On Tuesday, the Washington Nationals owned up to a fact that they’ve been avoiding for weeks—while more than half of the NL’s teams have serious shots at a playoff spot, Washington isn’t among them. The team made this implicit admission by way of two waiver deals. First baseman Matt Adams is headed to his his former club, the Cardinals, and second baseman Daniel Murphy is Cubs-bound in exchange for a minor league infielder, Andruw Monasterio, plus a player to be named later or cash.
Though Washington’s 62–63 record still leaves it only 7 1/2 games behind the green Braves (and 6 1/2 south of the greener Phillies) with 37 games to play—giving it a not-entirely-unrealistic 1 in 13 shot at the division crown, per Fangraphs—general manager Mike Rizzo decided to look past 2018 when the Nats went 4–9 in their last 13, including series losses to the Cardinals and Cubs (on the road) and the Marlins (at home).
Their surrender, however expected of late, is still stunning. While the Nationals have come up short every season they’ve been in D.C. (the franchise has exactly one playoff series win, when the Expos beat the Phillies in a 1981 Division Series), it usually doesn’t happen this fast. Even the ill-fated 2015 club, the only Nationals squad since 2012 not to finish at least 10 games over .500, bought at the deadline and held its players through season’s end.
And the 2018 Nats were expected to be great, not just good. They were SI’s World Series pick. In theory they would backstop their top-tier rotation with an upgraded bullpen, while an offense that had finished third in scoring in 2017 would build on that with a healthy Adam Eaton, an improving Trea Turner and a contract-year Bryce Harper determined to set the league ablaze en route to some historic payday. And new manager Dave Martinez would supposedly bring over innovative methods and good juju he had acquired while serving as Joe Maddon’s bench coach.
Instead, hardly any of that happened. Harper’s OPS is 110 points behind last year’s figure (.891 vs. 1.008). Eaton hurt himself in April. Stephen Strasburg has missed a dozen starts. Turner made no leap forward; Anthony Rendon took a step back. Washington’s catchers have combined for an NL-worst .578 OPS.
The bullpen did improve, but the team still has a 12–21 record in one-run games. Sean Doolittle, the dominant closer, hasn’t pitched in six weeks, and two of the more reliable relievers, Shawn Kelley and Brandon Kintzler, were traded for reasons having nothing to do with their aggregate performance. Max Scherzer has been perhaps the most valuable player in the NL, but four of every five games, the team is on its own.
Martinez, meanwhile, looks likely to be one-and-done, with his handling of the pitching staff the cause of midseason sniping in the press. Dusty Baker, the veteran skipper fired after last year’s Division Series loss, questioned the clubhouse’s leadership last week.
Rizzo told reporters Tuesday afternoon that Washington’s window isn’t closing this year, and he has a point. Even if Harper leaves in free agency, and even if the Braves and Phillies improve next season, the Nationals have a strong core of young position players under team control, with Rendon, Turner and super-rookie Juan Soto. Victor Robles, the 21-year-old who entered 2018 a consensus top-six prospect but has missed time with injuries, may well join them. And the rotation, with a top three of Scherzer, Strasburg and Tanner Roark, should stay strong. It’s hard, though, to shake the feeling that something invisible on a stat sheet perpetually holds the team back. One also has a feeling that the reporters covering the team will identify the phenomenon before too long.
Tuesday’s moves save the Nationals $3.8 million in salary for the remainder of the season, and that savings, Rizzo said, gives the Nationals some desired “financial flexibility.” Given, though, that both players will become free agents at the season’s end, it’s hard to imagine that money ending up anywhere but ownership’s pockets. It must be nice to have a little unexpected savings when there are no playoff tickets to sell.