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.
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.
Down Half Street lies the Navy Yard Metro Station. Board a train 81 days from April to October and the train will be packed with fans dressed in red, white and blue, bearing the names of Strasburg and Harper. Ride it for long enough, and you’ll eventually reach Branch Avenue, the final stop on the line before turning around and starting all over. Only one team out of thirty is lucky enough to be the team that can happily leave the train before Branch Avenue, the stop known as the World Series. The Nationals were not that team this year.
The train that looked to be going the perfect speed, to for the first time, finish ahead of everyone else, couldn’t. On Wednesday, October 7th, the San Francisco Giants eliminated the Washington Nationals from postseason contention. The Nationals managed a meager 9 runs in four games, and lost the series in four games after being heavily favored to advance to the next round.
Maybe you should blame the loss on Tanner Roark giving up the home run in the eighteenth inning to Brandon Belt in Game Two. Maybe you should blame Gio Gonzalez for giving up two runs in four innings, or Aaron Barrett for throwing the wild pitch that created the winning run. Maybe you should blame Matt Williams for not taking Barrett out of the game soon enough. But excepting the two youngest and brightest stars on the team, the blame rests on the offense.
The Nationals offense all year long thrived on the ability of the tag-team combo of Denard Span and Anthony Rendon to get on base, and then for Adam Laroche, Jayson Werth, Ian Desmond, Bryce Harper or Wilson Ramos to drive them in. All of them hit higher than .258 in the regular season. In the Postseason, Adam LaRoche hit .056 and Desmond had the highest average in the top seven spots excepting Harper and Rendon at .167. Harper and Rendon combined to bat .331. However, even when Harper and Rendon got on base, nobody drove them home, as the Nationals lost one-run game after one-run game.
While the pitching wasn’t as superb as it had been in the months leading up, giving up 2.25 runs a game should be a recipe for success. However, the bats completely died in the five day break between Jordan Zimmermann’s no-hitter and Game one of the NLDS. While Harper and Rendon showed incredibly promising signs, the rest of the team continued to go quietly each and every time, letting hanging breaking balls fall in for a strike, swinging at balls in the dirt and popping up consistently. While Game 3 showed momentum changing, the Nationals simply couldn’t ride Bryce Harper alone to the next round. Errors they hadn’t made all year proved costly the one time it truly mattered. And instead of something escapable to run away from, the World Series station passed, and Branch Avenue became a reality with Ramos’ groundout to end the game.
And so the train turned around and went back. Half Street was just a blur in an underground tunnel. The signs proclaiming that the Nationals had reached the postseason had quietly disappeared. The government offices were no longer red, and back to their normal states. And even on a day where the temperature was warm and the sun was out, the chills of winter were blowing, not to stop for a long, long time. The train pulled into the airport, and the team left, all going their separate ways. And for the train itself? It will sit underground for the winter and avoid the cold. And one morning in April, it will pull out of the station, starting another journey.
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?
The Nationals and the Braves are meeting for the seventh time this season tonight. At this point in the season, the Braves have absolutely dominated the Nationals. Atlanta has won five of the six so far. However, that hasn’t seemed to define the Nationals’ season, as they sit in first place with a 1.5 game lead over Atlanta. Statistically, the Nationals have scored many more runs per game, have had better pitching, made more comebacks and have been just generally the better team. But as the Cardinals proved, some teams just have the Nationals’ number. So what can the Nationals do to win this series and take a definitive lead in the NL East?
To win the game, you must score the most runs. To score runs, you have to drive in runners on base. That entire process begins with one player, the leadoff batter. In this case for the Nationals, Denard Span is that player. However, ever since trading for him in 2012,
This is a tale of two Tommy John surgeries.
Within fifteen days of each other, both Stephen Strasburg and Kris Medlen tore their UCL, requiring baseball’s most dreaded and talked about surgery – Tommy John. The two promising prospects returned in September 2011. This is where the stories differentiate.
In March of 2012, it was announced that no matter what, Stephen Strasburg would be shut down after pitching a certain amount of innings. Kris Medlen would start the season in the bullpen, and then become a starter in July.
Kris Medlen had a good start, but began his domination of the National League as a starter. He completely dominated the Nationals throughout the entire season, and for that matter, the National League. But Medlen’s start in the NL Wild Card game proved ineffective as the Braves lost the “infield fly” game.
Strasburg had a very good season also, not as dominant as Medlen, but really showing what he would be like in the future. However, as the shutdown loomed, he began to stop producing, and finished early. Strasburg did not play in the playoffs at all, as Rizzo knew it would be better for the overall future, even though the Nats lost in game five, and many people said the opposite, and that if Strasburg had pitched in the NLDS, it might’ve been a different story.
After both posted a good, but not as good follow up year, the two promising prospects entered this year’s Spring Training with high hopes for division titles and great seasons.
Both started this year’s spring training hot. However, one sunny March afternoon, after delivering a pitch, Medlen grimaced, and jogged off the mound. It was later announced he was likely to get a second Tommy John Surgery.
Six days later, Strasburg matched up against Josè Fernandez and the Marlins, giving up two hits over four innings, completely dominating them.
Even though it was a meaningless Spring Training Game, it showed what road Medlen could be on right now – and that two years later, it’s clear that Mike Rizzo made the right move.