Danger clears the vision. Desperation tests allegiances. Hard times loosen lips. All that is transpiring with the Nationals right now as an era of excellence teeters in the balance.
“We do an autopsy on every season after it’s over and also every month. Sometimes I feel like I do it every night,” said General Manager Mike Rizzo, whose Nats still trailed the Mets by 6
The Nats’ “end” hasn’t arrived yet. Last year the team got healthy at approximately this juncture in the season and ended on a 33-13 streak. Then, they did it with decreasing September pressure as they pulled away. This year they need a repeat but with increasing pressure each day they don’t gain ground. A different test.
The Nats confront a disintegrating season that has combined awful play by stars, uninspired inexperienced managing and perpetual injury to everyone in sight, including the loss Thursday of Denard Span, probably for the season. Nervous ownership’s natural concerns often arrive as novice nagging.
Add to that the large lost opportunity cost of all the scandalous years of delay in settling the backroom (and now legal) brawl over how many scores of millions of dollars MASN, the Orioles-owned cable network, has managed to avoid paying the Nats. The team’s annual budgets, now probably averaging around $175 million on a multiyear basis, counting every last cent down to the lowest scout, are sufficient. But in-year emergency increases in payroll, like for trade-deadline deals: very rare.
How would the Nats have thought about last offseason with different resources? Now, they haven’t negotiated significantly with either Stephen Strasburg, a free agent after 2016, or Bryce Harper (2018). It also appears the Nats are no longer looking at a major free agent starting pitcher signing this winter. They’re prepared to go with Max Scherzer, Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Joe Ross, Tanner Roark and, eventually, Lucas Giolito, Erik Fedde and other top pitching prospects.
What you have now is a silent locker room, throats full of the gall of squandered wins. What you have is Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Span and Doug Fister trying their hardest (maybe too hard) as they flounder or fight injury in their walk years, all knowing they will be ex-Nats in a few weeks.
What you have is demoted, dissatisfied Drew Storen wanting a trade that he will almost certainly get this winter. What you have is team leaders who are having such rotten seasons that it undermines their authority. When you are hitting .199, .220 or .229, like Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman or Desmond, don’t you have to set an example before you correct others? Desmond has as many errors (23) as all the Nats combined who have played infield or catcher this entire year.
What you have is the team’s best player last season, Anthony Rendon, enduring a triple-injury season in which he has had a 0.0 WAR (wins above replacement) value. No wonder he’s grouchy. Who has kept the team over .500 (64-62)? Rookies such as Michael A. Taylor, Ross, Clint Robinson and Felipe Rivero. And Danny Espinosa, reviving his career.
And what you have is a red-faced Matt Williams, finally showing emotion as he defended his poorly reasoned decision to over-manage Wednesday in the fulcrum moment of a loss to San Diego. In the seventh inning, the Nats trailed 6-5 with three runs already in, helped by imploding Padres pitchers who had walked two men and hit another. With men on the corners, one out, a 3-0 count on Yunel Escobar and Zimmerman on deck, the Padres were ready to lose. Don’t help ’em.
“This is one pitch where you have to put on the ‘take,’ ” I told two Post colleagues. “Escobar’s slow. He grounds into a ton of double play balls. Take.”
Williams, who loved the 3-0 green light as a hitter (1.387 career OPS, with eight homers) and has used it more than most managers and with some success, let Escobar swing. Double play. Padres get to use their only two top relievers to close the last two innings. Nats lose, 6-5.
“Good situation for him. Our fifth hitter, batting .308,” Williams said tersely. “We can’t change the way we play. We do it all the time. You can look at it a million ways, but [green light 3-0] is a big part of our game.”
The Nats also hit-and-run, steal and bunt as part of their game. But when? That’s the managerial question, like when to lift a pitcher. Do you have a feel for the game? Not playing it yourself but influencing it through others. Williams wasn’t demonstrably wrong. But just when his lineup was finally healthy and deep — no need for rip-up-the-book over-managing risks like a 3-0 ground-into-double-play — Matt struck.
Get used to Williams, a constant student, learning on the job. Rizzo is rock solid with the Lerners; Williams is rock solid with Rizzo. You can debate. The Nats likely won’t.
“We have [star] players who had a combined WAR of 28.5 last year, and this year they are negative . That’s a swing of 29 wins,” said Rizzo, naming nobody but working from some combination of Rendon, Werth, Desmond, Zimmermann, Zimmerman, Span, Fister and Strasburg, all down, Rendon by 6.9 wins, Werth by 6.0 (to -1.9) and Fister by 4.6.
“It’s injuries. It’s coming back without your timing and not hitting for a while. It is bad years [for good players]. It’s everything,” Rizzo said. “Twenty-nine lost wins [in player production] — and that’s on the manager ?”
Usually, a shower of shooting stars as they plummet across the sky is beautiful, like the rare meteorological display on view earlier this month if you looked to the Northeast horizon at 3 a.m. At Nationals Park, the baseball version is on display almost every night at 7 p.m. Stars who were worth almost 30 extra wins in ’14 are now, statistically, worthless for all of ’15.
The window for a Series run by these particular Nats is not closed. But you can barely wedge your fingers under the sill to get a grip to raise it. Even wins, like a 4-2 victory over the Padres on Thursday, come with news of the loss of Span and new day-to-day injuries to Taylor and Escobar.
“In Philadelphia in ’07 and ’08, those teams were much worse off than we are now,” said Werth, a scab on his nose from sliding across home face first this week.
Werth is correct. In ’07, the Phillies trailed the Mets by seven with only 17 games left. They won the division on the last day of the season. In ’08, the Phils were 31/2 games behind with 16 games left, comparable in bad odds to the Nats now. The Phils won the division by three games, then won the World Series.
“It’s late but not that late. . . . But we can’t afford to lose too many more games,” Werth said. “Does that add pressure? No, it’s just reality. . . . More so than anybody — the media, the fans — we go to bed and wake up to those pressures every day.”
Each season has its autopsy. But so soon?
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.