July 28, 2017

Are the 2017 Nationals a Late Blooming Winner?

February 24, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

It’s been a long strange trip to pitchers and catchers for the Washington Nationals. It has been an off-season like no other and since we really haven’t had that many it is not much of a horse race.

Remembering those first few off-seasons is instructive. Going back to the Jim Bowden years and watching he and Stan Kasten make a total mess of those early drafts is something any serious fan should do for perspective when trying to parse through what has happened in the past few months. Think about it. There are 70 planets out there just like the Earth circling stars within 40 light years of the sun and on one of them maybe the Nationals have already won a World Series.

But I would wager that on no other planet have the Nationals traded Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning for Adam Eaton as a way to get there. FanGraphs referred to Giolito as “Earth’s best young arm.” But the Nationals traded him and two other highly regarded arms–Lopez could easily have been the best young arm on one of those 70 planets–and got only Eaton. Giving up on your two best pitching prospects, one of whom is all-planet, might make sense for Eaton and Robertson. But for one very good outfielder, we give up on two of the best arms in the high minors and then some?

There was a long silence from the front office after the trade from hell.  It was an interminable silence as one closer after another was taken off the market with the Nationals playing poor step child to their greedy, evil sisters who are preening for the Handsome Prince and his Grand Ball. When Mark Melancon went to the Giants, there were too many questions to ask, much less to answer. And then Kenley Jansen snubbed the Nationals to stay in California. Easier to understand perhaps, but still… No closer.

Yet here we are as exhibition games begin at West Palm. The sun is coming up across the Atlantic Ocean and amazingly enough it brings hope like we have not seen before. We left the “Space Coast” for the Gold Coast and maybe there is some metaphorical meaning there that I should ponder. Or maybe not. Could the Nationals go into the 2017 season with the best starting lineup of their short lived existence and still somehow count on Blake Treinin to close out games? Despite all the slow months that followed the trade from hell, I am betting against it.

The Lerner family made their billions by letting the market for prime commercial real estate come to them and they have done likewise this off-season. The gambit has worked and they have landed Adam Lind, Stephen Drew and Matt Wieters at less than the threesome would have commanded in December. The front office has begun to put together something of a late emerging plan and Wieters has to be the best move of them all. Barry Svrluga captured the ambiance of that one quite clearly–there is a war being fought between the Orioles and the Nationals and Wieters is a key score for the Nationals.

But back to how the real estate market works. There is one school of thought that sees the Lerner’s as cheap and picking up Adam Lind to bolster their bench for almost nothing would buttress that view. But baseball is a business and getting Adam Lind for one million and change is probably a pretty nice deal, one that further solidifies the bench on a roster that is starting to look quite formidable on the offensive side. Dusty Baker won’t admit it, but given the endless injuries that have plagued Ryan Zimmerman since signing a long term contract, it is smart money to have Lind as a back-up plan, one who is playing on a hungry one-year deal.

Tom Boswell speculated on the Nationals scoring 800 plus runs in 2017 and it is not outlandish to consider when you think that Ryan Zimmerman could be batting seventh or eighth behind Wieters and Jayson Werth this season. The first five spots in the Nationals lineup average 26 years of age and the last three slots will average in their mid-thirties. It will be Old Timers Day after Anthony Rendon takes his cuts batting fifth.

Yet if the Nationals have constructed what is arguably their best offensive club to date, it is hard to believe Opening Day will arrive without a proven closer. They are waiting for the market to ripen for David Robertson. Sure, the Chicago White Sox could keep David Robertson and get more for him in July. Or something unforeseen happens and they get nothing. The Nationals could give Treinen a chance to prove he has the death wish mentality that works in the ninth inning and if not, they trade for Robertson. Derek Norris has his ears to the rails and knows there is a train coming with his name on it. What will he bring back in a trade? Norris is almost certainly headed elsewhere. It must gall the Lerners endlessly to think they could have $15 million wrapped up in two catchers–Norris and Wieters–both of whom together might not be the equivalent of a healthy Wilson Ramos.

The market is making a late move towards the Nationals and things looks bullish.  Washington will sort out their plethora of catchers and their dearth of closers somehow, and maybe even look smart in doing so. But don’t tell me that letting Mark Melancon go for $13 million and keeping Gio Gonzalez for $12 million makes sense. Maybe the value of a good closer is only a couple of games in a season, but please, don’t even get me started on why the Nationals have commissioned another season of “Gio Unhinged.” If it were a Netflix Original no one would watch so why try to play it again at Nationals Park?

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