There is reason to lament, as the final three weeks of the season approach, what might have been for the Washington Nationals. But what’s more pertinent and productive is to look across to the opposite dugout this weekend at Nationals Park, consider the visiting Chicago Cubs, understand that they have passed the Nationals in terms of both hardware and consistency, and wonder: Can the home team keep up? Not in this series but in seasons to come.
“We think [in] 2018, we had the roster and ability to win the championship,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said this week. “We feel that in 2019 we’re going to go into spring training with the same approach.”
The same approach has yielded zero playoff series wins in the franchise’s history. Plus, given this year’s missed opportunity — exacerbated by injury, sure, but also the result of underperformance on the field, in the dugout and by the front office — the past four seasons have delivered as many whiffs as division titles: two apiece.
The Cubs? Their rebuild ended in 2015, when they won 97 games, then reached the National League Championship Series — and then won the World Series the following year. They’re closing in on their third division title in a row. Should the Dodgers miss the playoffs for the first time since 2012 — Los Angeles is trailing in both the division and wild-card races — then the Cubs will be the sport’s most consistent franchise.
How? Pitching and defense, Manager Joe Maddon said Thursday, and that much is obvious. But there’s more than that, and Maddon knows it.
“There’s feel involved,” Maddon said. “Feel is real. Believe me, it is.”
The Nationals, as an organization, lack feel.
Whenever the trajectory of the Nationals as a franchise is considered — not whether they’re ascending or imploding in a given season but where they fit in the sport over a period of time — it’s easiest to go back to 2012. That’s when they won the first of their four division titles. That’s when they became a trendy pick to win the World Series. That’s when they felt confident enough in their future that they shut down their ace to protect his health, sure, but also because they believed — they knew — they would be back.
Their record over that long haul looks impressive. Entering this weekend, only the Dodgers have more regular season wins than Washington over the past seven seasons. That can’t happen by accident. It’s evidence of a solid foundation in both scouting and player development, and that period is marked by a litany of important trades by Rizzo.
But seven seasons is an athletic lifetime. The lens is too wide. Focus in, and we get a better sense of what’s going on right now — and what might be to come in the near future. Since 2015 — still the most epic version of Nationals dysfunction because the head-in-the-sand manager didn’t realize the closer was choking the soon-to-be-MVP at the other end of the dugout — the Nationals rank behind the following teams in regular season wins: the Cubs, Dodgers, Red Sox, Astros, Indians, Yankees and Cardinals.
Now, the Cubs have good, homegrown players: Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber and Javy Baez and Willson Contreras, among others. When they were losing much more than winning, they made shrewd trades — just as the Nats did — for prospects who are now pieces: Addison Russell and Kyle Hendricks and Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. and others. Their missteps in free agency — Yu Darvish, Jason Heyward — have been overcome not only by exceptional organizational depth but by exceptional organizational attitude and aura.
Sure, Chicago has not yet had to go through the attrition, via free agency, that Washington has. The Cubs’ most significant free agent in the upcoming offseason? Maybe Daniel Murphy, the second baseman they acquired last month from, ahem, the Nats. Or reliever Justin Wilson. Or, if they don’t exercise a $20 million club option, lefty Cole Hamels, who came via midseason trade.
That lists none of their core pieces. Zero.
More than that, though, is the environment. Over the past few years, it’s hard to spend time around the Cubs, which I have, and not notice a difference from the Nationals. I’ve always felt the messiness of Washington’s clubhouse has been overstated elsewhere. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t places that just, to use Maddon’s word, feel better.
Pitching and defense? Sure. But . . .
“Before that comes a culture and an attitude and a believability on a daily basis,” Maddon said. “There’s a selflessness. There’s all these leadership kind of words that I think are true. The group that doesn’t believe that is because they’ve never had to do that. Kind of a you-mock-what-you-don’t-understand kind of a thing.
“What happens first: chemistry or the winning? Everybody says, ‘Well, if you win, you’ve got this [chemistry].’ False. If you’ve never won before, you’ve got to do something to create that method that everybody in that room believes that you can.”
Maddon is kind of a walking, talking version of one of those inspirational posters that has a picture of a bald eagle with an all-caps word below it — EXCELLENCE or OPTIMISM or whatever. Roll your eyes if you want. For him, it works. For the Cubs, it has worked.
In the Nationals’ dugout, holding Maddon’s position for Washington is, of course, Dave Martinez, Maddon’s longtime understudy. If anything is clear from this season, it’s that sitting at Maddon’s side does not make Martinez another Maddon through osmosis. Still, he has a window into what works.
“They put the pieces together, and they were consistent every year,” Martinez said of the Cubs. “That’s something we need to get better at. We’re young, but we need to get better at being consistent.”
Consistency is a difficult thing to preach when you’re the fourth manager in six seasons, and when the preamble to your hiring contained the following edict from Rizzo, your new boss: “Winning a lot of regular season games and winning divisions is not enough.”
What, then, is losing more games than you win and coming in third in the division?
The feeling throughout baseball is that Washington has a palpable disconnect between the front office and ownership. Rizzo, when asked this week, dutifully points out that the Lerner family routinely affords the club the payroll necessary to compete for championships. That’s true. The 2019 roster, even if superstar Bryce Harper walks away in free agency, has Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner and Juan Soto and Victor Robles and Sean Doolittle and Ryan Zimmerman. Not bad.
So this isn’t a wayward franchise. But, man, it’s an odd one. It also is no longer close to the consistent, regular season standard it once seemed. The Nationals are now chasing the Cubs — and the Dodgers and the Astros and some others — in that regard. Whether they catch up and surpass them again will have to do with personnel and roster-building, Rizzo’s strengths. It’s increasingly obvious, though, it also will have to do with feel — in the owner’s box, in the front office, in the dugout and in the clubhouse. That, it’s clear, is an organizational weakness.