Despite being considered among the most powerful cities in the world, and certainly the most powerful politically, when it comes to sports, DC has long been considered a city filled with lovable losers. Something is certainly shifting, as the Capitals and Wizards have both advanced to the second round of their respective playoffs, and the Redskins are finally showing sense in the front office. Logic would suggest that these positive experiences should be rubbing off on the Nationals, right? Well, not exactly, but for the most part, yes.
It’s not ideal, to say the least. The Nationals have fallen to what you could argue has been their worst foe over the past few years, once again – the injury bug.
This year has been marked as the last year when a core group of players will all be together before free-agency. This year has possibly the most “World Series or Bust” connotations no matter what the management or players tell you. However, it’s going to be pretty hard to win without a 1-2-3 punch. The Nats have lost their players in the top three spots in the lineup due to injury, all of whom were incredibly productive last year and a key reason why the ballclub made it as far as they did.
Denard Span, after a Sports Hernia Surgery, felt pain in a right core muscle and had to undergo surgery. He’ll won’t return anywhere from the third week of the season to mid-May. Anthony Rendon went down and is doubtful for opening day with a sprained MCL. Jayson Werth underwent surgery on his shoulder over the offseason and will be sitting out for a few days or a week from Opening Day barring a sudden spur in recovery speed.
The lineup is now left with three replacements preparing for Opening Day and new spots opening up. It may not look bright, but this may be the best thing to happen to the Nationals all season.
The Nationals haven’t had a lack of hype surrounding their last two seasons. The magazines were filled with predictions of parades on the National Mall, banners on South Capitol Street and a Curly W in the books for the last game of the season. We all know the rest of the story – two seasons, one regular season disappointment, one 18-inning heartbreak.
Despite the incorrect predictions, there are still two large and legitimate reasons that in the past two year’s baseball previews, in big, bold letters, under the “World Series Champions” label, the words “Washington Nationals” have appeared more often than nearly any other. One is their talented rotation, which analysts like me and those on MLB Network could babble on about for hours. The other is the depth of their lineup, the “Red Line”. The Nationals possess what many would call the most dangerous lineup from 1-8, with offensive weapons at every stop.
Given the changes in the lineup made over the offseason, the lineup has the possibility to be different. It’s hard to believe Matt Williams and Mike Rizzo would mess too much with last year’s success excepting an injury.
Last year, the Nationals lineup eventually stacked up like this:
1. Denard Span, CF
2. Anthony Rendon, 2B/3B
3. Jayson Werth, RF
4. Adam LaRoche, 1B
5. Ian Desmond, SS
6. Bryce Harper, LF
7. Wilson Ramos, C
8. Asdrubal Cabrera/Danny Espinosa/Kevin Frandsen, 2B
Despite early season woes, this lineup took the Nationals to an NL East Championship. The majority of the players remain – all but two. Even so, Ryan Zimmerman will move to 1B but it does give Matt Williams a couple options on how he wants to shape his lineup. Here’s (barring any trades or injuries) the official Side of Natitude prediction.
At the beginning of November, if you looked any Nats fan in the eye and told them with a straight face that Max Scherzer was going to sign a 7-year deal worth $210 million with the Nationals, they would’ve laughed at you. They would’ve laughed so hard, that they cried. They would’ve told you to break the news while you were flying to the moon on your unicorn.
While nobody has flown to the moon on a unicorn, the Max Scherzer deal shocked the world. Not only was it from a team nobody expected, but the deal’s value went beyond expectations.
The Nationals now have an ace – a Cy Young Award winner – a 20 game winner for the next seven years. They have a pitcher with playoff experience, a pitcher that is tested and proven. They also have a pitcher who they owe $210 million. The deal goes against almost everything Mike Rizzo stands for and everything the Nationals have done in the offseason since 2010. And yet, it still happened.
The 14-year plan
Scott Boras, Scherzer’s agent, does not leave money on the table. Ever. But Scherzer’s deal had an interesting little caveat, deferring half of the deal, meaning the Nationals are holding off on $105 million dollars for the next seven years and are instead paying the righty $15 million a year for the next fourteen years. The money never went back onto the table – its just a slower process.
This frees up $105 million dollars for the Nationals. $105 million dollars could extend Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond or Doug Fister, the three hot-button issues for the Nats this offseason. Also, with $105 million off the payroll, every executive can breath a little easier when they sign other free agents.
But what about the kids?
While the deal does free up space to extend one of the three players on contract years that will command more than $100 million, it’s assumed that one pitcher will be leaving. Unfortunately, one of those pitchers will be Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister or maybe even Stephen Strasburg, all vital pieces to the ball club. But the time to freak out is most certainly not now.
Jordan Zimmermann and/or Doug Fister and/or Stephen Strasburg won’t be on the Nationals come 2016, which is fine for multiple reasons. It gives the Nationals first round draft picks, a commodity they haven’t enjoyed since 2012. Even so, extensions shouldn’t be a huge issue considering that the Nationals have two of the best pitching prospects in the minors in Lucas Giolito (ranked as the 8th overall prospect in the league by MLB.com) and A.J. Cole, who are expected to be in the Majors by 2017 and 2016 respectively.
But, Giolito and Cole may not be ready by 2016 or 2017. So, who’ll help fill the void? That’s where Scherzer comes in – he would take over the lost spot. The Nats are deep enough to still have an outstanding rotation, even without Strasburg, Fister or Zimmermann.
The question has been thrown around all offseason – “Mike Rizzo has built a winner, but can he maintain it?” $210 million and seven years for Max Scherzer may look like the craziest thing the Nats have ever done and the opposite of trying to maintain a winner. But in reality, it might just end up being the smartest.
In the year 2008, things seemed a bit simpler. The Philadelphia Phillies owned the best record in the National League and went on to win the NLDS, the NLCS, and then the World Series, all convincingly. And then the tides began to turn in 2012. All of the sudden, the field of four became five. The Wild-Card team, instead of waiting patiently with the rest of the league, had to play a game to decide their fate against another contender. And while many cried out that it unfairly punishes the teams who normally got a free pass into the Divisional Series, something different happened this time around.
One thing that the Major League Baseball advertising department would like you to believe would be that you can’t predict baseball. And while that’s been a slogan for many a campaign, it’s a mainly false statement. Baseball, for the most part, is a very predictable game. The best hitters only make something happen one third of the time. And there are only so many possible outcomes for every situation. Groundout, flyout, strikeout or hit. But the times where you see something amazing, crazy or just odd, are the times where the phrase comes to your mind. Maybe it’s an unassisted triple play. Maybe it’s when the pitcher hits a home run, or when catcher legs out a bases-clearing triple. However, the one thing you can never consistently predict is how successful a player will be next year, next month, week or even game. So when Stephen Strasburg was controversially shut down as an effect of his previous Tommy John Surgery in 2012, right before the Nationals were poised to make a deep run into October, and right after he had a career year, the baseball world was unhappy. People questioned if he’d ever have a year this good again. People wondered if it was the right decision for him mentally and physically. Everybody from government officials to columnists to football players weighed in. The verdict typically seemed to be to let him pitch. Mike Rizzo stuck to his plan. Two years later, on the brink of another postseason, how does that decision look now?
On June 21st, I had the pleasure of sitting down and interviewing Dave Jageler. You might know him from the Nationals radio broadcasts on 106.7 The Fan or player interviews at occasions such as NatsFest. He had a lot of interesting things to say and knows lots about the Nats, and is also a pretty funny guy. So without any further ado…