With Labor Day weekend at hand, the Nationals’ big concern may be how soon to play youngsters to gather info for next season. How should the franchise and its fans digest D.C.’s first excellent but also frustrating team in more than 80 years?
As the Nats begin a 10-game homestand, are we looking at one sour year, probably to be followed by a fascinating offseason of major decisions, then more years as a serious contender?
Or is this the end of a unique period when Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg played together every year, when a trip to the World Series always seemed possible?
Will these Nats sense the moment and make one last run to the wire just for the ornery devil of it, even if the effort is futile, to make sure that they are, as a group, remembered fondly in their final frame?
Ever since 2012, when the Nats won 98 games, brought Harper to the majors, protected Strasburg’s arm, traded for Gio Gonzalez and extended his deal through 2018, and signed Ryan Zimmerman to an extension through 2019, too, I have assumed the Nats would have seven years of good luck. And they have.
From April through September, there have been thrills and fun with a .568 winning percentage, meaning 92 wins a year. Only the Dodgers have won more.
A tradition of winning baseball has become entrenched in D.C. The Nats have had payrolls as lofty as $200 million, close to the Zip codes of the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers. Crowds, in a period of lower attendance, are up 2.3 percent — 11th best at 31,899. Right now, a “bad year” is when the Nats are winners but don’t grab the NL East.
Perhaps most important, the Nats have an organization that is deep in top scouts, up to speed in analytics and competitive in international signings. The Nats’ pipeline has put Juan Soto in its outfield with Victor Robles due soon, making some wonder whether the Nats should pursue Harper aggressively.
But starting Friday, there will be a sense of a fond but bittersweet ending for many fans. The Nats can call these 10 games a “last stand” because they are eight games behind St. Louis and 7½ behind Milwaukee for one of the NL’s two wild-card spots; with three-game sweeps they could gain ground. But the Rockies, Dodgers and Phillies are also ahead of the Nats for wild cards, while Atlanta is 7½ games ahead in the NL East. So, realistically, only the unrealistic — a 9-1 homestand or maybe 8-2 — has any chance of reviving this season.
Much more likely, this homestand will be a time for hard acceptance that a Nats team with enough talent on paper to reach the playoffs has instead run into a storm of injuries, inadequate front-office planning, ownership interference, a lack of leadership in the clubhouse and the unforced error of hiring a rookie manager who may someday be adequate, though today probably isn’t that day.
What if Strasburg, all-star closer Sean Doolittle, Daniel Murphy, Adam Eaton, Zimmerman, Matt Wieters and Howie Kendrick had not lost months apiece to injury? What if GM Mike Rizzo hadn’t deluded himself that his rotation was long and strong enough to be filled out, if necessary, from MLB’s scrap heap and Class AAA? Instead, he came up two decent hold-the-fort starters shy of a load.
What if Manager Dave Martinez had not burned up — or excessively warmed up — his bullpen, leaving several relievers in rehab or recovery mode all season? What if a dozen veterans had not yawned for 100 games before realizing that, maybe, somebody besides ace Max Scherzer needed to play with ferocity? What if the Lerners had allowed Rizzo to keep 1,864-win manager Dusty Baker?
On Wednesday, the Nats got loss No. 67. That matched the most defeats of either Baker teams, both of which also had injury issues. And it’s not September yet.
What players of significance did Martinez lose from Baker’s 97-win team? Jayson Werth (.226 in 2017), reliever Matt Albers and bench-bat Adam Lind.
What players of value did Martinez gain that Baker didn’t have? He received (from necessity) possible rookie of the year Soto. He got a full year, rather than two months, of relievers Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler, plus a midseason trade for two-time World Series relief star Kelvin Herrera. Rizzo added (ex-Nat) Matt Adams and Mark Reynolds — 30 homers in just 405 at-bats.
That so little has been done with much the same material that went 95-67 and 97-65 the past two years — and without a single player defeated simply by age — should be a slap in the face. But that disappointment needs a larger context.
Next spring training, this team will be radically different — and the Nats have planned for it for years. Take of mental picture of these familiar Nats. It’s the last.
With the same huge financial resources that a long-term deal for Harper might cost, the Nats could spend this winter — after $75 million drops off their payroll — shopping for a catcher, second baseman, (southpaw) starter and reliever.
What is up for auction? At catcher, the Dodgers’ Yasmani Grandal, 29, (22 homers, .825 on-base-plus-slugging percentage) and AL all-star Wilson Ramos, 31, with an .871 OPS.
At second base, former batting champ DJ LeMahieu, 30, lifetime average .299. Brian Dozier, 31, who has averaged 29 homers over the past five seasons. And Jed Lowrie, 34, who has 83 RBI for the Athletics and an 8.9 wins above replacement the past two seasons.
The top left-handed starters are Arizona all-star Patrick Corbin, 29, and former Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, 30, of the Astros. If the Nats don’t get one of them, then it may be time to gamble on J.A. Happ, 35, or Charlie Morton, 13-3 at 35, who are both still good but carry scary expiration dates.
If you want to add a quality reliever or two, this is your year with available gents named Craig Kimbrel, 30; Jeurys Familia, 28; David Robertson, 34; and Bud Norris, 34 (but with 28 saves and a 2.84 ERA). Or sift through Zach Britton or Justin Wilson, both 31, and many useful “others.”
Why are the Nats likely to have happy hunting? Because so much free agent money will be sucked away by those chasing Manny Machado, Harper, perhaps Josh Donaldson, Nick Markakis, Andrew McCutchen and a slew of other hard-hitting outfielders (Michael Brantley) and designated hitters (Nelson Cruz).
As the Nats come home, take an appreciative look. This is the end of one era — a period with far more fun than frustration. However, with no visits to a National League Championship Series, much less a World Series or a ring, it’s time for turnover.
By February, the Nats’ identity as winners and contenders may well be continued. But it certainly will be in much altered form.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.