The 2016 Washington Nationals Makeover Should Start Immediately
The Washington Nationals 2015 season ended last night and they missed the playoffs by what ole Diz would call a “country mile.” Many if not all DC sports pundits will continue to harp on the mistakes made by Matt Williams, but whether Williams returns or not, there is a dysfunction in DC that runs far deeper than managerial decisions could possibly fix. It is that impulse to look for the easy solution–blaming Matt Williams—that allowed the team to avoid solving the deeper bullpen problems in the first place. It is called believing your own bullshit and the Washington Nationals organization gets high marks on that score.
The Washington Nationals bullpen was an ongoing atrocity in 2015 but no one saw it for what it was because everyone was so busy blaming Matt Williams for poor late inning choices. Then the collective collapse on September 8 made it inescapable. The problem bore a name and it was Drew Storen. In truth it was a joint effort. Four relievers worked together to squander a 7-1 lead in the seventh inning against the Mets. But the heavy lifting was done by Storen. A double to Yeonis Cespedes hurt, but it was the three walks and the wild pitch that raise the question about exactly was going on in the young man’s head last night. Either way, for Storen the patina of fan favorite is gone for good. Lost is all his cherubic wonder as fans chanted his name with his favorite pump-up music playing in the back ground like a high school cheer leading squad. There will be no more excuses, no more getting him off the hook by blaming Williams’ for asking him to get a single out.
Drew Storen needs to grow up, but more than anything he needs what baseball calls a “change of scenery.” Central casting needs to order him a new backdrop that looks a lot like Minnesota or North Dakota, somewhere that makes an attractive attribute of sulking for months at a time because he lost the closer role. Let someone else decide just how much Storen actually wanted to get that final out to help his team and manager last night? What is certain is that the Mets want it more.
Regardless, trading Drew Storen is task one in the makeover and if it happens tomorrow so much the better as long as it brings a reasonable return. Second, the scout who said that Casey Janssen could pitch the eighth inning effectively for the Nationals in 2015 should be given what we call in DC an “early out.” In the stead of Storen and Janssen, Washington should focus its efforts on signing Joakim Soria and making whatever changes are necessary to develop a decent bullpen. Turning the existing squalid mess into a showcase is a makeover that could require more talent than Washington can bring to bear in a single season.
It would help if the Nationals could shake their rigid approach to player development. If pitcher A was drafted as a starter then he will damn well remain a starter unless the scouting report said he would likely end up in relief. Any number of minor league starters could have been used in the pen once Blake Treinen and Felipe Rivero proved not ready for prime time. But the organization was unable to imagine that any pitcher then starting in the minors might help in the major league bullpen. Treinen and Rivero remained primary options for the seventh and eighth innings until last night. Trevor Rosenthal and most of the Cardinal bullpen were developed in the minors as starters until the organization needed bullpen help. Their bullpen is manned almost completely by young converted starters all of whom are paid the Major League minimum salary. Full stop.
Washington’s starting rotation was thought to be the deepest and best in baseball and yet Max Scherzer broke down in the heat of the pennant race and Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister, and Gio Gonzalez failed to come close to past excellence. Fixing the pitching will be difficult, but it is not quixotic to think that Strasburg and Scherzer will fare better in 2016.
The good news is that all of those starters the Nationals have been saving are ready to contribute as just that. Joe Ross proved almost as good as his brother Tyson Ross when called upon in June to fill in for Strasburg. Additionally, A.J. Cole pitched very well in Syracuse in the second half of 2015 and Austin Voth was solid throughout his tenure at Double-A Harrisburg. Both Cole and Voth look like solid options at the back end of the rotation. Then there is Lucas Giolito the number one right-handed prospect in baseball who made it to Double-A Harrisburg. Yet even if the Nationals think he is ready in the spring, Mike Rizzo is likely to keep him in the minors for at least the first half of the year. Even without him the Nationals can build a quality rotation from Scherzer, Strasburg, Gonzalez, Ross and company and Tanner Roark provides depth to span injury once again.
The easiest part of the makeover is on the offensive side. The infield is set despite the loss of Ian Desmond. The catching is set, but the ugly underside of the offense is also what will most likely be ignored by the Washington front office. Jayson Werth (37) was worth the money and no one will forget his contributions, but age is taking its toll. Can he be counted on as an everyday player going forward? Will the team decide that the few weeks of excellent work as a leadoff hitter make him sound again for 2016? Ryan Zimmerman (31) is just a step behind Werth in terms of reliability. Pulled hamstrings, inflammation of tendons in the foot, strained obliques. Those are the maladies of age and poor conditioning.
For the Nationals to contend in 2016 they need another bat that can reliably protect Bryce Harper and prevent teams from pitching around him constantly. If they are serious about building a winner in 2016, they will sign Yeonis Cespedes. They will do so not just because he is an outstanding outfielder and a clutch power hitter who can protect Harper, but because we will deny him to the Mets. New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia fans do not come to DC to get the bobble heads; they come to see their team play. Washington will get that kind of team loyalty only when the team wins in October. A quality outfield bat and a good bullpen are what are needed to achieve that goal.
The minor league cupboard is not quite bare, but it is getting there. Washington should trade Storen for prospects. He is still a first round draft pick who was taken ahead of Mike Trout and should fetch a decent return. Once the starting rotation is decided, there may be opportunities to add prospects by trading Gio Gonzalez or Tanner Roark. If young pitchers like Austin Voth look ready in March, there is no point sending them back down unless they could stand to get their feet wet coming out of the bullpen first.
The Washington Nationals will not be picked to win the 2016 National League East without serious consideration given to the revitalized Mets and the likely to improve Marlins. But like the San Francisco Giants, Washington plays its best baseball in even years. With a little imagination and the right make over, the Nats could surprise in 2016. If they are willing to think outside the box, the surprise could be a good one for a change.