Like almost all prognosticators, I thought back in March that the Washington Nationals would win the NL East handily and would flirt with or exceed 100 wins over the season. After all, the rest of the NL East looked pretty weak back then:
- The Braves were young and had underachieved in 2017. I was not sold then on their pitching; I was in “show me mode” in March with regard to the Braves. They proceeded to “show me”.
- The Mets had good starting pitching – if healthy – and a good closer. The lineup looked anemic.
- The Phillies looked to be in the midst of a rebuilding; in no way did I think they might be leading the division after the All-Star Game for even a day. They were a positive surprise to me.
- The Marlins had traded away all their assets except their catcher. I did not expect them to win very often.
Despite that apparently soft division which would provide the Nats with 76 of their games over the season, the Nats finished at 82-80 and needed a surge at the end of the season to corral that many victories. It was a monumental example of underachievement.
The examination of “what went wrong” and “how did this happen” has begun in the DC area and the folks who follow the team around here have already trotted out the usual suspects in these sorts of dark circumstances. Let me acknowledge them here:
- Yes, the Nats had a new manager who had never done this before and who did seem to be a bit overwhelmed at times during the season.
- Yes, the team had injuries. So did every other team in the division and the league and … Injuries happen to all teams over a season that spans 162 regular season games and six months of calendar time.
Personally, I think both of those “root causes” for the underachievement in 2018 are nothing more than convenient excuses. The Nats entered the season with an embarrassment of riches at the 8 permanent positions and 2 studs at the top of their rotation. The team was built to withstand an injury here and there. Consider:
- The outfield featured Bryce Harper and Adam Eaton back in March. The team that started the season did not have Juan Soto at the time but added him sufficiently early in the year, such that he could be a serious contender for Rookie of the Year. The outfield was loaded.
- The infield had a star player in Anthony Rendon at third base, another star player at shortstop in Trea Turner, a good hitting second baseman in Daniel Murphy and good old Ryan Zimmerman at first base. Surely, no starting infield in the NL East looked as good let alone better when the season started.
- Catching was iffy from the start but if Matt Wieters could just hit .250 and be an anchor for the pitching staff, that should have been sufficient given the rest of the lineup. Wieters hit .238 but only played in 76 games.
- Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg sat atop the rotation that then included Gio Gonzales and Tanner Roark. Scherzer and Strasburg are All-Star caliber pitchers; Gonzales has been an All-Star twice. Maybe – I said MAYBE – the Mets had – on paper – an equally formidable rotation as the season started.
- The Nats did not have a lights-out closer back in March and they struggled all season to find one – and to find reliable guys to get the game to the closer-of-the-week in the ninth inning.
- Howie Kendrick and Matt Adams were on the bench for pinch-hitting duties and to give some of the regulars a rest occasionally.
That is not the Opening Day type of roster that would cause most fans to take a deep breath and wait to see how bad the season might be. That is not a roster built to go .500 over a six-month season.
Dave Martinez is going to take some heat for this underachievement. I believe that he deserves some of it, but I think he will take a disproportionate amount of heat. Martinez is a rookie manager; he is described as a players’ manager; he is one who can communicate with today’s players; he is big on symbolism and fun. All of that can be very positive with the right team; here is the problem:
- The Nats are not that team.
Here is where I will take the path less traveled in assessing the disastrous 2018 season for the Nats. What the Nats need now – – and frankly have needed for at least the last 3 seasons – – is a manager and a management structure less focused on “Dr. Feelgood” and more focused on “Drill Sergeant”. The Nats are soft and have been for a while. This team has been coddled/pampered for far too long.
- Several years ago, as the Nats prepared to play the Giants in a playoff series, someone mentioned to one of the Giants’ players – – cannot recall which one – – that the Nats looked like a tough matchup for the Giants. That player then said rather crudely – – but accurately – – that the Nats had plenty of talent and physical skill, but they did not have it [and then he grabbed his crotch]. The Giants prevailed in that series…
The grittiest guy on the roster for the Nats was Jayson Werth but Father Time caught up with Werth and he left MLB at the end of the 2017 season. The new manager came in and proceeded to pull an early symbolic stunt in Spring Training.
- The Nats brought a camel to Spring Training in Florida to symbolize that this was the year they were going to get over the hump. Get it? Hump? Everyone thought it was a brilliant ploy. This was going to convince the players that they were going to succeed in the playoffs this time around and make it to the World Series.
- Yeah … no!
What the Nats needed to do was to work on fundamentals like hitting the cut-off man and covering bases on hustle plays. Camels don’t help with any of that; camels make you smile and feel good and let you know that you are going to be in the playoffs and you can worry about getting over the hump once you get there. Ah, the sin of hubris…
I have said this to many folks in the last couple of months as the Nats’ season was circling the drain. I believe this is one of the critical elements of the team’s shortfall:
- The Nats needed to hire as their manager whoever passes for today’s version of Billy Martin. They needed a manager who is no-nonsense and who will punch them out if they loaf or lollygag during a game. The enormity of the Nats’ collective physical skills tends to obscure the fact that they do not play hard all the time and that milieu becomes contagious and is difficult to eradicate.
- The Nats needed then and need now a General Manager who will help and support this “latter-day Billy Martin” to whip that roster into shape so that it is a short-money favorite to make it to the World Series. There is no evidence that Mike Rizzo is of that mindset.
- Who was/is today’s Billy Martin? My nominee would be Ozzie Guillen – and he was/is available…
Remember, I said that manager Dave Martinez is not the cause of the problem. At the same time, I believe that he is the wrong guy with the wrong temperament and outlook on life to lead this roster. He found himself in a situation where the team was like a Brooks Brothers three-piece suit and he was a pair hot-pink crocs.
The Nats’ fundamental problem has been ongoing for a while – – as evidenced by the comment from that Giants’ player several years ago. Moreover, the team as an entity has not dealt with it even when confronted with it.
- At the end of the 2015 season, Jonathon Papelbon grabbed Bryce Harper by the throat in the dugout in the middle of a game. Teammates had to pull Papelbon off Harper.
- The cause of that incident was a lack of hustle on Harper’s part on a pop fly to the infield. Maybe that seems like a trivial thing – – except that it was and still is a pattern of behavior for Harper and other top-shelf players on the Nats’ team.
There is a very overused word going around these days; people talk about “accountability” without ever defining what it might entail. Well, I will use it here and tell you what it means in this context. Players on the Washington Nationals have – – for several years now – – been allowed to “half-ass it” during games without being pulled from the lineup for a day or two. Or maybe even more… Nothing of a corrective nature happened to players in the past and the attitude has spread. Until that kind of nonchalance becomes unacceptable, there are not enough creative stunts like bringing a camel to Spring Training that will get the Nats to reach their potential.
I do not pretend to know if the problem is with the manager or with the general manager or with some of the poohbahs in the owner’s suite. It could be in all those places; that is opaque to me. What is transparent to me is that there is an organizational acceptance of lassitude/lethargy that undermines the assemblage of physical talent on the roster.
Charles Sanders Pierce was a pragmatist philosopher of the late 19th century. One of his signature lines was:
“Effort supposes resistance.”
In the situation at hand here, there is little to no resistance when it comes to “half-assing it”; and so, there is no reason to expect anything more than little to no effort.
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………