December 11, 2018

Knowing When to Hold Them and When to Fold Them

July 16, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

You have to know when to hold them; know when to fold them. That is what separates the winners from the losers, pure and simple.

The Washington Nationals are faced with that conundrum as they ready themselves for the second half of the 2018 season. Their .500 record–48 wins/48 losses–puts them five and one-half games behind the Phillies and five behind the Braves. All three teams are eyeing the July 31st trade deadline carefully and the team that makes the bold move and plays pennant winning baseball in the final two months will advance to the playoffs. Easy enough.

But the Nationals need to take a long, hard look in the mirror and decide how good they are and how good a trade deadline move will make them. They currently sport the 10th best won-lost record in the National League. Not only are the Braves and Phillies both playing better baseball at the break in the East, but there are a handful of teams with a better shot at the Wild Card slots. And if the Nationals are playing for the one game shoot-out for the Wild Card just how much should they bet on that long shot deal?

As area fans queue for the first All-Star Game in the city since 1969, Tom Boswell opined that this is a last gasp chance for the current team. Gio Gonzalez, Daniel Murphy, Bryce Harper, Ryan Madson, and Matt Wieters will depart via free agency at the end of the season. Yet it is precisely this group that has under-performed and spelled disaster in the first half for the Nationals.

When play resumes on Thursday, there will be ten days to determine whether to fold the current hand Washington holds and play for the future, or risk the future for one long shot at all the marbles. Yes, there have been magical runs by teams that began in August and lasted through the final days of October and into the World Series. The Nationals have the talent to pull it off. Or do they?

The next ten days can answer that question. Is Stephen Strasburg healthy enough to provide leadership to a starting rotation that has been lost without him? Can Bryce Harper find ways to hit the ball where it is pitched instead of trying to pull everything into the right field stands? Can Ryan Zimmerman get his head … into the game? Ten days is all the Nationals have to answer those questions.

Regardless the outcome, Washington will field a team in 2019 that will showcase new talents like Juan Soto, Victor Robles, Carter Kieboom and perhaps others. They will join other young players like Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, and Michael A. Taylor. The 2019 Washington Nationals could look very much like the Braves and Phillies who have quietly rebuilt their rosters with international talent and high draft picks. Aaron Nola is the best competition Max Scherzer may have this year for the Cy Young Award in the National League. The Braves have more pitching talent than anyone and with Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna to hit around Freddie Freeman, they have a core that can play with anyone.

The Nationals will do well to look to the future. Gone are the days when they could coast into the playoffs with the NL East banner tucked away by Labor Day. If they trade Victor Robles or Carter Kieboom, they will be mired in the lower echelons of the NL East for years to come.

If these Nationals, the ones built around Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Ryan Zimmerman, have one last championship left in them, then they will begin to show that in the coming days. They have enough to fend off the newcomers without adding to that core. But those players will have to prove that they want it. That is the test. Does Ryan Zimmerman actually want to play? Does Bryce Harper have enough commitment left to Washington for one last run? Can Matt Wieters coax a pennant from the pitching staff in the final two months and provide occasional punch with his bat?

Currently those look like rather iffy propositions and if they are not answered in the affirmative, then it probably doesn’t matter whether the Nationals add Nathan Eovaldi or Chris Archer, or Wilson Ramos or Francisco Cervelli.

The Lerners made one very bad decision going into the 2018 season when they fired Dusty Baker and gambled on an unproven coaching staff headed by Dave Martinez. Without Davey Lopes as first base coach, the base running has been awful and Martinez has trotted out more lineups than there are days in the month. The safe bet is to play the cards dealt and see where they take this team and then add in the off-season based on the holes that need filling. The pitching needs help and all the short term rental players are not going to fix that.

The 2018 All-Star Game is about as exciting as it is likely to get in Washington this season. Offer me those words in October when the Nationals are playing for the NL Championship and I will gladly eat them. But don’t trade the future for the past, one where Washington was mired in the cellar season after season. We have seen where that leads.

The city is more prosperous now. There is vibrant development springing up daily in the neighborhoods around the stadium and in the old strife torn areas of the city generally. DC is less riven by racial turmoil and provides a road map to a better future for all American cities. For all of that Washington is deserving of s a baseball team that reflects a positive future for the nation’s capital. Changing the narrative in Washington is something a lot of folks would like to rally around.

 

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