With the Washington Nationals, it’s always been about “next year.” Club officials shut down Stephen Strasburg in 2012 to protect their young ace for the future. That season, carrying MLB’s best record (98-64) into the playoffs, the Nats exited after an NLDS loss to the Cardinals in five games. As many warned, they didn’t qualify for the postseason the following year.
In 2014, Washington stormed back to the playoffs with the league’s best record, only to lose again in the NLDS (this time, to the Giants in four). After another playoff miss in the disastrous 2015 campaign, management added Daniel Murphy and made its best run to date in 2016, losing in a hard-fought series to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Last offseason, the Nats front office again declined to fill the club’s biggest need — a closer — and came into 2017 hoping for the best. It hasn’t worked out in the bullpen, but the club has emerged as a favorite once again in the National League. With Bryce Harper’s potential departure coming after 2018, here’s why Washington will finally pull the trigger at the trade deadline and win the World Series.
1. Harper’s protection
In seasons past, the Washington Nationals’ strategy of not pitching to Harper worked. Even with Murphy’s arrival in 2016, the lack of a threat in the cleanup spot hampered the lineups of an old-school manager like Dusty Baker. Things have changed in 2017 with Ryan Zimmerman leading the NL in hitting for most of the season. Between Zim, Murphy, and Anthony Rendon, pitchers cannot find a place to hide when navigating the Nats’ lineup. This unprecedented balance only makes Harper’s MVP-caliber season more convincing.
2. One clear deadline need
When you look at the Nationals statistically, you see a team with the league’s best offense and arguably its best rotation. The bullpen, on the other hand, ranks among the worst in the game. Nearly three months into the season, no one had secured the closer’s role and the pen remained in a shambles. It makes the general manager’s job easy at the deadline: Add a strong closer and a setup man with him. Whether ownership approves such deals remains to be seen, but Washington might throw away a title if it does not. The 2016 Chicago Cubs offer an obvious precedent here.
3. Harper’s end in sight
If Nationals ownership quibbles over a few million dollars, wait until Harper negotiates his new contract following the 2018 season. Washington must realize it is playing with the fate of its best player, a perennial MVP candidate and hugely popular figure. With a great rotation and lineup in place for the coming years, the club could risk losing Harper to another team if it does not go all-in for 2017. As the Strasburg episode proved, you cannot wait until next year — and Harper’s next year may very well be his last in Washington.
4. Available bullpen arms
You cannot solve a club’s problems in a vacuum, but the Nats do not have that problem in 2017. Available bullpen arms include Chicago’s David Robertson, Anaheim’s Bud Norris, Kansas City’s Joakim Soria, and San Francisco’s Mark Melancon (the Nats passed on Melancon in the offseason). In the past, management may have balked at spending more and dealing prospects for unproven commodities, but Washington can acquire many solid arms from losing teams this season.
5. The division is virtually won
After taking three of four from the Mets, the Nats sat a cool 10 games ahead of its best competition on June 19. In second place sat the Braves, a non-contender. Otherwise, the Miami Marlins and Phillies round out a division with the makings of a cake-walk. As the summer progresses and the workload of the rotation mounts, Baker can begin shortening the outings of his best starters. (Again, this luxury would require a better bullpen.)
6. Less NL competition
While the NL East looks like an easy division to take, the league as a whole lacks a dominant force in 2017. The Cubs were a .500 team (34-34) through 68 games and appeared unequipped for another title run. Out West, the Dodgers figured to be trouble in the postseason, but there were fewer roadblocks to the ’17 NL pennant. For the Nats to finally get past the first rounds of the playoffs, an easier path should emerge this season.
7. The Murphy factor
In three postseason series, Harper was no slouch (.507 slugging), but few players ever had an impact like Murphy did for the Mets in 2015. The sweet-swinging lefty tallied 7 HR before going cold in a World Series loss to the Royals. Back in the postseason with the Nats in 2016, Murphy once again dominated with a .438 average and 6 RBI in five games. This type of X-factor can carry a team to a title. Stuck among a number of good hitters, the Murphy effect could be lethal.
8. A true ace
Max Scherzer is the sort of pitcher who can own any lineup on any given night — and every World Series team needs one. More importantly, Scherzer proves he can trade zeroes with Clayton Kershaw and any other pitcher the opposition fields in a short series. His ability to go deep into games matters even more in the playoffs, and Washington needs to protect its ace for this very purpose down the stretch. As he did in 2016, Scherzer paced the NL in innings through 14 starts in ’17.
9. The Strasburg factor
Few teams can boast of an ace like Scherzer, and none of them have the ability to follow him up with a No. 2 like Strasburg. The Red Sox planned to have at least two starters of this caliber with Chris Sale and David Price followed by Rick Porcello, but it hasn’t worked out as planned for Boston. The Nats, on the other hand, boast two power arms at the top and two more capable arms after that. Strasburg could have a bigger impact than a No. 1 as the postseason progresses.
10. It’s only money
As many outlets reported, Nationals owner Ted Lerner passed on GM Mike Rizzo’s pitches to acquire relievers in the offseason. However, if it only comes down to money, Rizzo and his team must do a better job of persuading Lerner.
Specifically, Rizzo should agree to let go of late-season acquisitions (or otherwise lower payroll) for 2018 if Washington does not win a World Series. Clubs do it all the time, and we may see the Giants do the same with the closer Lerner nixed. Just because you hand out a contract does not marry you to that money forever, and Rizzo has to convince his boss of that.