Over the course of five days, we are examining the issues and characters that contributed to this disappointing Washington Nationals season — and how the team can avoid similar disappointment next season.
When someone in the Nationals organization refers to “the family,” everyone knows who they mean. The family is their boss. The family makes final decisions. And the family — the Lerner family — does not like to discuss decisions publicly once they have been made.
So “the family” has become a sort of Oz-like conglomerate, hidden behind a curtain of their own careful creation. They do not like the spotlight, and it is their prerogative to avoid it when possible.
But in a season like this one, in which so much blame is flying around this team and landing on anyone who has anything to do with its inner workings, their reticence becomes conspicuous. Since Ted Lerner handed management of the franchise to his son, Mark, earlier this year, the younger Lerner has written multiple letters to fans regarding the decision to stick with the roster at the nonwaiver trade deadline, then to dismantle it in August.
Mark Lerner is making a concerted effort to be a more public face of the franchise than his father preferred to be, and he was an on-field and vocal participant in Jayson Werth’s Ring of Honor ceremony last month.
Yet when it comes to official comment, to interviews and explanations, he and his family continue to decline. This is their right. But without their side of the story, decisions become harder to explain, rationale becomes impossible to discern, and responsibility grows harder to assign. This year, perhaps more than any other, the owners of the Nationals had as much to do with fostering the expectations piled on this team as the frustration when the roster did not meet them.
A contingent in the ownership group, which consists of multiple members of the extended Lerner family and generally makes decisions collectively, favored parting ways with Manager Dusty Baker at the end of the 2017 season. When the Nationals let him go, they released the following statement: “The Lerner family, on behalf of the entire organization, would like to thank Baker for his two years in the dugout. He led the team to the first back-to-back division titles in our history and represented our club with class on and off the field. We wish him the best going forward.”
They did not comment further.
When General Manager Mike Rizzo spoke on their behalf shortly thereafter, he talked about finding a manager who could get them to their goals — in other words, past the division series. He had wanted Baker to stay, though; in fact, he had wanted Bud Black to manage this team in the first place. Ownership wanted Baker to mentor his successor for two years; Baker probably would be due for a raise after that.
But because of all that, they created a situation where their options were limited and the job was undesirable. Only a rookie manager, hungry for a chance, would take it. And that rookie manager would be taking on the nearly impossible job of bettering back-to-back 95-plus-win seasons while learning on the job. It is no indictment of Dave Martinez that he inherited an impossible set of circumstances; under the standards ownership supplied, he would have to face questions about his job security even if he had led this team to another division series loss. Obviously, he and the Nationals did not fare so well.
The whole thing contributed to a sense of instability, of something being “off,” a notion that was not dispelled in the franchise’s handling of the disappointment that followed.
The Nationals sat a game under .500 and six games back in the National League East on the day before the nonwaiver trade deadline. At that time, Rizzo and his staff compiled multiple deals that would have offloaded key pieces — including, perhaps, Bryce Harper — and presented them to ownership, which had requested those options. Rizzo wanted to wait things out, to keep the band together. Ownership wanted to see the alternatives. When presented with names and the tangible logistics of the deals, they decided against selling.
At the time, given the relative inexperience of the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies, that decision felt justifiable. The Nationals hadn’t been given any help, but they weren’t so far behind that they were out of the race entirely. Then, three weeks later, with 10 days to go before the Aug. 31 trade deadline — a seemingly arbitrary and somewhat inexplicable moment at which to punt — ownership gave the okay to Rizzo to trade away Daniel Murphy and Matt Adams in glorified salary dumps. For the first time since 2012, they had signaled surrender.
The move drew ire in the clubhouse, not because it happened at all, but because of when it happened. As one veteran said shortly after the moves, “I didn’t come here to quit 10 days early.” Admittedly, the Nationals had had three weeks to prove they were worth the gamble. But the timing raised questions that ownership never answered. If they could engineer deals to sell Ryan Madson and Gio Gonzalez on Aug. 31, the last day that teams can add players who are eligible for the postseason, why did the Nationals feel so much pressure to send Murphy and Adams away sooner?
The trouble, as it so often is with this ownership group, was optics. No, those 10 days might not have changed anything. But internally, they changed everything and created a sense that the owners were willing to save 10 days' worth of salary just to save it.
Had they been calculating to the dollar to try to slide back under the Competitive Balance Tax threshold this season, the move might have made more sense. If that is what they were thinking, no one in ownership ever explained as much. Rizzo said the Nationals always knew they weren’t going to get under the tax, which made the moves even more inexplicable. If the moves weren’t going to pay any dividends other than putting money back in ownership’s pocket, why sell 10 days early?
As Mark Lerner wrote in his letter at the time of the sell-off, something had to change in those moments. The team had showed no signs of lurching back to life. But the timing gave the distinct impression that the family was prioritizing business over baseball at the expense of the team’s last true chance, and it sent a message to players and a rookie manager that those in power believed the season was over. The timing also ensured the Nationals got little back for any of their free agents-to-be.
Controversial though the decision might have been to sell at the nonwaiver deadline July 31, the Nationals could have gone all-in and sold then, or waited until the Aug. 31 deadline to see if their position had improved. Instead, they went somewhere halfway and were caught without a big return or a stunning turnaround.
Again, the Nationals might never have turned their season around. But they never got the chance, and for a franchise perpetually struggling to get out of its own way, constantly wrestling to be seen as one of the premier organizations in baseball, the decisions raised eyebrows, not clout.