December 3, 2023

The Road Less Traveled By…

November 14, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

The Washington Nationals have reached a familiar decision point. In 1969 Bowie Kuhn stood at a similar divergence. He had to chose between Bob Short’s desire to purchase the Washington Senators and almost certainly move them somewhere else, or go with a local ownership group of unknown ability to hold the fort. Bob Short came to Washington as a result and sprinkled the ground with famous names like Ted Williams and Denny McLain–rhinestones that he hoped would blind the locals to his true intentions.

Now, fifty years later, two roads diverge again. Ted Lerner cut his teeth on the same Griffith Stadium score board as Bowie Kuhn and he has a similar decision to make. Does he go for the rhinestones or the the road less traveled by?

The Lerner family has proven to be very old school, very much governed by a vision gained by watching the game through the old Griffith Stadium scoreboard. Their traditionalist approach yielded long term contracts for Ryan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg, who were the first marquee players to wear the Nationals team jersey with pride. Then they added Max Scherzer, who will be the first to wear that uniform into the Hall of Fame. In an era when so few players spend their entire careers with the same team, Ted Lerner’s nostalgic commitment to his best players is laudable.

But does it make good baseball sense? No, unfortunately it does not. Zimmerman signed after his 2009 season, which was not only a career year, but became a fond memory for his fans as they suffered through one injury plagued season after another. Then in 2017 he showed what he could do when motivated to condition his body in the off-season for the grinding reality of a 162-game schedule. Too little, too late to make the contract worth half its value.

Strasburg has similarly been known for his delicate nature, acquiring the name, “the orchid” for his inability to thrive in anything except perfect conditions. Yet Ted Lerner and Scott Boras conspired to make him one of the most highly paid pitchers in the game, even if the numbers belied the contract sum.

The sum of these out-sized contracts produced four NL East titles. But in 2018 the rent was finally paid. The Washington Nationals were one of only two teams to exceed the luxury tax in 2018. The Boston Red Sox did as well, but Boston won the World Series while Ryan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg watched from their recliners. And yet the Lerner family wants to add Bryce Harper’s name to those aforementioned ones. The Lerner’s determination to sign Harper emanates from a now well-documented wellspring of baseball sentimentality.

Does signing Harper lead to the Emerald City for Washington if he signs? There are two futures. The first future starts by signing Harper, and then trading Victor Robles for either a pitcher of a catcher, both of which would be essential to compete against the Braves in 2019. But the team would be once again flirting with the luxury cap and would have shot a huge hole in its minor league prospect list for short term gain. More importantly, is Harper enough to ensure the Nationals another NL East title?

In 2019 Scherzer is going to be 34 in April, 35 in July. He has fended off the advance of age as well as any player of his era, but it cannot last forever. Strasburg was dependably inconsistent despite flashes of brilliance, but the pitching rotation is thin at best. Where does the money come to solve that conundrum if the Lerners spend $35 million annually on Harper? The ensuing roster will feature no championship caliber second baseman, nor a catcher adequately gifted. Harper will eat the future like a hungry dog let loose in a delivery truck full of Baco Bits. He is no Denny McLain, but he may be the same kind of pretty bauble that Bob Short marketed to fans while Rome was burning. Whether Harper develops into a consistent star as was seen in his 2015 MVP season, or develops into the one-dimensional power hitter seen in 2018 , he is not enough to transform this current Washington Nationals roster into World Champions.

The other path is one where the Lerner family finally gives free reign to Mike Rizzo in hopes that the old scout can respond effectively to the parameters of the modern game. Without Harper the Nationals would depend on Victor Robles to develop into the top tier talent that everyone saw before he injured himself in 2018. They could use Harper’s salary to sign free agents outside the small elite who were given qualifying offers and would cost the team draft pick compensation. Sign D.J. LeMahieu at second base and a catcher of some note and then settle in to figure out the pitching staff.  This path puts more emphasis on building a team around names like Sota, Turner, Rendon, and Robles than rather than putting all the marbles into a basket named Bryce Harper.

The two choices mirror the “two trains running” at Nationals Park. There is the Rizzo train and the Lerner train and the latter is the one linked to Boras and the former is the one that developed talent like Soto and Robles and traded for Trea Turner. But whether Washington starts with Victor Robles or Bryce Harper in the outfield next April, they will need to fix their pitching and develop a deeper minor league system. Those chores will overcome Rizzo’s talents if the Lerners sign Harper, but even if they do not, Rizzo has a large task to rebuild his roster into a contender in 2019.

Washington’s failure in 2018 was largely attributable to the implosion of its pitching staff. The Nationals went from third best pitching staff–3.88 ERA in 2017–to ninth best in 2018 with a 4.04 team ERA. To address this problem, Rizzo has taken two giant steps in acquiring Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough since the end of the regular season, but it is difficult to determine what direction those additions portend.

The Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays did more to break with tradition than almost any other team in 2018. Both pitched more from the bullpen than from the starting rotation and they did so with remarkable success.  The Rays and Bosox were tied for second in the American League behind Houston in fewest runs allowed, and yet neither team had a starter that exceeded 200 innings. Rick Porcello had 191 innings, but neither David Price nor Chris Sale were poster boys for endurance in 2018.  Brian Johnson, Hector Velasquez, Nate Eovaldi, and Matt Barnes all earned their World Series shares by bailing out the starters who were penciled into the rotation in April.

But it was the Rays who took the starring role of bullpen relief–first established by the Royals in 2015–to a whole new level. With a patchwork quilt of starters, long relievers, and late inning guys, the Rays allowed only 3.99 runs per game, good for second in the AL.  It is not only an amazing feat but in this era of increasingly common pitching injuries, it is one other teams like the Nationals should examine realistically.

To whit, the addition of Kyle Barraclough and Trevor Rosenthal by the Nationals. Can Rizzo parlay a stronger bullpen into a better overall pitching staff in 2019?

Barraclough has been an extremely effective late inning arm with the exception of June 2018 when he was asked to close for the Marlins. That audition proved disastrous and he returned to a setup role and pitched effectively for the remainder of the year. Trevor Rosenthal returns from Tommy John surgery performed in August 2017,but there is ample time for him to recover and start the 2019 season totally healthy. Those two additions will support Sean Doolittle who will likely retain the closer role for the Nationals in 2019, though a healthy Rosenthal would likely get his ninth inning opportunities as well.

The additions and the draft of relievers in recent years means there is new depth to the Washington bullpen going into 2019. Wander Suero, Matt Grace (L), Koda Glover, and a deep supporting cast will likely fill out the other bullpen slots. There are not as many options in the minors as the Rays had to start 2018, but the Nationals sent three relievers to the Arizona Fall League as part of a move to build the bullpen from within, and there are arms bullpen arms down on the farm ready to contribute in the near future.

The rotation is the dicier question. It is difficult to see Rizzo failing to add a left handed starter before April. But whoever he gets, he will still have to fill behind that move in non-traditional ways.

He will have to depend upon a long list of right-handers who will pitch behind Scherzer and Strasburg. Joe Ross is rebounding from elbow surgery and hoping to regain his 2016 rookie year form. Eric Fedde is hoping to find consistency and realize the significant upside forecast for him when drafted in 2014 as the 24th overall pick. Then there is work horse Tanner Roark whose effectiveness has tailed off steadily in recent years. It is not impossible to see a scenario where injuries and lack of proven and durable arms might force Washington into a situation where they use Ross, Fedde and others to pitch fewer innings where they can air it out and then turn the ball over to a deep bullpen. Given the questions around its pitching staff, even the road less traveled looks fraught with hardship for Washington.

Whatever decision is made by the front office, innovative approaches will be required to field a winner. There will be more money for that task if Bryce Harper is playing in Los Angeles or Houston. The Lerners need to develop more faith in the Washington fan base than Bob Short had. The fans will all to soon learn the difference between a winning team and the Under Armour Man hit batting practice home runs. For their long-suffering devotion, Washington Nationals fans deserve the former more than the latter. They need to be on the road less traveled by, because it is the only one that leads to the winners circle. And that is the truth, as Lily Tomlin used to say.

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