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The unbeatable 2012 Rangers and the unstoppable 2015 Nationals

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A cautionary tale, featuring two of the best rosters we've seen over the last decade

I sure write a lot of frivolous articles. Part of that has to do with my own limitations; part of that has to do with the baseball season being so danged long. It's common for me to think of a topic to write about, Google it, and find an article from two years ago that I don't remember writing. A lot of this stuff is baseball dandruff, and it'll be dusted and forgotten by next week. As far as occupational hazards go, it's a minor inconvenience.

Every so often, though, I write something I think about constantly, years after the fact. It takes restraint to avoid referencing it too much, not because it's such a special work of genius, but because it's a part of my baseball philosophy. This article about the 2003 Tigers is one of those articles. It discusses one of the very worst teams in baseball history and notes they were in the World Series three seasons later. Every time I'm making fun of the Phillies, for example, I want to link to it. Make it a law or an axiom. It takes three years to move from Triple-A talent to a contender if a few things go right along the way. Have hope and look three years down the road. Make one of those stupid "Keep Calm" shirts if you need to.

One of the analogs to the 2003 Tigers in that article was the 2012 Houston Astros. Three seasons later, they have the faint whiff of contender about them. It wouldn't be a generational fluke if the Astros made the postseason, not when they've spent the offseason polishing a roster filled with solid players. The other analog to the '03 Tigers was the Baltimore Orioles, and they've made the postseason twice since then. All it takes is three years, sure, but sometimes it can happen even sooner.

There is a dark corollary to this, though. Maybe it should have been obvious at the time, but it only recently popped into my head. In 2012, we weren't just spending our time thinking about how awful the Astros were going to be; we were also thinking about the best organization in baseball, loosely defined as the team with the best talent on the roster, the best talent in the farm, the best minds making the decisions, and the resources to complement it all. Here's the title that Jeff Sullivan used when he wrote about them.

The Texas Rangers And The Season-Long Victory Lap

The URL contained "so-awesome" at the end of it because it was an honest reaction to the 2012 Rangers. They had everything. They had everything. On June 30, 2012, the Rangers defeated the A's and moved to 50-29. Josh Hamilton might have been one of the best five players in baseball. Elvis Andrus was hitting .305/.381/.411, and the biggest problem was what to do with the gaggle of shortstop prospects behind him. The Rangers had everything.

Three seasons later, and, well ... my point wasn't to make Rangers fans exceptionally sad. There probably should have been a warning up there, apologies. The point is that three-season rule cuts both ways. Again, we're not talking about good teams having rough seasons, or last-place teams vaulting into contention. Those things happen every year. We're talking about scorched earth, ashes, and post-apocalyptic rosters like the 2003 Tigers. We're talking about model franchises with depth and more depth and depth behind the depth, like the 2012 Rangers. We're talking about the extremes, the very ends of the talent spectrum.

This brings us to the 2015 Washington Nationals, a team that I hold in quiet awe. They have everything. They have everything. They have young players who are poised to become absolute superstars. They have so much pitching, they'll begin the season with a long reliever who could start Opening Day for at least a third of the teams in the league. You see where this is going, and it's not like I'm going to write science fiction about how the 2018 Nationals become the worst team in the league. It wouldn't take a lot of skill or prescience to write that. An injury here, some stalled development there, a free agent mistake there ... there isn't a lot of deus ex machina involved. It's baseball, and we're all well aware that baseball is a jerk.

Don't think about the ways the 2018 Nationals can be a mess, then. Think of how even the 2015 Nationals can/should/will have a sense of urgency. I spent most of the offseason wondering exactly why the Nationals would take a nine-figure gamble on a starting pitcher they didn't desperately need, and then there was a 2012 Rangers-related epiphany. There's a trap door under every good team, and it doesn't have to be an obvious, Wile E. Coyote invention like the one that was under the aging Phillies a couple seasons ago. When I've thought about windows of contention and the teams that are set up well in both the short- and long-term, I've excluded the Nationals (and to some extent, the Dodgers) from serious scrutiny because, well, they have everything. They can make risky win-now moves at the deadline, or they can rap the table and check because they're pretty sure they have the best hand. Either strategy was viable, I would have told you a month ago.

The more I stare at the 2012 Rangers page on Baseball-Reference, though, the more I start panicking and wondering how everything went so wrong. The Rangers were considering Zack Greinke at the trade deadline, but presumably didn't want to give up prospects. Why? Couldn't they see the future? Didn't they realize that the prospects wouldn't help them when they were ready, if they were ever ready at all? Didn't they understand the time to pounce was then? Didn't they understand that was the moment to strike?

Of course not. That's an unfair lens to look through. You'll drip hindsight over everything, and that stuff stains. The point isn't that baseball teams can suffer quick changes of fortune. You knew that. The point is that every team might have already reached its tipping point without knowing it, and that it's silly to worry too much about the future of a win-now team. Sometimes, a team will give up Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, and Brandon Phillips in the same deal. Sometimes, a team will deal Jeff Bagwell for a reliever. Most of the time, though, the deals aren't that extreme. Most of the time, they're not even close.

So I hereby resolve not to complain too much when a contending team appears to mortgage its future for an extra player, a middle reliever, or a No. 1 starter. The Nationals signing Scherzer seemed egregious and greedy. It seemed unnecessarily risky, considering how well the team was set up already, as if it was a financial risk that would cost them when it was time to lock up Anthony Rendon or Bryce Harper.

It took the cautionary tale of the 2012 Rangers, then, to make me okay with the Scherzer deal, just as it will make me okay with almost any trade the Nationals make at the deadline. The huge Scherzer contract will be an albatross in 2018 and beyond? We have no idea what the Nationals will look like in 2018. It's not like an extra $20 million would fix the Rangers right now, but if they had an extra Scherzer-quality starter in 2012, they might have been unstoppable. That's all the Nats are going for. They're going for the unstoppable team in the present because they can.

The gift of the 2003 Tigers was to teach everyone that even the worst rosters of the century don't have to be that far away from the pennant. The cautionary tale of the 2012 Rangers tells us that there's no such thing as sustainable perfection. It takes three years for everything to change irrevocably, so don't focus on three years in the future if you can help it. The Nationals aren't. It's looking like a helluva strategy from here.