DC Post Mortem
Managers come and managers go; it is in the nature of the game. Still, the summary execution of the entire Washington Nationals coaching staff could not be viewed as a triumph of any kind. It was a sad business. There were many fine men involved in the dismissals, the most egregious of which is Randy Knorr who has been the bench coach for both Davey Johnson and Matt Williams, managed in the Nationals minor league system and held several other positions. His wife died in the summer of the 2015 season and piling another loss on top of that one seems especially heartless.
The fate of the coaching staff was sealed when Jonathan Papelbon got one hand on the throat of Bryce Harper in the Washington dugout as was captured vividly in photographs. Not since Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin were seen trying to get at one another in the Yankee dugout has such an incident generated as much media coverage. It was not so much the physical confrontation between the two players–there was no damage to either man–as it was the embarrassment to a franchise already reeling from a grimly disappointing season. It was all that was needed for a sports writing cabal at the Washington Post that had been screaming for Matt Williams’ scalp since he inserted Drew Storen into the fray in October of the 2014 playoffs to disastrous results.
The Washington Post sports writing team, led by Tom Boswell spent page upon page of coverage crowing over their photograph of Matt Williams back, ostensibly heading down the tunnel to the clubhouse from the dugout for the last time. Boswell patted himself on the back copiously for spotting the “peerless leader” personality that doomed Matt Williams from the start. More tasteful than a group of Mujahadeen fighters firing their Kalashnikovs in triumphant celebration?? Yeah, but not by much.
The most egregious claim made by the Washington Post, and Boswell in particular, is that the Nationals were a “World Series” ready team heading into the 2015 season, and that somehow the coaching staff squandered the riches they were given. Many sports outlets did rank the Nationals at the top in pre-season assessments, but much of that was driven by the strength of the starting rotation as augmented by the acquisition of Max Scherzer. Scherzer and Bryce Harper were the only member of the 2015 Nationals team who lived up to the pre-season hype and few would argue that Williams managed them any differently in 2015 than in 2014.
In retrospect, it was the acquisition of Scherzer that may have doomed the 2015 Nationals for exactly the reason that Rizzo surfaced when discussing the addition of Papelbon. Signing Scherzer “maxed” out the salary load for the Lerners. When the Mets strengthened their bullpen with Tyler Clippard and Addison Reed; their lineup with Yeonis Cespedes and Juan Uribe, the Nationals could make no similar moves. The Nationals had suffered through lengthy injuries to its veteran players like Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and promising young star Anthony Rendon. Their return was supposed to provide the fire power to hold off the surging Mets. The Nationals failed because those returning players could not provide consistent punch down the stretch as Cespedes and David Wright did. Their failure and the bet that Rizzo and ownership placed on their veterans involved neither Matt Williams nor the coaching staff. It was not their decision to add no one other than Papelbon to bolster a team that had been struggling through out the season.
Did Matt Williams propose adding Max Scherzer? No, but he paid the price. The danger for Washington is that the front office actually believes that Matt Williams and his coaching staff were the problem for the Nationals in 2015. It is one thing for Tom Boswell to think it and write it; it is another thing entirely for the baseball men who shape the future of the Nationals to try to pawn that logic off on anyone else.
The off-season for the Nationals will be a game changer and no doubt many will be watching to see exactly what the team decides as they seek to replace Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Denard Span, all of whom played out their contracts in 2015. There are several others likely not to return. Casey Janssen, Papelbon and Drew Storen are all likely to need a “change of scenery.” Taken as a whole, those seven individuals represent $68 million in salary and while there will be significant salary creep for stars like Stephen Strasburg, there is still plenty of room for Rizzo to maneuver at the end of the day.
The good news for the Washington faithful is the very crisp prescription offered by none other than the 23 year old wunderkind himself, Bryce Harper. According to Harper the team needs is another left-handed bat and a slugger to hit behind him in the lineup. It is hard to argue the point and it is one that was just as valid on July 31, 2015 when all that the Nationals added was Papelbon. No disrespect tobHarper, but the glaring problem is the bullpen. If the pressure to trade Papelbon and Storen results in both moving to greener pastures, then the bullpen will need to be rebuilt from scratch. Rather than forcing the new manger to choose between Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee in the late innings as Matt Williams had to, new faces are needed.
The easy solution is to keep Storen. The Washington Post reporting staff have never found him wanting despite his inability to perform under the glaring lights of post season scrutiny or his general inconsistency. But trading both Papelbon AND Storen seems a tall order. The more likely scenario is keeping one or the other once the smoke has cleared and sports fans in DC are more focused on the Wizards and the Warriors. Trades will net something, but it is unlikely the Nationals can rebuild the bullpen without at least one free agent signing. Darren O’Day resides just an hour north in Baltimore and would be a nice addition who can close or pitch the eighth inning. Tyler Clippard was always a fan favorite and if the Nationals chose to keep Storen, uniting the two would be a popular move with the paying customers. Signing Clippard and O’Day would not break the bank or put a huge hole in the Washington salary structure.
After fixing the bullpen, there should be ample salary room to address Bryce Harper’s analysis of the Nationals woeful lineup. The biggest problem is Ryan Zimmerman. When he is healthy he is still a load. In the brief interim between returning from Plantar Fasciatis in at the end of July and suffering an oblique strain late in September, he hit .317 with 10 bombs in 120 at bats. Whoever the new manager is, he needs to sit down with Mike Rizzo and ask how they can keep Zimmerman in the lineup. The 346 at bats he managed in 2015 were an improvement over the 214 he had in 2014. Finding a new work out routine for Zimmerman or some other way of keeping him healthy in 2016 would save the Lerners significant money that they were unwilling to spend at the trading deadline in 2015.
Which still leaves the issue of another left-handed bat. Jason Heyward is the best left-handed bat available as a free agent and while many teams are likely to desire his services, the Nationals have as much motivation to go after him as any team. Cleaning up the mess of 2015 will require more than a new manager to woo back disenchanted fans. Signing Bryce Harper to a long term deal would be the best present any potential fan could hope for. Getting Harper to sign long term in DC is problematic from the start, but without ownership signaling that they are listening to him, it is impossible. Heyward provides possible cover for Harper if Zimmerman is injured and he can hit leadoff when Zimmerman is in the lineup. He can play center field as well, but the biggest role he would play is in getting the kid to sign a long term deal to play in DC.
Who will get to manage whatever emerges from the off season in DC? According to MLB Rumors Ron Gardenhire’s agent said of the possibility: “it’s a very attractive job and city, and a good team.” So put Gardy in the mix along with Dusty Baker–who seems a bit too old, Bud Black and Ron Wotus of the Giants. The new manager will need to coax maximum performance from young pitchers like Joe Ross and A.J. Cole and new shortstop Trea Turner if he wins the job from Danny Espinosa. But more importantly, he will need to win the support of veterans in the clubhouse like Jayson Werth who fought an insurgency against Matt Williams from early on. Stephen Strasburg looks like he has found himself and that could be the biggest plus for the Nationals in 2016. It is Strasburg’s walk year and he appears ready to put his best foot forward, which would give the Nationals two very good starting pitchers and the opportunity to back fill with youth and still have a competitive staff.
The 2015 season was an ugly one for the Washington Nationals. Jonathan Papelbon was just the straw that broke the back of a structure already falling noisily into South Capital Street. There is hope that from the ruins something solid will rise before next April.