Washington’s National Disappointment

This spring was a chaotic time in my life, and I did not get to write–in this space or on any of the works of fiction currently saved on my hard drive–nearly as much as I would have liked. The Red Sox’ hot spring (that has casually become the hottest summer I have ever enjoyed as a baseball fan), the postseason runs for the Bruins and Celtics, the off field drama and palace intrigue that the Patriots are usually good at avoiding, and my thoughts on whatever I was watching on Netflix were left to Twitter because that was all I had time for.

If there is one good thing about being too busy to write this spring (aside from the promotion at work and now being a homeowner, which are both pluses in my book), it’s that I got to be publicly wrong a little bit less. Sometimes you think that because expansion teams are always bad to begin their existence, the best acquisition for a new NHL team is a great play-by-play announcer and nine months later, the Vegas Golden Knights are in the Stanley Cup Final. Other times, you are a 23 year old blogger ignoring advanced metrics and having no knowledge of misogynistic comments, making a case for Jack Morris to be inducted into the Hall of Fame when it turns out he will still get into Cooperstown before Curt Flood, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Luis Tiant, or Marvin Miller. But sometimes, you have a clue about what’s going on, and you are interpreting the same projections as everyone else, but then the games begin and the narrative you thought you found doesn’t quite work out.

This spring, I prepared but never published a “Tale of Two Walk Years” post (far too often, I come up with the headline before the column, it’s a crutch I am not proud of) about how the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals were both going into 2018 with their best position player–Manny Machado for Baltimore, and Bryce Harper for Washington–was expected to hit free agency at the end of the season, and that was where the similarities between the two teams ended. The Orioles had no team around Machado, no starting pitching to speak of, and uncertain futures for manager Buck Showalter and general manager Dan Duquette. While the O’s were poised for a last place finish that would inevitably lead to Machado signing elsewhere if they did not trade him before the end of the season, the Nats had a real chance to make the World Series, and would be in good position going forward with their roster even if they could not re-sign Harper.

Let’s just say I was right about the Orioles.

I thought Baltimore would be bad and they are historically bad. The are currently 37-89, 50.5 games behind the first place Red Sox. The fatal inevitability of this season was completed when they traded Manny Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers after the All-Star Game for a package of prospects. The Orioles hit the reset button and are back to square one, as was expected. What was unexpected was how wrong everything would go for the Nationals.

Yes, Bryce Harper is an impending free agent, but the Nats at least had a roster worth considering along with the top free agent destinations like New York (Yankees), Chicago (Cubs), Los Angeles (Dodgers), and Philadelphia. In Max Scherzer, they have arguably the best pitcher in the National League, and their lineup was one of the best in baseball the last few years. Before the start of the season, the expected powerhouse teams in Major League Baseball were the Red Sox, Yankees, Astros, Indians, Dodgers, Cubs, and Nationals, but if the season ended today, all but the Nationals and injury-ravaged Dodgers would be on the outside looking in. The Dodgers have at least been competitive–3.5 games out of first place in the NL West and 2.5 games out of a Wild Card spot–while the Nationals are 63-63, 7.5 games out of first place in the NL East, six games out of a Wild Card, and find themselves having to climb over the young and hungry Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies. Because of the expectations going into the 2018 season, the results of Bryce Harper’s walk year are far more disappointing for Nats fans.

One of the byproducts of the statistical revolution in baseball has been the de-emphasis of field management. Sure, if you tune into sports radio the day after a loss by the local team, hosts and callers alike will be harping on in-game decisions that may or may not have cost the club one of their 162 chances at a win. I’ve been listening to sports talk radio in the Greater Boston area since I was in middle school, whether it was Grady Little, or Terry Francona, or Bobby Valentine, or John Farrell, or Alex Cora, this constant second guess of the skipper has been a staple of the format. But as local talk radio has held onto this old school mentality, national baseball reporting and analysis has become more stat-savvy. Even casual analytical observers notice in the film adaptation of Moneyball that Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s interpretation of Oakland A’s manager Art Howe was that or irrelevant middle management rather than a true foil to Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane. In an age where front offices are more sophisticated, a field manager doesn’t have the influence that a John McGraw or an Earl Weaver once did.

Three teams that made the postseason ended up firing their managers in 2017. The Red Sox fired John Farrell after five seasons, three division titles, and a World Series title. But the World Series title came in year one, was followed by two losing seasons, which were then followed by two uninspiring ALDS exits. It was time.

The Yankees parted ways with Joe Girardi after ten seasons, winning seasons every year, a World Series title. But that World Series title came in year two, and even though Girardi got a team expected to be in rebuilding mode a game from the American League Pennant, the Yankees decided to go in a different direction. It was time, I guess.

The Nationals fired Dusty Baker after another disappointing postseason result. The Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals franchise has never won the National League pennant, but this Harper/Scherzer era was the best chance they had to do so since the strike-shortened 1994 season.

Baker has a history of getting fired for a lack of playoff results and his old team being worse after he left. This is a guy who managed the San Francisco Giants to Game 7 of the 2002 World Series, and was managing the Cubs in 2003. The Nationals ownership clearly forgot how bad things got in the clubhouse when Matt Williams was the manager, and took Baker for granted. At the time, I thought the Nats were following the trend of hiring younger, less experienced managers who presumably can relate better to 21st century ballplayers–Baker was 68 years old at the time, was teammates with Hank Aaron, and co-invented the high five, a gesture so ubiquitous in my lifetime that my mind was legitimately blown when I learned a few years ago that it had to be invented)–but the trend that has had mixed results. For all the success of Dave Roberts, Alex Cora, and Kevin Cash, the experiment did not go as well with Mike Matheny, Brad Ausmus, or Robin Ventura. They ended up hiring Dave Martinez, who put in the work on Joe Maddon’s coaching staffs in Tampa and Chicago, but the team has not responded to the managerial upheaval by meeting the high expectations in year one.

Yesterday, the Nationals traded Daniel Murphy to the Cubs, essentially waiving the white flag on Wild Card contention. If they are going to keep Harper, they will have to pay through the nose, but there are greener pastures for him to play. I am sure Dusty Baker feels for his former players and fellow co-workers in Washington’s baseball operations department. But I am sure he is also having a good laugh at the expense of ownership for the mess in which the team currently finds itself.

Hey, at least the Capitals won this spring, although they thought about as highly of Barry Trotz–who won two President’s Trophies and a Stanley Cup in four years in Washington, finally unlocking the potential of the Alex Ovechkin Era, and is now the head coach of the New York Islanders–as the Nationals did of Baker. Maybe that’s just what Washington teams do now.

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