Here is the bet Mike Rizzo and his bosses with the Washington Nationals are making on a team that, as Tuesday’s non-waiver trade deadline passed, had a losing record, was in third place and looked flat and flustered far too often over a four-month stretch: “Track record,” Rizzo said.
The Philadelphia Phillies, who lead the National League East, added a veteran infielder, a veteran catcher (who’s currently injured) and a reliever. The Atlanta Braves, who trailed Philadelphia by just a half-game heading into Tuesday’s play, added a starting pitcher, two relievers and a power-hitting outfielder. And that doesn’t even get to what the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Los Angeles Dodgers — goodness gracious, the Dodgers — the Chicago Cubs and even the Pittsburgh Pirates brought in over the past month.
The Nationals’ response to the seismic movement in their division and their league: holding on to Bryce Harper — and that’s not insignificant — and sending reliever Brandon Kintzler to the Cubs for a 23-year-old Class A reliever.
Their other response: unleashing a 25-4 shellacking on the unwatchable New York Mets.
Every other NL contender, if the Nationals can still be cast as such, got better in the weeks and days and hours leading up to Tuesday’s 4 p.m. deadline. The Nationals doubled down on who they had.
A reasonable response might be, “Huh?” And then they give a glimpse, however tiny, of why.
“We feel on paper we’re as good as any team in the league, if we play up to our capabilities,” Rizzo said. “We’re worried about how we play. We’re not worried about the other teams in our division or in the National League. Because if we play like we can play, we don’t have to worry about anybody.”
And yet, the Nationals have worries that one game doesn’t erase, and we’ll get to them. But first, let’s be clear on how this should be interpreted, both on Broad Street to the north and Peachtree Street to the south: The Nationals’ bet is not only on their current roster, but it’s a bet against the Phillies and the Braves. Had the Nationals been faced with beating the Dodgers — now with both Manny Machado and Brian Dozier — in the West or the Cubs — now with Cole Hamels and Kintzler — in the Central, their trade deadline would have looked different.
Instead, Rizzo all but looked the Phillies and the Braves in the eye and said, “You haven’t won anything.” Which, given 105 games of evidence, could be interpreted as, uh, brash.
“We’re the two-time defending champs,” Rizzo said. “We’ve got the bull’s-eye on our back and the crown our head, and until someone takes it away from us, we’re still the champs.”
He did, of course, have to look up at both those teams in order for them to hear him.
Let’s sort this out, and the sorting has to start with Harper. It’s important to know that the Nationals listened to what they might receive for their star, a free agent-to-be. They had to do that. It’s the only responsible way to run a franchise.
But for Harper, the player and the person, this certainly was alarming. He was professional about the situation Tuesday. “You always wonder, but I think that’s just the business end of the game,” he said, and he praised Rizzo as “one of the best GMs in all of baseball.”
This is delicate, though. Just two weeks ago, during the all-star festivities, Harper perhaps reached his apex in Washington when an adoring crowd watched him dramatically win the Home Run Derby. Now, a front office doing what it needed to do — exploring what the final two months of Harper might bring in a trade — could in turn rattle that same player.
So part of Rizzo’s bet, then, is that Harper’s track record — a .285 batting average, .386 on-base percentage and .515 slugging percentage for his career heading into this year — is what will surface over the final 57 games of the year, replacing the .220/.369/.473 slash line with which he entered Tuesday’s game.
The first game of the rest of Harper’s Nationals career: 2 for 4 with two doubles, a walk and his 63rd and 64th RBI.
But that bet has to apply to others. Here are the on-base-plus-slugging percentages for several key Nationals heading into this season, and then for 2018 before Tuesday: Daniel Murphy, .804 and .701; Ryan Zimmerman, .820 and .698; Trea Turner, .840 and .746; and Matt Wieters, .726 and .603.
Rizzo is awaiting the return of Stephen Strasburg to the rotation and Sean Doolittle to the bullpen. His belief is that Adam Eaton and Murphy and Zimmerman, all of whom missed significant time with injuries, are pointed in the right direction offensively. Murphy homered twice and Zimmerman once in the laugher against the Mets. His hope is that those players can be who they were. But what if this is who they are?
“I think we’ve played some of the worst baseball we can — and we’re only 5½ games back,” Harper said.
Fine. Harper, really, was the only piece the Nationals could dangle who would bring back a franchise-altering haul. They could have dealt relievers Kelvin Herrera — the piece they added in June — or Ryan Madson, but trading those players, also free agents-to-be, would have lessened this team and not significantly improved the 2019 or 2020 versions. Kintzler was shipped out because the Nationals believed he was responsible for anonymous reports that painted Washington’s clubhouse culture as iffy.
“Dysfunctional?” Manager Dave Martinez said. “I don’t see any dysfunction in our clubhouse. I see a lot of cohesiveness, a lot of togetherness.”
So the roster is good enough to win the division not only as is but minus an experienced reliever. And the clubhouse is tight-knit. And the first-year skipper, who has seemed overwhelmed at times, “has been great,” according to Rizzo. What a place! What a team!
And yet they only arrived at .500 on Tuesday. Now, they must push past it — and more.
Get back to one of Rizzo’s salient points: “We’re worried about how we play.”
They should be. Tuesday helped, but what would Wednesday bring? The trade deadline came and went, and the chips the Nationals pushed in were the chips they had all along. The bet is on the current players, whether they’ll be here for two months or two years or beyond. They can’t play much worse. Can they play much better?
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.
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