Put aside the bullpen, just for a minute. Please. We have had all spring to go gray. We will have all summer to rip our hair out. The Nationals won Monday night, 3-2 over the New York Mets. Think happy thoughts, if only to celebrate the Fourth.
Long before the season-long mess added another miserable data point — Matt Albers’s one-strike-away, game-tying homer to Curtis Granderson — Max Scherzer sat down at a table beside Ryan Zimmerman, who was beside Daniel Murphy, who was next to Bryce Harper. Stephen Strasburg couldn’t be there, as Monday was his turn to start, and his attention needed to be on the Mets, not the media, and that’s where his attention was, because he threw seven innings of two-hit, scoreless ball.
And yet there was something in the simple act of lining them up and sitting them down next to each other that was oddly illuminating. It kind of makes you think two things: What are the Nationals wasting by not fixing their relief corps, like, yesterday?
“The biggest downer in baseball is a blown save late,” Manager Dusty Baker said. “I don’t want to beleaguer the fact, but the opposition knows as well.”
And that can overshadow almost anything, including the other takeaway from Monday: Washington just might have the most star power of any team in baseball.
Easy there, Cubs fans. We’ll give you the marketability of the Anthony Rizzo-Kris Bryant bromance, and we’ll allow that the buzz of ending a 108-year World Series drought can extend into the following summer. But check that National League all-star roster, and you’ll find — wait, no Rizzo? No Bryant (yet)? No Jon Lester or Jake Arrieta or. . . . That’s right, you’ll find one Cub — Wade Davis, the closer for whom Chicago traded in the offseason. Isn’t retired backup catcher-turned-“Dancing with the Stars” competitor David Ross better known than even, say, Willson Contreras, who happens to be the current starting catcher for the Cubs?
Put the Cubs — and the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the New York Yankees, and the Boston Red Sox, all of them — aside for a minute, and concentrate on Washington. This is just another in a long list of reminders that these are no longer the guys who took the field wearing jerseys that read “Natinals” across the front. (Wait. Zimmerman was one of those guys. Man, he’s been here a long time. Anyway.)
Keep in mind, from 2006 to 2011 — a six-season stretch — the Nats annually sent just one player to the Midsummer Classic, whether Dmitri Young (2007) or Cristian Guzman (2008) or Matt Capps (2010) seemed to deserve it in a given year. There are so many Nats now that deserving candidates are left out.
“You see there are guys, and there’s only one guy on that team,” Scherzer said of his previous all-star trips. “You’re like, ‘Man, that guy looks lonely.’ ”
And now, just 12½ seasons into the team’s existence in this city — a shorter span than any current major league franchise — the Nationals’ contingent next Tuesday night in Miami represents everything about where this team is, and how it was constructed. It has Zimmerman, the first player ever drafted by the Nationals. It has Strasburg and Harper, the first overall picks in the 2009 and 2010 drafts (respectively), essentially the rewards for enduring 100-loss seasons. It has Scherzer, the $210 million free agent who is somehow proving he is worth it. And it has Murphy, the previously underappreciated hitting savant who announced himself in the 2015 postseason with the Mets but went mostly unwanted on the free agent market before signing here.
But look at those four characters sitting next to each other — different people, for sure, but teammates nonetheless — and it’s kind of stunning that this is basically daily fare for baseball fans here.
So try to make these guys crow about each other.
Hey, guys, should Scherzer be the starter Tuesday night? (Spoiler alert: He should.)
“He’s pretty good,” Zimmerman deadpanned.
“He’s done okay,” Murphy followed.
Ha ha. Scherzer leads the NL in ERA (1.94), innings pitched, strikeouts, and walks and hits per inning pitched (0.771), among other things, and is in the conversation about wresting away the title of best pitcher on the planet from Clayton Kershaw. He is a star doing star-like things.
That’s what Harper was born to do, too, and you’re reminded of that every time he hits a home run on national television, as he did twice on Sunday night in St. Louis. There is no pitcher-position player combination on one team like the two of them — not Kershaw and Corey Seager or Cody Bellinger in Los Angeles, not Luis Severino and Aaron Judge or Gary Sanchez (yet) with the Yankees, not Chris Sale and Mookie Betts in Boston (though man, that’s close).
The depth of the Nats’ collection of stars outweighs those around the league, too. Three other teams — the Yankees, Astros and Indians — also have five players going to the All-Star Game. Houston’s group: total stud shortstop Carlos Correa, batting champ Jose Altuve, outfielder George Springer, former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel and rising star Lance McCullers. For Cleveland: total stud shortstop Francisco Lindor, uber-reliever Andrew Miller, former Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, outfielder Michael Brantley and third baseman Jose Ramirez. For the Yankees: Severino, Judge and Sanchez — the core of a promising group going forward — with reliever Dellin Betances and shortstop Starlin Castro.
Pick ’em apart. For some unquantifiable combination of buzz factor and ability, I’ll take Scherzer and Harper fronting Strasburg, whose big league debut was broadcast nationally; Murphy, who could make an argument that he has been the game’s best hitter for the past two calendar years (if he ever deigned to speak about himself); and Zimmerman, a player with no real national profile, but one who has probably meant the most to the only team for which he has played.
Wait. What about Rendon, the homegrown third baseman?
“It’s really hard for me to swallow that he is not up here at the table right now,” Scherzer said.
“Do you go to FanGraphs at all?” asked Murphy, a frequenter to the most illuminating baseball website that exists.
Let’s take a look. Why, there’s Rendon, fifth in the National League in wins above replacement, first among NL third basemen in on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.953). Shouldn’t he be an easy choice for the final vote, beating out Bryant, Justin Turner of the Dodgers, Miami’s Justin Bour and Colorado’s Mark Reynolds?
Throw in Gonzalez, too. The lefty, previously infuriating, has a 2.77 ERA. You know who’s better than that among NL starters with enough innings to qualify? Scherzer and Kershaw. That’s it. When another NL starter announces he can’t pitch in the game because he is starting Sunday, Gonzalez should be the choice to replace him over Alex Wood of the Dodgers, whose 1.83 ERA comes in just 73 innings to Gonzalez’s 107⅔ .
Drink all that in, and we get to this: The Nats have an undeniable weakness that threatens to undermine all of this. “We know we’re going to get our bullpen fixed,” Baker said.
But the stars, they’re waiting for that to happen. It’d be a shame if the bullpen’s issues distracted us from appreciating them, because they’re right here, before our eyes.