Matt Adams’s backpack was pulled tight, a hat on backward, as he walked up the dim ramp from the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse to the players’ parking lot Tuesday afternoon. Clubhouse manager Mike Wallace walked alongside him, pushing a cart that contained a Nationals duffel and a bat bag, helping Adams open the door and carry them out to his car and into a final six weeks of the season spent elsewhere. Soon after, Daniel Murphy took the same route, heading out into the light and on to Chicago, his Nationals tenure over because he and his teammates just didn’t play well enough.
The Nationals traded three-time all-star Murphy to the Chicago Cubs and first baseman-left fielder Adams to the St. Louis Cardinals, the team announced Tuesday afternoon. In so doing, they all but waved the white flag on a season that began with World Series hopes and a roster talented enough to fulfill them. This team, under this general manager, has never before given up on a roster this talented.
“These moves allow us financial flexibility going into the 2019 season, to allocate our resources in that direction,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “These are tough decisions. To trade an ultimate professional like Daniel Murphy and Matt Adams is never easy. We feel that this was the best way to facilitate what we’re trying to do not only in 2018 and beyond. We always have the one-, three-, five-year plan in place, and this helps expedite those plans.”
Three weeks ago, at the nonwaiver trade deadline, the Nationals decided against selling off. The front office assembled potential deals, presented them to ownership, then decided to give the team a chance to steady itself. Over the next three weeks, the team did not gain ground. It did not tread water. Instead, Washington lost more games than it won and fell further behind in the National League East standings. On Tuesday morning, it was a game under .500 and 7 1/2 games out in the National League East, coming off an inexplicable and unacceptable 12-1 loss to the last-place Miami Marlins on Sunday.
“I think that game on Sunday said a lot,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “It was ugly. Like I said, we got to move forward. We got six weeks to make things right.”
Martinez, who could hardly say anything else in his position as tone-setter for this team, said he still thinks this team can make a run — that players came into his office after the deals to suggest they are ready to do the same. Rizzo also suggested enough talent remains “to play competitive games at the end of the season.” Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper both argued the same point.
But the reality of Tuesday’s moves is that one of them removed one of the most productive left-handed hitters in baseball from a lineup that would not surrender such a weapon if it were arming itself for a push. The deals do not clear room for elite prospects, either. Martinez said Wilmer Difo will take over most of the innings at second base, and the team recalled Adrian Sanchez from Class AAA Syracuse to serve as a backup infielder. Zimmerman and Mark Reynolds will split time at first base, and the Nationals recalled Andrew Stevenson from Syracuse to provide a left-handed option off the bench.
The motives behind the deal are clear: get something for two players who can leave for nothing as free agents in six weeks. The Cardinals sent the Nationals “cash considerations,” which means the Adams deal amounts to a basic waiver claim in which St. Louis takes the rest of Adams’s prorated salary off their hands. The Cubs sent them infield prospect Andruw Monasterio, a Venezuela native who was hitting .263 with Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach at the time of the deal. Rizzo said the Cubs probably also will include a player to be named later, one to be determined after the Arizona Fall League season.
If that player is one who participates in the AFL and that is the reason for the delay, then this deal could look quite different for the Nationals. AFL players generally have stature within a system, and many are among an organization’s top five prospects. No one has confirmed that a player of that caliber will be available when the deal is finalized, though Rizzo did go out of his way to include the timeline when announcing the deal. The Nationals will save roughly $5 million in 2018 salary on the deals, which Rizzo said he thinks is not enough to drop them under the luxury tax threshold, though he said he wasn’t sure.
“These are resources we’re going to utilize for player acquisition in the future, and I think that’s the way we think about it in the front office,” Rizzo said. “The money that we are making from the cash considerations goes directly into procuring talent for us to compete in the future.”
The Nationals would have maximized their returns for both players by dealing them at the trade deadline, at which point they probably could have gotten something for free-agent-to-be relievers Kelvin Herrera and Ryan Madson, too. But Herrera and Madson are both injured now, which reduces the likelihood that any team will bite on a waiver deal, though it does not preclude it. As they were at the trade deadline, the Nationals also remained open to the possibility of trading Harper, who was claimed off waivers this week, reportedly by the Los Angeles Dodgers, though no deal materialized. Rizzo did not say how close it came.
“I had no fear of being traded,” said Harper, who did somewhat worry a deal was close at the deadline. Although Harper would have saved the Nationals the most money of those known to be placed on waivers, he probably would not have netted the Nationals the kind of return they could sell to their fan base — not at this time of year. So they did not sell him. Instead of a full-scale sell-off that might have maximized their return, the Nationals chose to hold their pieces at the deadline, accepting the risk that they might not be able to recoup the same value a few weeks later.
“I believed in this team, and would have loved to see them all play healthy together this season. However, the time has come for us to make decisions that will bolster our roster for next season and beyond. This is about giving us some roster flexibility, giving us the opportunity to see some of our young talent, and seeing if we can still find a combination or two that could spark a difference,” said managing principal owner Mark Lerner in a message to fans posted an hour or so after the deals.
The gist of that letter was this: The Nationals gambled at the deadline, and they lost. But “this is not a rebuilding effort.” This is a reallocation of resources — resources that, in this case, happen to include two key players and personalities from a roster so talented that an August sell-off of any size and shape once seemed unthinkable.
“I feel very disappointed in myself that it kind of came to this point. No ill will whatsoever. It was just unfortunate that this was an option,” Murphy said. “So, yeah, I was surprised. Sad. But that’s baseball.”
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