2B
Rhys Hoskins LF
Asdrubal Cabrera SS
Carlos Santana 1B
Maikel Franco 3B
Odubel Herrera CF
Jorge Alfaro C
Vince Velasquez P
Roman Quinn RF
WASHINGTON NATIONALS (62-63)
Adam Eaton RF
Trea Turner SS
Bryce Harper CF
Anthony Rendon 3B
Juan Soto LF
Ryan Zimmerman 1B
Matt Wieters C
Tanner Roark P
Wilmer Difo 2B
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