It’s September, and that means the playoff races are heating up in Major League Baseball. However, not everyone makes it to the promised land. Tom Wright tells us what went right and what went wrong in the elimination of the Washington Nationals.
On July 28, Washington Nationals GM Mike Rizzo pulled off a masterstroke of a trade. The Nationals acquired Jonathan Papelbon, the disaffected but extremely effective Phillies closer who desperately wanted to be traded to a good team. The new pitcher would cost the Nationals prospect Nick Pivetta, but Papelbon would fortify an already strong bullpen; with a more accomplished closer on the roster, Drew Storen would gracefully slide into the 8th inning role, and the rest of the bullpen would slide down accordingly. After seeing the 2014 Nationals’ postseason derailed by bullpen woes, Rizzo clearly decided that he would do everything possible to avoid repeating that fate.
Only… it didn’t work. The Papelbon trade backfired badly. Drew Storen, the defrocked closer, lost confidence, gave up 14 runs in his next 18 2/3 innings, and then broke his finger by slamming it in his locker. The rest of the Nationals seemed to follow suit; after the Papelbon trade, the team went 8-15 over their next 23 games. Washington’s lead over the Mets quickly evaporated, and by the time that Storen lost his fight with a locker room fixture, the Nats were seven games back of New York. Papelbon, for his part, has been decent on the field (if a bit of an agitator/asphyxiant off of it), but there’s only so much a closer can do on a team that can’t seem to garner a lead — since joining the Nationals, Papelbon has entered the game in a save situation just nine times and converted seven of those opportunities.
Did the Papelbon trade really make that much of a difference? Can a trade that brings in a high-quality player really have such a dramatically negative effect on a team? On its face, the whole concept seems bizarre; Papelbon is a fantastic closer, and adding talent should always be better than not adding talent. On the other hand, Storen has struggled with demotion before; when the Nationals pushed Storen out of the closer role for Rafael Soriano in 2013, Storen lost his command and eventually needed to go to AAA in order to sort himself out. Moreover, A’s fans would argue that the exact same situation happened to their team last year; Billy Beane got too cute with the best team in the league, traded for Jon Lester (the best starter on the market), then watched as the team unraveled and nearly missed the playoffs altogether. The theory may seem a little crazy, but it’s certainly a theory with a large number of adherents and a whole lot of anecdotal support.
Of course, someone who’s not willing to buy that theory might instead point to more mundane reasons for why the Nationals have slid so far behind the Metropolitans. Injuries started taking their toll — Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, Denard Span, Ryan Zimmerman, Doug Fister and Stephen Strasburg have all missed significant time this season. Ian Desmond forgot how to hit or field. Max Scherzer started wearing down and went from “unhittable” (literally, in the case of his no-hitter) to “hittable, but still sometimes an ace.” The Mets got white-hot and started winning games in the craziest ways possible. All of these factors undoubtedly played a role. And yet… the back of the bullpen went from lights-out to lit up in a single trade; the bullpen ERA shot up to 4.64 for the month of August, and the pen managed just four saves against five losses over the course of that disastrous month. There are few things more disheartening to a team than having a bullpen blow a lead, and the Nats’ relievers have done that with regularity.
If there’s been a bright spot for Nationals fans this year, it’s been the play of young phenom and occasional choking target Bryce Harper. Harper has always shown flashes of brilliance, but this is the year where he finally put everything together and started tearing the cover off the ball. Currently, Harper leads the NL in pretty much every statistical category that involves striking a ball with a bat — he’s first in runs, home runs, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, total bases and OPS+. After the Papelbon trade, as the rest of the team has struggled to tread water, Harper went bananas, hitting .365 and almost single-handedly keeping the Nationals from collapse. If the Nationals’ lineup had more than two other competent hitters, Harper would be running away with the triple crown; as it is, Harper has been worth two wins more than any other player in the National League.
Unlike many of the other teams profiled so far in the Elimination columns, the Nats seem likely to be back in the hunt next year. With a rotation that goes six pitchers deep, a perennial MVP candidate in right field, and most of the rest of the NL East being horrible, the Nationals should be in contention for each of the next few seasons if they can simply avoid shooting themselves in the foot again. It’s certainly not saying much, but the four-year stretch from 2012 to present has been the most successful stretch in Washington/Montreal/San Juan franchise history, and it’s entirely reasonable to expect that stretch to continue.
The most interesting question this offseason will be whether this is the end of the line for Matt Williams. Williams’ Nationals had a good year last year, but Matt was thoroughly outcoached in the playoffs (culminating in The Great Bullpen Screw Up in Game 4), and he failed to get the team back on task after the trade deadline madness took hold this year. One would suspect that Williams will take the axe for the lost season (and for the fact that he has never shown himself to be a particularly good manager), but if he kept his job… well, it wouldn’t be the first strange decision Mike Rizzo made this year…
The Nationals/Expos have never won a World Series.
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