Did you remember that Matt Williams won the Manager of the Year last year? You did not.
The Nationals are under .500 halfway through August and sinking fast. Forget 100 wins, they'll have to go 32-13 just to get to 90 wins. They're not dead yet, but they're floating on a small boat down a river and people are shooting flaming arrows at them.
The reasons the Nationals have disappointed aren't surprising. This isn't a team we'll remember for years and years because they're such a unique cautionary tale. They've had players underperform, and they've had players go on the disabled list. That's the same cocktail that can bring down any team, no matter how mighty.
You, in March: The Nationals are almost certainly the best team in baseball.
Time traveler: Jayson Werth will be one of the worst players in either league, Doug Fister is going to pitch his way out of the rotation and Stephen Strasburg is going to be an injury-riddled mess.
You: Well ... that's unfortunate. But if there's any team that has the depth and talent to make up for that, it's ...
Time traveler: Anthony Rendon will also be hurt and ineffective. Ian Desmond's season is going to be a disaster. Denard Span will be excellent, but he'll miss half the season. Five different regulars will have an OBP under .300. Only two starters will have an adjusted ERA better than the league average.
Time traveler: A foam Alexander Hamilton wins the President's Race six times in a row before someone points out that he was never a president.
You: Now you're just being hurtful.
Cataloging all of the Nationals' potholes and pratfalls is painful, even if you don't care about the team. The story of their season is basically "take practically everything that's good about the team, and throw it into a running garbage disposal." There's no way to prepare for that. And because I have no scruples, my job today is going to be making Nationals fans feel worse. This isn't just a disappointing season. This is a disappointing season that might be a harbinger of doom for future seasons.
A short and horrifying list of the different ways this Nationals team is making me feel nervous about the future:
The pending free agents
The Nationals have seen this coming for a while. It's why they jumped at the chance to sign Max Scherzer in an offseason where they had a clearly defined rotation. With the ace of the franchise locked up, there was less pressure to hand out a long-term deal to Jordan Zimmermann or Doug Fister.
Just because they've been preparing for it, doesn't mean that it isn't going to sting. The pending free agents:
- Jordan Zimmermann
- Doug Fister
- Denard Span
- Ian Desmond
The Nationals still have a few nickels to rub together, so they'll get a chance to lock a couple of those players up if they want to. Note that if they didn't wander into the middle of a Rays/Padres trade that had nothing to do with them, they would be completely hosed right now. Joe Ross and Trea Turner are built-in replacements for two players having miserable seasons, which does a great job tempering the above losses.
Still, here's the two-sentence explanation of why those players get their own category: Those were four reasons the Nationals were supposed to be good this season. Those are four players who might not be around next season. Even if they've been disappointing, it's hard to feel great about the future of the juggernaut if they don't even have a chance to rebound.
The season after next, Strasburg is a free agent. How in the absolute heck do you figure out what kind of contract he's going to get? What if he has an excellent season next year? What if he has another confusing one? It's going to be completely impossible to predict his value as a free agent, but the odds are at least fair that there's one team out there who will take a much bigger gamble than the other 29 teams will. Those same odds suggest that the Nationals don't have to be the favorites just because they're the only team Strasburg's known. Weirdo free agents like that seem to have the best chance of disappearing behind the money stacks of the open market.
The disintegrating veterans
Jayson Werth is owed $42 million over the next two seasons. He's been hurt and ineffective all season, and he's at an age (36), where that can be a trend instead of a fluke. He's at an age where that's probably a trend instead of a fluke.
Ryan Zimmerman is owed $48 million over the next four seasons. He's been hurt and ineffective all season. He's not as old as Werth, but the injuries have always been, and will remain, a concern. His defense has declined so much, he'll need to hit 25 homers with an OBP well over .350 to be a significant asset. It's not impossible, but it sure looks that way when you're looking through 2015-colored glasses.
What's Williams' solution to these problems? Keep playing them both. Over and over and over again. Hope they can play their way out of the old and injured, which isn't how it usually works. The next manager -- assuming there's not a late-season surge, which there very well could be -- might have a different idea, but it looks like the salary and status are keeping them in the lineup. This could go on for the entire season next year, too, before they give up.
The mysteriously ineffective young core
Strasburg is a mess with his command right now, missing with more fastballs in a typical game this year than he did in a full month last year. The fielding-independent stats suggest it's just poor luck, and maybe there's something to that. It's hard to assume that he'll be a part of the next great Nationals team, though. He's getting hit too hard for that.
Anthony Rendon went from an MVP candidate to a liability. Of all the above names, he's the easiest one to predict a renaissance for because of his age and latent talent, but his power is completely gone. He has fewer RBI in 39 games than Matt Duffy had against the Nationals in his last series. I know RBI are a useless gramps stat, but the lack of run production still stuns me. Based on the small-sample shenanigans of 2015, it's fair to write the same sentence about Rendon: It's hard to assume that he'll be a part of the next great Nationals team. That's how bad his injury-marred season has been.
Wilson Ramos has already played in more games this year than he has since 2011, which is good (he's healthy) and bad (his OBP is .265). He's always been a free swinger, but now the strikeout rate is going up, too. He's still a defensive asset, but part of the Nationals' impeccable roster design was that they could count on more production from their shortstop, second baseman and catcher than other teams. If Ramos is simply a defense-first, Chris Stewart-type now, that's one less thing the Nationals can count on.
Add it all up, and I have no idea what to make of the Nationals' future. I had some idea before the season started -- they were going to be great, and that run of success was going to last indefinitely. This season has been such a disappointment, on so many different levels, that it's making me question their future, too.
They still have Bryce Harper, one of baseball's greatest talents. They still have Max Scherzer, and they have enough prospects in the upper minors to help fill some immediate holes. They have money. And, perhaps most importantly, they still have a chance to make the postseason in 2015. Feels like we're a little too quick with the shovel. Based on the projected strength of the roster, they still have a 30 percent chance of winning their division, better than the Pirates, Giants and Angels. That's still missing the postseason seven out of 10 times, but that isn't inescapable doom. They're just long odds.
Still, it's been a while since we could look at the Nationals with anything other than absolute reverence. Before the season, I compared them to the 2012 Rangers, just to point out that there's a trap door under every seemingly flawless team.
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.
Before the season it made sense to use the Rangers as a cautionary tale for the Nationals. Four months later, and we could probably have an honest debate on whether the Rangers or Nationals are set up better for next season. Four months later, and the question isn't how good will the 2018 Nationals be. It's how much lower the 2015 Nationals can sink.
They could win the division. They could win the next six divisions. If this were an obituary, it would be horribly premature. Still, here's how bad the Nationals are struggling right now: They're struggling enough to make you worried about this season and the next one, too.
That isn't a sentence I thought I'd have to type for five years, at least. Baseball's a jerk, alright. Baseball's a jerk.
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