What was determined on the Washington Nationals’ 3-7 trip was not much, not much at all. Focus on the hopeless sweep in Milwaukee if you believe the season is doomed. Find something to like about the split in Los Angeles if you somehow maintain optimism, even if it ended with a one-hitter against them. Either way: Before a six-game homestand against the New York Mets and Chicago Cubs, there is exactly one team in the National League with a worse record than the Nats. That’s stark. Incredible and stark.
We can keep doing this dance, wondering whether this group will get its act together before it’s too late. What’s worth considering now, though, are the larger questions. I’m not even talking about whether Dave Martinez is the right man to manage this bunch, because that’s small by comparison. What’s worth examining is the foundation on which this franchise is built.
General Manager Mike Rizzo, in his job for a decade now, has said two things worth noting, one in the more distant past and one recently. The first: He and his staff try to build a 90-win club every year. Sometimes they exceed by a few games; sometimes they fall short by a few. But they’re always competitive, at least since 2012. The second is more blunt, and it came just before this depressing trip began: “Every important decision that’s made for the Washington Nationals, I’m responsible for.”
This is Rizzo’s team. It’s Rizzo’s roster, Rizzo’s front-office staff and, to an extent, Rizzo’s manager. (Though if it had been up to him, Dusty Baker would still be here.) (Shoot, I’m even wrong on that. If it had been up to him, they would have gotten the deal done with Bud Black back in the fall of 2015. So, yeah, the ownership of the Lerner family has a stake in this, too.)
But let’s make sure we examine this roster correctly. Put aside the injuries and Martinez’s in-game decisions, and you’re left with two major failures: a bullpen that was ill-constructed and ill-equipped to contend, and a roster that wasn’t deep enough to absorb the maladies that popped up in the season’s first month.
Take the bullpen first. I’ve always given Rizzo credit for adding key relievers in years when they were contending for the National League East title. The Nationals added Mark Melancon to close in 2016, then both Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson in the same deal in 2017. Even last year, before the season cratered, they were aggressive early in getting Kelvin Herrera from Kansas City. That deal didn’t work out, nor did the trade for Jonathan Papelbon in 2015, and we don’t need to go over the particulars of that one here. The point: With a need identified, the Nats’ front office has often been able to fix it midstream.
But here’s the problem, as we consider this 16-24 club: Why does it always have to be fixed midstream?
This year’s bullpen was solid at the back end with Doolittle, an elite closer. But from there, it was banking on returning-from-Tommy John surgery Trevor Rosenthal, who Rizzo admits was a “high-risk, high-reward” investment. The risk (significant) has thus far trumped any reward (zero), and the entire bullpen has suffered because of it.
So the obvious answer, if the Nats were to somehow claw their way back to a position in which they were buying at the trade deadline, would be to do what they always do: Fix it with a deal. There’s a problem, though. All of those midseason corrections have taken a toll on the Nats’ system.
Given away in previous trades for relievers: Felipe Vazquez (nee’ Rivero), an all-star last year for the Pittsburgh Pirates now with a 0.48 ERA and 12 saves in 12 opportunities, for Melancon; Blake Treinen, another all-star a year ago who has a 1.43 ERA for Oakland since being part of the deal for Doolittle and Madson; Jesus Luzardo, the Athletics’ top prospect, shelved with a shoulder injury for now but a reason for hope in Oakland; and Nick Pivetta, banished to the minors by the Philadelphia Phillies but still just 26 and a decent depth starter option.
In a vacuum, you make each of those deals at the time (though quibbling about Pivetta-for-Papelbon is permitted). And you can’t pretend Treinen was going to turn it around here, because he seemed lost. But look at the totality, and you realize the 2019 Nationals are proof that franchises aren’t run in a vacuum.
Not even mentioned above: Trading established reliever Brandon Kintzler to the Cubs, ostensibly because Rizzo suspected Kinztler had been spilling beans to reporters about the inner workings of the Nats’ clubhouse; and cutting reliever Shawn Kelley because he showed up Martinez by firing his glove to the ground in a blowout win. This year, Kintzler has a 1.93 ERA and 0.696 walks-and-hits-per inning pitched in Chicago; Kelley, a 1.29 ERA and 0.714 WHIP for Texas.
All those trades and decisions have thinned both the major league roster and the system, and they don’t even mention the three-for-one blockbuster with the Chicago White Sox that brought Adam Eaton and sent out three arms — Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning. None is a surefire success in Chicago. But none is helping the Nats in any way.
Gradually, this bullpen discussion is trickling into the thin-roster discussion. The Nats’ most stirring and encouraging win on the trip just past came when journeyman Gerardo Parra, signed mid-trip, drilled a game-winning grand slam Saturday night against the Dodgers. Great moment. Why was Parra needed as a Band-Aid? Because the Nats’ system is bereft of worthy fill-ins when the regulars go down — which they do, with alarming regularity.
Forget that Andrew Stevenson is not a major league player, that Adrián Sanchez has been a career minor leaguer for a reason, that Carter Kieboom wasn’t ready. Here’s a sneaky one: Last July, the Nats traded outfielder Brian Goodwin to Kansas City for a reliever who is now at Class AA. It didn’t seem part of the purge that sent out second baseman Daniel Murphy, lefty Gio Gonazlez or first baseman Matt Adams, and Goodwin was subsequently waived by Kansas City.
But it’s hard to conclude that there wasn’t a misevaluation at some level here: Michael A. Taylor is hitting .163 with a minuscule .459 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in part-time duty for Washington. His time seems past. Goodwin is hitting .304 with an .864 OPS for the Los Angeles Angels. Go figure.
Makes you think. For years, Rizzo’s trades have seemed unassailable. At times, it seemed laughable that he had won that many in a row.
Now? The major league team is failing. The minor league system doesn’t have the inventory to fix it. The rest of the season starts with the two series against the Mets and Cubs, a critical homestand.
But at this point, the rest of the season is a referendum on the organization as a whole. Are the Nationals as they advertise themselves: an annual contender whose participation in the postseason is dependent only on health and luck? Or has their foundation eroded to the point that contending every summer is no longer practical or possible? They’re scary questions. Soon, we’ll start finding out the answers.