The grand sports issue here in the DC area as of this moment is the dugout scuffle between Jonathan Papelbon and Bryce Harper. The Washington Nationals had a disgraceful season. Fanboys in the area will cry crocodile tears lamenting injuries to various players on the team as an excuse for the team’s miserably embarrassing performance this year. Nonsense. The problem with the Nats is pretty simple and it was expressed by one of the SF Giants players – do not recall which one – last year just as the Giants and Nats were getting ready to play each other in the NL Playoffs. Even last year, people revered the Nats’ lineup and thought it was an unstoppable juggernaut. This “mystery Giants’ player” said they had loads of good players but – as he grabbed his man-zone – he suggested that they did not have anything “there”.
That may not have been the most articulate expression of his analysis/opinion but it was much closer to right than it was to wrong. Moreover, the roster for 2015 suffers from similar problems that one might express in the same crude fashion. The Nats have at least a half-dozen – and more likely 10 – bona fide stars on the roster right now – – if all you look at are individual stats. What they also have are a bunch of guys who are stars AND are front runners. When things go their way, these guys just pile on the stats and make it appear that they are the reincarnation of the 1927 Yankees. However, as soon as something starts to go wrong and the Nats need a clutch hit or play in the field – – not so much.
The weakest link on the Nats this year was the bullpen. More specifically, the least productive part of the team was the setup men who got the team through the 7th and 8th innings of games to usher in the closer. With the Nats this year, one of the most famous Yogisims was fully applicable:
The game was never over until it was over.
At the trade deadline, the Nats acquired Jonathan Papelbon from the Phillies and anointed him as their closer. The previous closer was “demoted” to being the 8th-inning set up guy. Hey, if you were good enough to have been the closer, you ought to be able to get through the 8th innings of games instead of the 9th innings, right? Well, that did not work and people ascribed it to an ego bruise. Please; spare me; you are getting paid millions of dollars to pitch one inning per game about 3 times a week; suck it up, buttercup.
Papelbon will receive exactly no votes in the “Mr. Congeniality Contest” nor will anyone ever nominate him for “Clubhouse Chemistry Guy of the Year”. However, no one can realistically challenge his competitiveness. He is one of those guys who seems to be a pain-in-the-ass; but if he is going to be in the league, it is probably better to have him be your pain-in-the-ass as opposed to the other guy’s pain-in-the-ass.
I wrote last year that I think Bryce Harper is one of baseball’s most polarizing players; I continue to believe that. Harper is incredibly talented; anyone who disputes that statement either has not watched Harper play or knows nothing about baseball. Harper is also one of those “frontrunners” I referred to above. As talented as he is and as dedicated to getting better year over year he is, if I needed a clutch hit to win an important game, I would much rather have Jayson Werth at the plate than Harper despite the fact that Harper is hitting about 100 points higher than Werth this year. Moreover, Harper will get only token acknowledgement in a putative “Mr. Congeniality Contest”.
If there had to be a dugout fight in the Nats’ dugout the day the team was eliminated from the NL Playoffs – after they were the pre-season favorites to win the World Series – the odds-on favorites for the combatants would have to have been Harper and Papelbon. The proximal event(s) that triggered the scuffle do not really matter; the scuffle has to be seen by the folks who run the team as a fundamental issue with regard to the roster they have built. They have individual “stars” on the team who seem to exist in their own orbits and only acknowledge the existence of other “stars” on the team during “mandatory walk-off victory celebrations”. That does not work in team sports; the Nats need only look at their NFL DC brethren to see how that formula for roster building produces little in terms of championship results.
What is the solution here? I do not know what the team will do but I think there are several fixed points in the environment that cannot be ignored:
1. There is no way on the planet that the team will discipline Bryce Harper in any way for anything that is not a first degree felony. He is their “Golden Boy” and he has an agent (Scott Boras) who will not look kindly on an organization that even hints that there is a minor flaw in Harper’s greatness.
2. The team is on the hook to pay Jonathan Papelbon $11M next year; they picked up that contract option when they traded for him in July. Moreover, Papelbon has a no-trade clause in that contract that he has to waive in order for the Nats to move him elsewhere. The Nats can trade Papelbon if they are willing to pay much/most of that $11M salary AND if they agree to take nothing more valuable than a liverwurst sandwich in return.
3. Other members of the bullpen will recognize that they are set up to be the scapegoats for this season’s collapse and any of them who can sign elsewhere would be wise to do so. Any who choose to stay here will be under a microscope for any flaws starting the week before Spring Training commences in February 2016.
4. The knee-jerk “fire-the-manager” option could well be invoked here. Matt Williams is described in the local press as being “all-business” and “stern” while the common wisdom is that the players would like someone who will pat them on the head once in a while. Maybe even pass out juice boxes and participation trophies… Nothing cures overly-indulged entitled individuals more than getting rid of a “no-nonsense” manager and replacing him with “Dr. Feelgood”.
For the record, what this particular roster needs least is a manager who will let the players do whatever it is they want to do. The team appears to have plenty of spoiled kids/brats on it; they need no encouragement to continue to live their lives in such a fashion. What this roster needs most is a significant restructuring. Some of their frontrunning “stars” need to be moved on to teams who will be enamored with their individual stats; and in return, the Nats need to acquire a few guys who – for lack of a more eloquent description – have something down in their “man-zone”. The problem with that avenue is that it will require the folks who assembled the roster – the activist owner and the GM – to acknowledge that THEIR roster and THEIR decisions were not so good. I just doubt that is going to happen…
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………