The World Baseball Classic doesn’t live or die with tonight’s game, but a U.S. win could take it off of life support

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Tonight, the United States will take on the Dominican Republic in a World Baseball Classic game that is win-or-go-home for both teams. Win, and the United States will move on to the championship round with the Netherlands, Japan, and Puerto Rico. Lose, and the stars and stripes will not be present in the tournament’s final round for the third time out of its four occurrences (the only time the Americans did make the cut, they lost in the semis).

If you had told a MLB executive about the current situation a few months ago–one game that the U.S. has to win to make the final round– they would probably say that if the U.S. lost, it would likely mean game over for the World Baseball Classic (which occurs every four years in March), a move that Major League Baseball was apparently already considering before the next tournament, in March 2021.

That logic makes sense. Previously, the success of the tournament has been largely bound to the United States’ success; much of the success of the tournament, at least fiscally, comes from U.S. viewership, which had been previously mediocre at best. A U.S. trip to the championship round has the potential to attract a boatload of viewers, but a championship round without the U.S. could very well be considered dead upon arrival in the States.

Game attendance was also lackluster previously; not only were very few people watching the games on TV, but very few people were actually going to the games.

This time around, things have been different.

Not only has there been a marked upwards tick in viewership (18% more people have watched this year’s classic compared to 2013’s, per MLB Network), but 34% more fans attended this year’s first round versus the first round in 2013.

So that do-or-die mentality of tonight’s U.S.-D.R. matchup can be eased back a little. But only a little.

The WBC is still very much in jeopardy. The Olympic Committee recently decided to add baseball back to the 2020 Olympics, an event that very well has the potential to attract stars like Bryce Harper and others in a way the World Baseball Classic simply hasn’t, which could make the March tournament potentially irrelevant.

That starpower (or lack thereof) is another reason why the U.S. has struggled in the World Baseball Classic, and why the tournament had struggled to catch on all that much with U.S. viewership in previous years.

Although this year’s squad is among the more talented we’ve seen the U.S. put up, featuring names like Adam Jones, Paul Goldschmidt and Jonathan Lucroy, it’s nowhere near what a squad made up of the best the country has to offer would look like. Does America’s best outfield really feature Christian Yelich? With all due respect to the young Miami Marlin, there’s no chance in hell that Yelich would be part of a U.S. roster that featured the very best of the nation (being the very best in your country, unsurprisingly, is the typical qualification for other nations’ rosters).

Bryce Harper and Mike Trout? Nowhere to be seen. Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, and Madison Bumgarner? Mark them absent, thank you. In fact, only once in the history of the tournament has the previous year’s Cy Young winner been on the U.S. roster (R.A. Dickey, 2012, although it is worth mentioning that Max Scherzer, two-time Cy Young winner in 2013 and 2016, planned to pitch for the Americans before injury prevented him from doing so).

If you want an example of global domination personified by a major sports tournament, look no further than the World Cup. In nearly every country worldwide, it is the number-one most watched thing on television. The World Cup isn’t extremely popular in the United States, but it doesn’t have to be. The rest of the world watches every game, and the sport’s largest audience is not (and likely never will be) in the U.S.

The WBC does not have that luxury. The U.S., for the foreseeable future, is the sport’s stronghold. (A reliable, albeit very old Gallup poll from 2006 notes that around one in two Americans are baseball fans. A 2013 poll found that 48% of Americans over 18 attended, watched, or listened to a MLB game between 2011 and 2012.) If the Americans make the championship round, or even win the tournament, the WBC and Major League Baseball can essentially guarantee that the uptick in ratings will continue through the final round, and more Americans will be excited about the tournament if/when it comes around again next March.

The U.S. doesn’t necessarily have to win the tournament, or even tonight, for the tournament to be a success–at this point, it could already be considered a minor success–but it sure would help if they did, at least from a financial point of view.

This leaves fans in an awkward position. From a completely objective point of view, we shouldn’t be rooting for the country that doesn’t put their best foot forward (in terms of not putting all of their elite players on their baseball roster as well as in… uh… other areas). However, as fans of the tournament and high-quality international play that doesn’t interrupt Major League play, it’s stars-and-stripes all the way.

Where does that leave us? It’s possible that there’s a third, ideal (if not unlikely option): if teams decide in summer 2020 that they don’t actually want their stars leaving their clubs at the beginning of the pennant race, and the U.S. actually gets the job done by winning it all this March, the Bryce Harpers and Clayton Kershaws of the world come to play in March 2021.

Unfortunately, trading for Andrew McCutchen seems like a bad idea

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Imagine, just for a moment, an outfield consisting of Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, and Andrew McCutchen, all wearing a Nationals uniform.

Keep thinking. Keep salivating. Now stop.

First, we salivate. Then, we think.

In any deal that the brings Andrew McCutchen to D.C., the Pirates have made it excruciatingly clear that they demand a whole slew of blue-chip prospects in return.

Now let’s think about Andrew McCutchen. Even when coming off of a season that is among the worst in his career, McCutchen is a star — there’s no disputing that. However, the Pirates, in desperate need of a shake-up, are ready to deal their centerfielder away, and they aren’t taking any discounts. But, although Bryce Harper had the worst season in his career last season, he’s still Bryce Harper, and any team wanting to acquire him is going to have to empty the farm to even have a remote chance of getting Mike Rizzo’s ear. The same goes for Andrew McCutchen: he’s still Andrew McCutchen, and if the Nats want to get him, they’ll have to give up a lot of talent.

One player the Pirates are eager to get their hands on is one of the Nats’ young outfield prospects, Victor Robles. Robles, if you’ve never heard of him, is pretty good — he’s the Nats’ second-best prospect, the 10th-best prospect in baseball, and is ranked second out of all prospects for his raw tools. Baseball America has called the young (19 years old, to be exact) Dominican “one of the most dynamic prospects in the game,” with “the potential to be a true five-tool player.” So yeah, pretty good.

That’s not where it ends, though. Neal Huntington, the Pirates’ GM, isn’t just going to take Robles 1-for-1 for McCutchen — he’ll demand some major league talent, and will also likely be interested in some of the young, nearly majors-ready pitchers the Nats have available not named Lucas Giolito (think Reynaldo Lopez or Austin Voth).

In summary: Robles, a major-leaguer, and Reynaldo Lopez or Austin Voth. That’s a lot of talent. Is McCutchen worth it? Almost certainly not — no player that isn’t named Mike Trout is really worth that haul.

For that reason alone, the Nats should be skeptical of this deal. But that’s not where it ends — there’s another, much more practical reason for Mike Rizzo to not make this deal.

In two years, when McCutchen reaches free-agency and signs a lucrative deal, which will likely not be with the Nationals, Bryce Harper will also reach the open market, and Jayson Werth will likely be long-gone (Werth is a free-agent after the 2017 season). That means the Nationals’ outfield will be completely empty by Opening Day of 2019, assuming Bryce Harper departs. Right around that time, the baseball world will have its eyes focused not on Washington, but instead on Pittsburgh, as they eagerly await the major-league debut of Victor Robles, a player who is expected to eventually replace Bryce Harper (if he were to remain a National).

That empty outfield will have to be replenished somehow — either with current minor-leaguers, none of whom outside of Robles look particularly inspiring as Bryce Harper’s replacements — or with outside deals, which will require either further emptying the farm system, or signing two or more outfielders to new, expensive contracts. Neither of those scnenarios sound particularly enticing.

Either way, the Nats’ run of consistently being in contention would be in jeopardy — most teams that give away the farm generally don’t succeed, immediately or afterwards. (Generally, it’s difficult to win when you need to fill two to three outfield spots and have given away the majority of your pitching talent.)

There’s a much easier solution here: signing a free-agent outfielder such as Dexter Fowler.

Trading for McCutchen is not a necessity. Let us not forget that offense is not what killed the Nationals during the playoffs last season — the Nationals scored 24 runs to the Dodgers’ 15 during the 2016 NLDS — nor are the Nationals particularly struggling out of the leadoff spot, with Trea Turner poised to hold it down for the forseeable future.

If Rizzo (or the Lerner family) is absolutely insistent on going into win-now mode and making a showy move that pushes the team to the NLCS or beyond, acquiring Chris Sale from the Chicago White Sox for the same package featuring Robles would be much more prudent — the value of a starting pitcher like Sale still in his prime far outweighs the potential value McCutchen could add. Plus, the Nats could add another centerfielder through free-agency and not deal with an empty outfield come 2019.

Next July, if the Nationals are still desperate for a centerfielder, it’s quite possible that the Pirates will continue to struggle but still have McCutchen on their roster — meaning that Pittsburgh would be willing to deal him away for a much lower price.

Ideally, Rizzo pulls of a deal for either McCutchen or Sale without giving away Robles or any blue-chip prospects — but for now, if it comes down to either giving away Robles for McCutchen or having to move on and look elsewhere, there is absolutely no question that Mike Rizzo should pass on McCutchen.

 

We’ve barely met the Nationals, so strap in

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Get out the pitchforks! Light the torches! Gather the angry mob! After a tedious loss, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory against Philadelphia, with another blown save from Jonathan Papelbon, you might as well end the season now.

Of course, there’s still a case to be made for the Nationals, who, blown save or not, still have one of the highest winning percentages in all of baseball with a 9-2 record.

Happy April 18th, by the way.

At this point in the season, it is too early to make any sane conclusions about this Nationals team. Yes, the bullpen, excepting tonight’s snafu, has been exceptional. Yes, the offense has looked better than last year’s. Yes, the starting pitching looks great. But in reality, the Nationals have played eleven games. Predicting the way the rest of a person’s life will go based on 11/162 of it, 6.8% percent, it is borderline insane. The same goes for an entire baseball season.

This is not to say the Nationals have looked bad. In fact, the opposite is true in that situation. But the other truth of the season is that the Nationals have never once been truly challenged. So far this season, the Nats have played Atlanta five times, the Phillies three times and the Marlins twice. All three of those teams are either in permanent states of mediocrity (looking at you, Miami) or are vying to win the number one overall pick in the draft. Tomorrow, they will play another four versus the Miami Marlins, and will then face the only other team in baseball that started the season as poorly than the Atlanta Braves, the Minnesota Twins, and then play the Phillies – again.

If the Nationals only played those four teams in a single season, it’s easy to say that they could probably win up to 135 games, which would be lovely. The problem is that they can only play these teams so many times.

The Nationals have done their job against rebuilding teams and the Marlins, as proven by their record up to this date. But this team has not faced pressure, nor have they struggled against a Cy-Young caliber pitcher or played an offense capable of scoring more than three runs consistently.

We have only seen one side of this team – we have yet to truly meet this team beyond a casual handshake and small talk. They have feasted on bad pitching, bad bullpens and poor hitting. Soon, the other side will show itself

Starting next week, the Nationals will start a colossal road trip that will take them to St. Louis, who can kill you on both sides of the ball, the home of the defending champs, Kansas City, Wrigley Field, which hosts the only team to ever have more hype than the 2013 Nationals in the Cubs, and a week later, the Nats’ team bus will pull up at Citi Field, to face the Mets, the antagonist of their entire 2015 season.

The Nationals will see Cy-Young pitching, historically good offense, and a bullpen that essentially won a team the World Series.

If they can’t defeat the three strongest clubs heading into the season outside of a small port in Texas also known as Houston, it will not mean the end of the season. A losing record would not be discouraging considering their opponents. Playing .500 ball against those teams is no small feat, and would be pretty impressive. A winning record would be even more impressive.

On that road trip, we’ll get to see how they play, and how the team reacts. Can Blake Treinen and Felipe Rivero can really make it in the majors? Can Bryce Harper can hit more than mediocre pitching? Will Jonathan Papelbon be able to close out games worry-free? Do Joe Ross and Daniel Murphy have more than a fluke start on their hands?

Right now, there’s no prediction we can make about how that will go. Only when the road trip starts is when we will begin to see who this team really is. Only then can we answer those questions. Until then, we can enjoy playing against the Phillies and Braves.

This should be fun.

Adam LaRoche’s decision is one thing. What the White Sox did to him and Drake LaRoche is another.

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Although we’re almost the same age, Drake LaRoche’s life is drastically different than that of my own. In 2012, when the Nationals made a playoff run, I watched on TV, while Drake watched from the dugout. While I lived out the life of a fifth and sixth grader, Drake lived the idyllic life of a Major League ballplayer, wearing uniforms, hanging out on field with his dad, Adam, during batting practice, and pouring sparkling cider on Bryce Harper’s head. When Adam LaRoche drove in his 100th RBI of the 2012 season with a home run, Drake LaRoche was there, waiting in the home dugout for his father with open arms. In comparison, it made my daily routine seem pitiful. He was living the life in every sense of the phrase.

However, the odd part for me, was that Drake, at the age of ten, was living the life I dreamed of having. Drake LaRoche hung out in the clubhouse and took ground balls – in my mind, he was a Major Leaguer at age 10. This meant that I asked him for baseballs and stared at him from the stands. And every day, while he was inside the little rope fence during batting practice, I was far behind it.

Drake got to live the life of a Major Leaguer for years, and eventually left the Nationals for the White Sox, where the same continued.

Then, this spring training, someone complained. Nobody knows who. Nobody knows why, and nobody knows how many players complained, and requested Drake spend less time in the clubhouse. But there was a message from inside the White Sox clubhouse that Drake was no longer welcome, or at least no longer welcome on a daily basis. The White Sox brass told Adam LaRoche of that opinion, and asked him to limit his son’s time in the clubhouse.

Adam LaRoche, who was owed $13 million over the 2016 season, made a call that favored his family over his salary. He retired from the game and left the money on the table. He wanted to take his son with him to work, and the White Sox wouldn’t let him. He decided to retire, so he could be with his family, which no matter what context it’s in, is a good decision.

But let’s forget about LaRoche’s decision. Instead, let’s think about the White Sox and their front office.

The complaint filed regarding Drake was likely minor – someone probably felt uncomfortable having a fourteen year old around in the locker room, was annoyed by him, or felt as if his constant presence wasn’t productive.

Was Drake’s presence a negative impact on the team? From watching Drake LaRoche and reading about him, it doesn’t seem like he was a hassle to have around- in fact, he was mainly the opposite. Players in both the Nats & White Sox clubhouse loved him.  Every day, he took over first base during batting practice, catching ground balls and flipping them into the ball bucket. He played catch with his dad.

If LaRoche was being annoying or disrespectful, it would be a whole other situation, but as far as anyone from the outside can tell, that certainly wasn’t the case.  White Sox Manager Robin Ventura said that Drake LaRoche is “probably more mature than most of the guys in there,”. Sox closer David Robertson said he thought of Drake as “part of the team”.

Shouldn’t have he been at school? The LaRoche family made a decision to tutor him on his own, and give him the opportunity to learn at the ballpark. “We’re not big on school,” LaRoche said. “I told my wife, ‘He’s going to learn a lot more useful information in the clubhouse than he will in the classroom, as far as life lessons.’ ” Certainly not a traditional choice, but judging the parenting style of others is never a good decision.

Did players feel that it wasn’t normal workplace behavior to bring a teenager into a Major League clubhouse? That question is legitimate, and does raise some issues. But one thing to remember: if baseball players were so dedicated to a normal workplace atmosphere, they would stop injecting steroids into their arms and rear ends. In no other office in America do employees take substances to improve their performance and then routinely lie about it, unless you count Red Bull.

It seems as if the players had very little ground to stand on when making this complaint, especially considering LaRoche’s status and stature as a respected veteran.

However, the blame cannot lie solely on the players; White Sox management played just as big of a part in creating such a disastrous situation.

White Sox VP Kenny Williams, who informed LaRoche of the club’s request, made a huge mistake by listening to the complaint and honoring said complainer’s request. Not only did he value the opinion of any other player higher than that of a team leader and veteran, but he also failed in policy and in contradicting the team’s actions.

When LaRoche initially arrived at Spring Training with the White Sox in 2015, he found two lockers with his last name on them. One for himself, one for his son. Both were outfitted with White Sox uniforms, both were treated as part of the team. That was part of the agreement when LaRoche signed the contract during the 2014-15 offseason. Drake got hitting advice from the team, helped out, and hung out with the guys. There seemed to be no problem. Then, Kenny Williams turned it around, and Drake was essentially asked to leave.

That in itself is a huge problem. Forget if Drake LaRoche actually belongs in a clubhouse – if the organization said something, they can’t just turn it around – that sets a horrible standard for the legitimacy of any agreement made in contract negotiations. If Kenny Williams had a problem with LaRoche’s son, they should’ve told him. If the players had a problem with LaRoche’s son, they should’ve told Adam LaRoche himself.

Then comes the question of winning – if the White Sox wanted to win, they would’ve not only tried to keep Adam LaRoche on the team, but they also would’ve tried to keep the clubhouse happy, which they clearly weren’t today.

Chris Sale, the ace and star of the White Sox, said he believes the players “got (bald)-faced lied to by someone we are supposed to be able to trust (Kenny Williams).”

“If we’re truly here to win a championship and come together … and win as a team, these issues don’t come up,” Sale said. “Somebody walked out those doors the other day, and it was the wrong guy, plain and simple.”

I’m certainly not saying “Poor, little, innocent, Drake LaRoche.”, nor am I saying that Adam LaRoche was the victim of this situation. Adam LaRoche enjoyed a successful career, while Drake LaRoche got to lead a spectacular life for his first fourteen years. How both of their spectacular times in the Major Leagues were shut down, however, were simply for the wrong reason: poor decision making due to illegitimate concerns, which, no matter how you put it, is a sour note to end on.

If Drake’s father’s career should’ve gone with his own is another question, but one that Adam LaRoche seemed at peace with. The now-retired first baseman answered simply. “Of one thing I am certain: we will regret NOT spending enough time with our kids, not the other way around,”.  What Drake will do next is beyond any of us. Maybe he’ll hunt. Maybe he’ll go to school.

 

The Unknown Crisis also known as Max Scherzer

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Like his eyes, Max Scherzer seemingly had two different seasons in 2015 – one powerful, striking and attention-grabbing, like his blue eye, and one mediocre, flying under the radar, like his brown eye. Even though Scherzer posted a 2.79 ERA, starting 33 games and pitching a career high 228.2 innings, the stats that will forever be associated with his historic campaign last season which included two no-hitters, there was still a hugely problematic span for the big righty.

From April to June, Max Scherzer headlined the NL Cy Young Award Conversation, holding steady to a 1.75 ERA, striking out 130 and holding opposing batters to a meager .179 clip, all on top of a no-hitter that was one out away from a perfect game. But when the calendar turned from June to July, something clicked in Scherzer’s head – or rather, unclicked. His starts went from must-see events and guaranteed wins to a decent start and a good game, to a serious problem. From July 7th to September 7th, the “ace” posted an ERA of 5.11 in an average of 5 innings per start, numbers, that for two months, certainly doesn’t look like it should belong to someone who commands a $210 million contract. All of this was forgotten in late September and early October, when Scherzer posted a string of incredible starts, capped off by yet another no-hitter, against another playoff team, the New York Mets.

Nats fans ended the season with the notion of Scherzer as an incredible pitcher who enjoyed a historic season. While two no-hitters are an accomplishment that is unprecedented, the biggest factor in the Nationals rotation worked against them for two months, and that’s not acceptable.

But what, if anything, was behind this sharp decline that took the most dominant pitcher in the league to a mediocre starter who could barely last five innings?

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Winter Meetings bring possibility, anxiety

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In D.C., mentioning the Nationals on the street right now would be a crime, with the 5-6 Redskins poised to make a mediocre run into forgettable history. (The Capitals? What Capitals? The Wizards? Is that some new fringe card game like Pokemon? ). But months from now, when the hot summer sun is beating down and the ballpark is alive once again, with fans, music and baseball, this week will be an important one to look back on – in fact, it may be the biggest factor in those summer months. So go ahead, talk about the team. Just don’t be worried when you get some crazy looks. Because, believe it or not, despite the temperature and the date, the Nationals are at a critical junction, possibly more critical than any they’ll face all season, and it’s unclear to everyone, maybe even including the General Manager Mike Rizzo, where they’ll go from here.

The Lerners, who sit up in ownership, have serious decisions to make about how they’ll use their money – whether it’ll be taking on an already bloated contract, trading a fan favorite (yes, your favorite player, be worried) or adding a free agent. Mike Rizzo has some serious decisions to make as well, regarding the cutting and trading of Papelbon and Storen, respectively, adding to the bullpen, and adding offensive pop as well as figuring out who it’s okay to part with. And in all likelihood, if the Nats feel like making a huge splash, it’s going to happen this week, at the Winter Meetings in Nashville.

If there was ever a moment for front office staff to feel like players on the first day of Spring Training, full of belief and hope that they can really go all the way this year, it would be at the Winter Meetings. The Winter Meetings, which for reasons unknown, are run by Minor League Baseball, have no boundaries. For one time, and only one time during the year, everything and everyone seems to be on the table. Rumors fly rampant and only the most elite of the stars are left out of them. Free-agents meet with teams (paging Ben Zobrist…) For the Nationals, they’ve been linked to everyone from O’Day to Chapman, Zobrist to Rollins and everyone in between, including Jonathan Lucroy. Players on the table have ranged from Strasburg to Ramos as well as Espinosa and Escobar. Papelbon and Storen, two players ironically linked, have come up in every conversation. It’s a given that some moves will be made. However, the question of what the right moves are still looms.

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A function of dysfunction; Nationals get a manager, but questions about ownership are raised

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We now conclude the most interesting twenty four hours the Nationals have had since they signed Max Scherzer this past January. Thank you for watching.

After a day when nothing, and I mean nothing seemed certain for the Washington Nationals, the fans can go to bed with one certainty – the biggest issue the Nationals may be facing right now has nothing to do with who will manage their team.

After an embarrassing season filled with gaffes and poor decision making, the Nationals chose to fire their manager, Matt Williams and start the search for a new one. General Manager Mike Rizzo, who’s status had quickly gone from an irremovable messiah to an executive on the hot seat after the disappointing season, noted that the Nationals “certainly would lean toward someone who had some managerial experience, particularly at the major league level.” (C/O Adam Kilgore, The Washington Post) Soon, after not-so extensive interviews, the Nationals seemingly had their guy, Bud Black. Black, who had been recently fired by the Padres, was not set in his ways, shifted, but was still high up on the experience scale. The other finalist for the job, who in a quote to the San Francisco Chronicle, said that he thought he didn’t “think anyone would have been as good for the job as (he would’ve). It seemed like a perfect fit.”, and later explained how he handled the disappointment.

Well, he didn’t have to deal with it for too long. The Nationals, despite having the news of Bud Black’s hiring breaking, never announced his hiring. At first it seemed trivial, and they were just waiting for the World Series to end. But as other teams made their announcements, the Nationals stayed quiet. Fans went to bed on Monday night with the managerial post occupied by Bud Black, and woke up with Dusty Baker. Talks fell through with Black, and Baker was offered the job.

This should seem abnormal, but not completely problematic. And then the numbers come out. The Nationals offered Bud Black $1.6 million for a one year deal. Offering Bud Black, the experienced manager who they wanted, $1.6 million dollars and one year, the number closest to zero, to a manager who at least deserves two guaranteed to put down an anchor in the clubhouse, while Don Mattingly, Black’s former counterpart in Los Angeles, received four years and ten million dollars in Miami is like offering Bryce Harper $100 million while Mike Trout makes $400 million. Has one been better overall during their career? Yes, but there’s not a drastic difference.

So, they turned to Dusty Baker, who immediately accepted a two year deal, which, according to MLB Network Radio, is worth $3.7 million, more than the salary of Black. Ted Lerner, upon hiring him, said in a press release that “During (the Nationals’) broad search process, it was clear that Dusty’s deep experience was the best fit for our ballclub.”

That leaves one critical question: why attempt to hire Black in the first place, if you know you want another guy?

More and more, it seems like the Lerners are controlling the team beyond what’s appropriate. And frankly, that should be more worrying than whoever manages the team. Continue reading