On opening day, the Nationals seemed to have all the answers. On closing day, they have tons of questions. Armchair general managers will have fun thinking about this massive jigsaw puzzle during the offseason. But the Nats’ front office and ownership may have a months-long migraine.
Of all the Nationals’ problems, one of the biggest is that their options for addressing those problems are so tangled that the team may get swamped in the complexity of its alternatives and act too radically.
This is a team that needs a new manager. But the biggest name — Cal Ripken, antsy in Aberdeen — is such a huge hero, yet with no managerial experience, that he could be either a dream or a nightmare. Ripkens are stubborn. So is General Manager Mike Rizzo. Scary movie?
The Nats also may decide to trade key relievers Jonathan Papelbon and Drew Storen. Is a near-total bullpen rebuild necessary? If so, this is a year with few quality free agent relievers on the market. If you don’t get a much-in-demand Joakim Soria, then an expensive trade may be the only alternative. Who says the teams with a prize, such as Craig Kimbrel in San Diego, will even make a deal?
As the roster now projects, the Nats have only one everyday left-handed hitter — Bryce Harper. That would worsen a lopsided lineup that, in 2015, saw right-handed starting pitching constantly (a .483 winning percentage going into the weekend) while rarely getting to beat up on southpaws (.590).
Good left-handed bats are in short free agent supply, too. And where would you put one? Those such as Gerardo Parra, who plays 150 games and whom Rizzo admires, may not be interested in a team that has Harper and Jayson Werth (two years, $42 million left on contract) entrenched in the corner outfield spots.
Also, the 2015 defense, by the Nats’ own evaluation, was close to lousy. Werth, Yunel Escobar and Clint Robinson were all liabilities at their primary positions. Ian Desmond’s 27 errors — 20 more than any other Nat — will disappear. But who goes where? Can Escobar still be a shortstop? Shudder.
The Nats’ great hope is that their 2015 crop of free agents is exceptional and roughly fits the gaps created by the departure of free agents Denard Span, Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann and fizzling Doug Fister. Someday, center fielder Michael A. Taylor, starter Joe Ross, reliever Felipe Rivero and middle infielder Trea Turner will probably be first-rate players. But will that be true in 2016?
With Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg (1.90 ERA after the all-star break) at the top of the rotation, the Nats are still a go-deep-in-the-playoffs contender in 2016 if they cure enough of their headaches. But how hard can you push so many young players under pennant-race pressure?
All these interlocking decisions could make any front office go a little crazy. How will it impact the Nats, coming off a mortifying year with a 90-year-old owner who wants to see a World Series played in his home town? Nerves are raw after the past two months, during which the Nats had 13 games with key rivals or old foes before this weekend — the Mets, Giants and Orioles. They went 0-13.
In public, the Lerner family takes the long view and, generally, acts along those lines, too. But it’s not easy for them. Baseball makes them feel just as crazy as it does every other fan. The Lerners take every inning, almost every at-bat, to heart, sometimes pelting others in the organization with in-game questions or just a sense of alarmed concern.
The Lerners may be invisible to the public, but their desire to win is so intense — and their desire to reverse disappointing seasons so strong — that, almost out of the blue, they are capable of agreeing to a $210 million contract in hopes of making everything right. Yet even this enthusiasm for solutions, sometimes offered by agent Scott Boras, can lead to new problems. The team expended so many resources on Scherzer in January that there was little front-office flexibility left for fixes in July.
This will be the Lerners’ toughest offseason to show good judgment, respect their baseball people and do enough but not too much. Yes, that’s hard. And it will be the roughest winter for Rizzo, whose astronomical batting average has been seriously dented by hiring Matt Williams and trading for Papelbon. Now he’ll probably have to swallow some pride while reworking the team he largely built.
The Nats have significant strengths. Few teams have a trio of stars to match Harper, Scherzer and Strasburg. Anthony Rendon, fifth for MVP in ’14, can’t have another half-injured, half-walkabout season, can he? And Ryan Zimmerman had the third-highest on-base-plus-slugging percentage in the National League after the all-star break.
To take pressure off a chronic heel injury, Zimmerman plans to work on a leaner physique over the winter with increased flexibility. In a smart decision, he vows to play more conservatively — like a slugger past age 30, not a kid diving everywhere. “That may be hard,” he says. “I was taught to go 100 percent.”
In the wake of one of the most disastrously disappointing seasons by any MLB team in recent years, the Nats should not forget all their strengths and farm-system depth, including the top-rated pitching prospect in the minors, Lucas Giolito. There’s no need to panic.
Some problems can be worked around. Perhaps Storen, who’s liked personally but no longer trusted as a ninth-inning postseason option, does not really have to be traded. After his late-season implosion, plus breaking his pitching-hand thumb in pique, both he and the Nats might be better off if they shared a hug and agreed that his walk year in 2016 might best be spent in the seventh or eighth innings.
First things first. The bill of particulars against Williams is already long enough to merit a new man. But add this: Since the all-star break, no one in baseball has appeared in more games than the valuable young Rivero (36 games through Saturday), yet he also has been asked to get more than three outs 10 times in that span. Williams has used him in every role: one out, one inning, two innings, pitch three days in a row? Sure, let Rivero do it.
If only all the Nats’ offseason decisions were as clear as their first one. Once the Nats decide about their manager, their problems may look less complex. But not by much. And not soon.