Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown of the offseason. The Nationals didn't look like they needed another starting pitcher after their strong 2014 season. They went out and spent $210 million on the best one available, sending a strong starting pitcher to the bullpen. They did it because they could. It was a team that looked so complete, you needed to squint to find flaws.
Imagine someone whispering in your ear, "Bryce Harper has one of the best offensive seasons since Barry Bonds, too" before last season. You would have went straight for Vegas.
So this headline should be comforting to Nationals fans, in a way. They've already tried this preseason-darling thing. They've tried it several times. Maybe hanging back in the shadows makes for better luck.
All things being equal, though, Nationals fans probably would have been a happier with another dominant offseason, especially following a regular season in which almost nothing went right. The time-honored strategy of "acquiring better players" is usually a popular one, even if the Nationals have been burned by it in two of the last three offseasons. Consider all of the things that went poorly for the Nationals since the offseason began.
The Denard Span mistake
The Nationals declined to extend a qualifying offer to Span because they were scared he would accept the $15.8 million offer. He ended up doubling that money on the open market, and the Nationals don't get a compensatory draft pick for him in June.
Not a huge deal, except the Nationals later realized that they needed another outfielder, preferably one with speed who could live at the top of the lineup. They got Ben Revere, a lesser fielder and hitter, and they gave up a talented (if disgruntled) bullpen arm to get him. The $9 million saved was the reason the Nationals were involved in 300 different rumors, but we'll get to that.
If everything goes right, the Nationals will get Span-like production from the more consistent Revere, and they'll have saved money in the process. If they extended the qualifying offer to Span, though, they still would have had their solid leadoff option, with Drew Storen available to trade for something else, or they would have had an extra pick at the end of the first round. With the benefit of hindsight, the sequence seems like a Rube Goldberg contraption that was built to avoid a draft pick.
Also, everything rarely goes right.
The targets that spurned
What was the Nationals' plan if they were successful in their pursuit of Jason Heyward? Was he Harper insurance if their star left in two years? Was he part of the plan to entice Harper to stay? Or were they primarily focused on the present, with the future being left for the future?
It doesn't matter. Heyward signed with the Cubs. The Nationals were curious about Justin Upton, and he signed elsewhere. They were curious about Wei-Yin Chen, which would have freed up one of their starting pitchers to trade. They were talking contract with Mike Leake for the same reason. They missed out on Ben Zobrist, Swiss Army knife of the gods. Darren O'Day turned them down to stay put.They thought they had a trade for Brandon Phillips, but he demanded an extension to waive his no-trade rights.
The last of the bunch was the worst of the bunch, at least strategically. The Nationals were pursuing Yoenis Cespedes, which would have served a dual purpose of making their lineup stronger and poking the Mets in the eye. Instead, the Mets got Cespedes on what's essentially a one-year deal (assuming he opts out), which fits their needs and budget perfectly. The Nationals are instead left to hope for the best from a 37-year-old Jayson Werth as their main source of power after Harper.
Every team missed out on a target or three. The Nationals missed out on targets spectacularly, though, right up to their final failed pursuit of a crucial NL East player.
The targets that joined
The Nats did add some bullpen arms, though, in Shawn Kelley and Oliver Perez. That allowed them to trade Storen away, and it made it palatable to lose out on O'Day and Aroldis Chapman. Still, there won't be a lot of Shawn Kelley shirseys at their FanFest, I'm guessing.
No, the big splash was Daniel Murphy, whose best-case scenario is probably something like what Yunel Escobar gave the Nationals last year. They traded Escobar away to make room, exchanging tens of millions after the trade to buy a slightly younger, slightly more consistent second baseman. The move allows them to take their time with prospect Trea Turner, and it gives the lineup a lefty/righty balance it didn't have before.
It's not like Murphy is a bad player. On the contrary, he's been helping the Mets win an extra game or two every season for six years, now. As the face of an entire offseason, especially an offseason that followed the most disappointing regular season in franchise history, he's completely underwhelming.
Or, to put it another way, have you looked at the Nationals' projected lineup this year?
- Ben Revere
- Anthony Rendon
- Bryce Harper
- Ryan Zimmerman
- Daniel Murphy
- Jayson Werth
- Danny Espinosa
- Wilson Ramos
For three names, you're getting excited. Revere doesn't walk, but he's one of the few players in baseball you might trust to buoy his OBP with his batting average. Rendon had a disappointing season last year, but he's still just 26 and preternaturally gifted. Harper stepped out of Baseball Simulator 1.000, and the rest of the league can't do anything about it.
After that, though, it's bleak. Zimmerman had a .308 OBP last year, and his body is an old soul. Murphy is a fine complementary player, but he makes you wince as a #5 hitter. Werth is coming off his worst season, and he's 37. Espinosa is coming off one of his best seasons, but that still makes him a defense-first player you hide at the bottom of the order. Ramos has been a net-negative hitter for two seasons now.
The Nationals probably needed Cespedes more than the Mets did, really.
Don't take this as a declaration that the Nationals will be disappointing again. Their pitching is still deep, with two of the best pitching prospects in the upper minors if anyone should get hurt or stumble. Think of them as sort of a mini-Mets from last year, with a pitching staff that should help them contend, and a lineup that might do just enough. And they still might exploit the trade market, from Jonathan Lucroy to Carlos Gonzalez. This might not be the final roster.
Considering the goals of the offseason, though, and the rumors swirling around them, it has to be more than a little disappointing to have Murphy be on the cover of a hypothetical book about the 2015-2016 offseason, especially if he's going to be hitting in the middle of the order. After one of the most woeful over-.500 seasons in recent baseball history, the Nationals wanted to impress. They treaded water, at best, even as they were trying to spend.
But, again, if they can't win in the regular season after winning the offseason, it's almost refreshing to see this approach. They would probably feel more comfortable if they had acquired better players than the ones they had last year, though. That's the golden rule of every team in every offseason, and the Nationals might not be able to claim that much.