Wait 'Til Next Year: Papelbon-Harper drama far from Nationals' only issue
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it’s only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait ‘Til Next Year series. Next up: the Washington Nationals.
NOTE: All stats through Sunday, Sept. 27.
Current Record: 79–76 (.510, second in the NL East)
Mathematically Eliminated: Sept. 26
What went right in 2015: In his fourth major league season, at the still-tender age of 22, Bryce Harper emerged as the superstar he’d long been expected to be, putting up offensive numbers not seen since Barry Bonds’s late-career dominance. Harper has hit .336/.467/.658 on the season, good for a 201 OPS+, with 41 home runs and 117 runs scored. All of those totals lead the National League, and his on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS+ (as well as his raw 1.125 OPS) lead the majors.
The last qualified hitter with an OPS+ of 200 or better over a full season was Bonds in 2004, which was also the last season in which a hitter with 600 or more plate appearances (Harper has 634) posted an on-base percentage of .465 or higher. Prior to this year, the only qualified hitter in the modern era (1901 to present) to post an OPS+ of 200 or better in or before his age-22 season was Ted Williams in 1941. Harper has not only emerged as the best hitter in baseball, but he has also done so at an age when even many of the best prospects in baseball are still trying to prove themselves in Triple A.
Though he struggled a bit in the second half, Max Scherzer pitched better for the Nationals in 2015 than he did for the Tigers in '14, increasing his strikeout rate, lowering his walk rate, WHIP, ERA and ERA+, and leading the majors with an outstanding 8.03 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He also turned in arguably the best back-to-back starts by any pitcher in the last 100 years in June, striking out 16 in a one-hit shutout in Milwaukee on June 14 and following that up with a 10-strikeout no-hitter in which the only base runner was hit by a pitch with two outs in the ninth inning. Scherzer was arguably the best pitcher in baseball in the first half of the season, and though he will ultimately be an afterthought to the tremendous Cy Young race between Jake Arrieta, Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, he nonetheless exceeded expectations in his first year in Washington.
On a smaller scale, off-season addition Yunel Escobar rebounded from a dismal 2014 to have arguably his best year at the plate, proving to be an essential, middle-of-the-order hitter in the Nationals’ injury-riddled lineup. Second baseman Danny Espinosa took another big step back from the brink, performing above replacement level for the first time since 2012. Meanwhile, the two prospects acquired from the Padres in the three-team deal that sent Wil Myers from Tampa Bay and San Diego, shortstop Trea Turner and righthander Joe Ross, both lived up to expectations and made their major league debuts, with Ross turning in eight quality starts in his first 11 starts for Washington.
What went wrong in 2015: For all of the blame that has been laid at the feet of manager Matt Williams regarding the Nationals’ collapse over the last two months—much of it valid—a great deal did go wrong for Washington over the first four months of the season. Due to myriad injuries, Williams wasn’t able to put his intended Opening Day lineup on the field until Aug. 25 and had those eight players available at the same time for a total of just two games.
Among those who missed significant time were outfielders Denard Span and Jayson Werth and infielders Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman. Werth appeared in just 37 of the team’s first 98 games and, outside of a couple weeks in May prior to his second disabled list stint, didn’t get his bat going until mid-August. Rendon appeared in just 18 of the Nats' first 96 games and has failed to replicate his 2014 production since rejoining the lineup for good in late July. Zimmerman made a smooth transition to first base defensively and has raked since returning from the disabled list on July 28, but he got off to a slow start and then missed 39 games due to plantar fasciitis in his left foot. Span appeared in just 61 games due to a variety of injuries and played just twice after July 6.
Even some of those who did play didn't perform up to expectations. Catcher Wilson Ramos set a career-high in games played, which is good news for the Nationals’ fragile backstop, but he has posted a career-worst 66 OPS+. Similarly, while shortstop Ian Desmond has led the team in games played, his 82 OPS+ makes this his worst season since 2011, before his breakout '12 campaign.
Things were only marginally better in the rotation, where Stephen Strasburg was arguably the worst starting pitcher in baseball through the end of May, then missed most of June and July due to a pair of disabled list stints. Doug Fister struggled through mid-May, spent a month on the DL and then pitched his way to the bullpen by the beginning of August. Jordan Zimmermann, echoing fellow pending free agent Desmond, had arguably his worst season as a full-fledged member of the Nationals' rotation.
Then came Jonathan Papelbon. Washington's biggest need at the trade deadline was to reinforce its ailing lineup, ideally in the outfield, but the team's only significant move was to trade for the Phillies' veteran closer. Papelbon had been pitching well for Philadelphia, and the Nationals did need bullpen help, as well, but in exchange for waiving his no-trade clause, Papelbon demanded that his 2016 option be picked up, albeit at the reduced price of $11 million, and that he be installed as the team’s closer. The Nats agreed to both conditions despite the fact that Drew Storen had been dominating as their closer all season, converting 29 of 31 save chances and posting a 1.73 ERA prior to Papelbon's arrival. Since being demoted to the eighth inning, Storen has posted a 6.75 ERA and allowed all four of his inherited runners to score. Papelbon, meanwhile, has failed to match his pre-trade performance, with a 5.19 ERA, two blown saves and two losses in his last eight appearances. More notably, he will sit out the remainder of the season due to a pair of suspensions, one from the league for hitting Baltimore's Manny Machado with a pitch last Wednesday, and one from the team for instigating a physical altercation with Harper on Sunday.
Williams’ general incompetence in both in-game strategy and clubhouse management—and the support for Williams’s poor decisions and lack of leadership from general manager Mike Rizzo—only served to exacerbate Washington's problems. The turning point in the season was a three-game sweep by the Mets in New York from July 31 to Aug. 2, a series which had Williams’ fingerprints all over it via poor bullpen management and in-game blunders. The Nationals entered that series with a three-game lead in the NL East having been alone in first place since June 20 despite all of the negatives listed above. They exited that series tied with the Mets and fell into second place the next day, where they have remained ever since, dropping as far as 9 1/2 games out, which is where they stood when the season's final week began.
Overall Outlook: Washington is at a crossroads. Desmond, Fister, Span and Zimmermann are free agents, and Storen, Strasburg and Ramos will all be entering their walk years next year. Williams, a completely erroneous selection as manager of the year in 2014, has to go, and Rizzo may need to follow him. The GM did good work signing Harper to a two-year, $7.5 million deal prior to this season, delaying his big arbitration payday by a year, and by trading for Ross and Turner, who give the team options in the rotation and at shortstop. But in addition to needing to replace or retain the players listed above, he now has the additional challenge of figuring out what to do about Papelbon, who will turn 35 in November, is owed $11 million for next year, can block trades to 17 teams and is unlikely to be in much demand given those factors and his repeated bad behavior.
The Nationals have just three team-controlled years remaining on Harper before he will get a chance to cash in on what is likely to be the biggest free-agent deal in major league history. Unless they think they can afford Harper’s prime—and there’s no guarantee Harper will want to stay in Washington even if they can—they can’t afford to waste any of those three seasons licking their wounds or regrouping. The time for Washington is now, but its future hasn't seemed so uncertain since the franchise won its first division title in 2012. The Nationals are in for a fascinating off-season.