After the blaring preseason fanfares of spring 2015 predicting a World Series championship, the Washington Nationals had a forgettable season as a team, though their two best players had superstar years. Max Scherzer became the sixth big-leaguer ever to have two non-hitters in a season, while Bryce Harper earned an MVP award at the age of 22, and just might be the “game’s best player,” though definitively calling one player “best” is rarely possible at any single point in time. As a group, however, the Nats stumbled to an 83-79 record; take away the combined WAR of their superstars (17) and they were a 66-96 ballclub.
And that ballclub lost some significant players to free agency at the end of the season, notably pitcher Jordan Zimmermann and shortstop Ian Desmond. Zimmermann was arguably the Nats’ most consistent hurler over the last four seasons, with excellent WHIP, K/BB, HR/9, and other numbers, though like the entire team he seemed to be in a funk this year. Desmond, age 30 and like Zimmermann a National from his first big league game, had a miserable “walk year,” hitting 20 points below his previous low figure, setting a personal high for strikeouts at 187, and making a stone-fingered 27 errors at his crucial infield position. Still, Desmond has the potential to be one of the better middle infielders in the game, with a number of good years left, and he is a very positive clubhouse presence. Beyond these, pitcher Doug Fister and center fielder Dennard Span had figured to be big losses to the Nats. But Fister lost his spot in the starting rotation and will likely go elsewhere as a long-shot starter, while Span had hip surgery that might be career-ending, and is at any rate very likely could diminish his most important weapon as a player, his speed. In addition to the departed free agents, regular 2015 third baseman Yunel Escobar was traded for prospects.
In 2015 both the manager and the bullpen were well below major league standards, especially for contenders. Shortly after the season the Nationals fired Matt Williams as manager, and made several moves to shore up their bullpen and set up a scenario in which they could trade Drew Storen, who lost his closer’s job three times with the Nats, and Jonathan Papelbon, who proved to be clubhouse poison. The situations of these last two extraneous relievers have not yet been resolved.
The appointment of Dusty Baker as manager came about most awkwardly. It had been strongly rumored for several days that the Nationals had chosen Bud Black for the job. Then they introduced Baker as the new guy. Nationals’ management said later that the Bud Black deal hit a last-minute roadblock, and Baker was never out of the running. Baker almost immediately distinguished himself by defending on-the-market star reliever Aroldis Chapman, whose free agency was put on hold by serious domestic abuse charges. (Chapman has since been traded to the New York Yankees. ‘Nuf said.) Baker also decreed that players of color were faster than white athletes, which appeared to send the message to his new team that he would be evaluating players based in part on ethnicity.
Meanwhile, the trade and the free agency issues cited above have left the Nationals with holes at center field, shortstop, second base, and the starting rotation. One might argue that they have a pressing need to upgrade at catcher, where Wilson Ramos has not distinguished himself either defensively or offensively, and in left field, where Jason Werth is 37 years old.
In the free agency market, where some of these holes might have been filled, the Nationals have whiffed, struck out, failed. Outfielder Jason Heyward left Nationals money on the table to go to the Chicago, where he expressed excitement about helping to end the Cubbies’ 108-year World Championship drought. They were outbid for Ben Zobrist too, and the Reds’ Brandon Phillips declined a trade to Washington after visiting DC and the Nationals. The Nationals have not been in the running for any of the top-shelf free agent starters, opting instead to go with Tanner Roark, a fifth starter in 2014 and a mostly-ineffectual middle reliever most of the 2015 season. For infielders the best the Nats could do was Mets’ second baseman Daniel Murphy, star of the 2015 postseason in the Mets’ ultimately losing effort. Murphy brings a good left-handed stick, with much higher average though less power than Desmond, to the Nats infield. But he’s been as big a butcher with the glove for his whole career as Desmond was for one season.
That’s it, the big acquisition so far. The Nationals appear to be ready to let the holes in the outfield, shortstop, and pitching rotation be filled by erstwhile backups or upcoming young players. They have failed to pick up available free agents (including star Orioles reliever Darren O’Day), largely I think because players don’t want to come to DC to play for Dusty Baker and a team that does not seem ready to make that step to the highest level. It’s about a day late and a dollar short of the needed talent and sheer organizational will to put it over the top. They may provide lots of day-to-day fun as the boys of summer, but barring future moves the Nats seem likely to be golfing in early October again.
©Arnold J. Bradford 2015