Three Times at Bat For the Nationals and Nothing to Show
The Washington Nationals made offers to all three of the elite free agent outfielders on the market: Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Yeonis Cespedes. In at least two instances it is clear from the press reports that Washington offered more money than other clubs in on the bidding. But all three players went elsewhere. The Nationals took their cuts and one by one, they whiffed.
If the money was there, what common thread runs through the Nationals’ failures?
The situation with Yeonis Cespedes is the most worrying because the competition had thinned out considerably. Reputedly it was a face to face confrontation between the Nationals and the Mets. The Mets had already said they were not going to go more than three years, so the door was wide open for Washington. The Nationals front office was in the driver’s seat and all they had to do was make Cespedes believe that he was the man of the hour. But somehow Washington found a way to put Yeonis Cespedes in a New York frame of mind. As the particulars surfaced, the one year opt-out and the initial $27 million from the Mets were portrayed as large incentives. If so, why was Cespedes talking about wanting an Upton deal just days before.
It is wasted speculation, but with Yeonis Cespedes in left field, Ben Revere in center and Bryce Harper in right, the Nationals had a cumulative WAR that would have ranked them third in the Majors behind the Cubs and just a smidge below the Dodgers. Putting Cespedes in a Mets uniform pushes the New Yorkers into third, well ahead of the Nationals.
According to FanGraphs, Washington’s pursuit of Cespedes was driven by ownership. Most assumed that with Bryce Harper in right and Ben Revere in center, Jayson Werth and Michael Taylor would split time somehow based upon Werth’s health. The pursuit of Upton and Cespedes by the Lerner family said in effect saying that they were willing to eat the rest of Jayson Werth’s two remaining years–$21 million annually through 2017. Interesting to say the least. But if money had become secondary to winning, why not jump in with both feet? Close the deal! Instead it appeared as if the Nationals tried to calculate the lowest amount Cespedes might take. Their offer was in no man’s land: less than Upton got and less annually than what the Mets were offering.
Guessing why one player makes the decision to play somewhere is whimsical at best. But when three guys all turn their nose up at good money, there is significant probability something more than money affected their decision making. There are the obvious and not-so-obvious possibilities.
The most obvious concern is the ability to win. Washington has not demonstrated it can win. It is a chicken and egg problem and it is hardly new. When the Arizona Diamonbacks were a newly minted expansion team with no winning tradition they brought in Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. Problem solved. The Washington Nationals tried out Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg in similar roles but without the same results.
Same problem a year later and Washington clearly and correctly believed they needed another solid outfielder to play beside Bryce Harper. Yeonis Cespedes was the cheapest option on the market–less money and no draft pick compensation–and still they couldn’t get it done.
In Moneyball Michael Lewis famously compared Billy Beane and Lenny Dykstra. Beane was the draft pick with the high ceiling, but Dykstra had greater desire and drive. Dykstra was the one who became became an impact player at the Major League level. The Nationals have an gifted GM in Mike Rizzo and the Lerner’s have plenty of money. Plenty of ceiling, but not much on the delivery side so far.
One problem has been chemistry. Papelbon with his hands around the throat of Bryce Harper is the public face of it. Papelbon was not the most popular guy on any of the teams he played for and Harper brought out the worst in him within weeks of joining the team. But it makes you wonder. The rumors about Harper’s hot dog attitude have dogged him from the beginning and were front and center again when Matt Williams benched him for failing to run out a weak infield grounder. Bryce Harper has always stood apart as a special case and is unlikely to be any team’s union rep.
But if the clubhouse vibe around the Nationals is less than warm and fuzzy, then ownership needs to adjust its own strategy. Playing Cespedes cheap doesn’t do much to convince the market place that Washington’s approach to baseball is vastly different from its other hardball game: politics. The talent level on Capitol Hill is not what it was several decades ago and a similar thinning of quality at Nationals Park could be in the offing if the Nationals front office doesn’t take a hard look at how it is doing business.
Going to bat three times without a hit is not a good day for anyone.