Dominance is passé. There was a time when regular-season success mattered as much as postseason success in baseball, because a team couldn’t reach the postseason without winning the regular season. But that was a long time ago. It’s been 47 years since finishing with the best record in the league gave a team a direct pass to the World Series. It’s been 22 years since qualifying for the postseason required a first-place finish.
And it’s now been four years since only one team per league could reach the playoffs through the wild-card back door.
There’s never been a time in baseball history when winning 108 games meant so little and winning 88 games meant so much. The Atlanta Braves claimed 14 division titles in 15 years from 1991 to 2005, winning more than 100 games six times in that span. The San Francisco Giants have qualified for the playoffs three times in the last five seasons, but failed to hit the 95-win mark in any year. Just try calling the former a dynasty over the latter and see how seriously everyone takes you.
No one cares that the Giants have a .538 winning percentage over the last five years, just seventh best in baseball; all that matters is their remarkable 34-14 playoff record and three World Series titles in that span.1 The more regular-season success and postseason success are uncoupled, the more merely qualifying for the playoffs becomes the thing. And when the number of playoff teams jumps from two to four to eight to 10 — still making Major League Baseball the most exclusive postseason of the four major sports — the standards for qualifying for the postseason become lower and lower.
It’s ironic that what people might deride as bleeding-heart liberalism or the soft bigotry of low expectations in another realm becomes transformed in the sports vocabulary into the most cherished word: parity.2 There is nothing more important to the long-term health of a league than fans of every team having, in the words of Bud Selig, “hope and faith” on Opening Day. But if every team has a reason to believe, no team has incentive to improve.
Which is why what the Washington Nationals are doing is so refreshing. Like the billionaire entrepreneur who still wakes up at five every morning in search of his next big score, the Nationals have not let their recent success satiate their hunger for more.
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The Nationals have won more regular-season games over the last three seasons than any other team. It was a heady rise for a franchise that had languished ever since it arrived from Montreal after the 2004 season without an owner, a star player,3 or anything resembling a farm system. From 2008 to 2011, only the Pirates won fewer games than the Nationals.
The Nationals’ shocking overnight turnaround from a below-.500 finish in 2011 to the best record in the major leagues in 2012 was neither shocking nor overnight. Though they didn’t win much during their first seven years in the nation’s capital, they found an owner, built a farm system, and unleashed a pair of star players in back-to-back no. 1 overall picks Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. They won the franchise’s first NL East title in 2012,4 and after slipping to an 86-76 record in 2013, they won the division last season by a whopping 17 games.
In 2015, the Nationals bring back virtually every key player from last year’s team,5 and they’ve added the top free-agent target of the offseason, having signed Max Scherzer to one of the largest contracts ever given to a pitcher and the most backloaded contract in baseball history.6 This team is not messing around. The Nationals will have to pay the piper eventually for Scherzer, as they’ll be paying him $15 million a year from 2022 to 2028 for services rendered from 2015 to 2021. But for now, they’re loaded for bear.
There are few things more reckless and foolhardy than predicting greatness for a team before the season begins, but it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that winning the NL East looks like the Nationals’ floor in 2015, not their ceiling. The Atlanta Braves sure came to that conclusion this winter: A team that won 96 games as recently as 2013 traded away Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, and Evan Gattis — three of its four best hitters last year — this offseason and seems content to retool its roster in preparation for opening its new ballpark in 2017. The Phillies, meanwhile, remain the most poorly run team in the game: It constitutes progress that, after losing 89 games for the second straight season, they’ve finally acknowledged the need to rebuild.
That leaves only the Marlins and Mets as even willing to challenge the Nationals’ crown, and though both teams are frisky enough to make things interesting thanks to a signature strength,7 neither looks like more than a wild-card hopeful that might win 90 games if everything breaks right.
If everything breaks right for the Nationals, they should clear 100 wins with ease. (It helps that, thanks to playing the Phillies and Braves so many times, the Nationals have the easiest projected strength of schedule in the majors.) A 100-win season is an impressive accomplishment at any time; in this time of heightened parity, it would be remarkable. No team has won 100 games in a season since the 2011 Phillies; this is the first time baseball has gone three non-strike-shortened seasons without a 100-win team since a six-year stretch from 1955 to 1960 — back when the season was only 154 games long.
But at least on paper (famous last words, those) the Nationals have an excellent chance to be a 100-win team. They have a very real chance to be one of the winningest teams of the century. In so many ways, the 2015 Nationals remind me of one of the iconic teams of my lifetime, the 1986 New York Mets.
Like those Mets, these Nationals are a brilliantly constructed team that has melded elite talent from the draft with shrewd trades and choice free-agent signings. And like those Mets, these Nationals may be better known for the way they win — with swagger and hubris — than for how much they win.
Both the Mets of the mid-’80s and the Nationals of the early teens were made possible by the team bottoming out at the right time. The Mets were pitiful in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and as a result they had the no. 1 overall pick in 1980, when they grabbed Darryl Strawberry, and they had the no. 5 pick in 1982, when they took Dwight Gooden. The Nationals lost more than 100 games in both 2008 and 2009, and as their reward, they garnered the no. 1 pick in consecutive drafts.
By Wins Above Replacement, Gooden’s rookie season was the second-best season by a teenager since 1900. Harper’s rookie season was third.8 Doc and Darryl found instant success and near-instant celebrity in New York, and they defined their team for better or for worse. Strasburg and Harper don’t play in New York and don’t party the same way — thank God — but they are just as talented, and just as capable of rubbing some people the wrong way. Strasburg is quiet to the point of being reticent, but Harper speaks enough for the both of them, most recently saying, “Where’s my ring?” after the Nationals inked Scherzer. Harper combines obscenely preternatural talent with a willful disdain for what other people think of him. He’s one part Mike Trout, one part Mike Ehrmantraut.
The 1986 Mets were the culmination of a franchise that had vaulted from the cellar into contention two years earlier; the 2015 Nationals figure to be the peak of a team that jumped from baseball’s hinterlands to the postseason three years prior. And both teams’ turnaround was initially presided over by the same manager: Davey Johnson.
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But like the 1986 Mets, the 2015 Nationals are more than just a vehicle of their two most visible players. They are, as Bill James wrote about those Mets, “a beautiful demonstration of what talent can do when assembled with planning and guided by intelligence.” Aside from the serendipity of falling into Strasburg and Harper, the Nationals have built their roster by relying on three main principles:
1. When another team is willing to get rid of talent cheaply, be prepared to take advantage.
Tyler Clippard was a Yankees pitching prospect who was regarded with some suspicion despite posting outstanding numbers in 2005 and 2006; when he struggled in 2007, the Yankees sold low: The Nationals acquired him for Jonathan Albaladejo, a minor league reliever they had just added off waivers seven months earlier. After Clippard struggled again in Triple-A in 2008, the Nationals moved him to the bullpen, and he rewarded them by averaging 69 appearances with a 2.64 ERA over the last six years. With just one year left on his contract, they were able to trade him to Oakland this winter for second baseman Yunel Escobar.
At the trading deadline in 2010, a few years after acquiring Clippard, the Twins were desperate for relief help following Joe Nathan’s elbow injury, and the Nationals had Matt Capps, whom they’d picked up after the Pirates had released him for posting a 5.80 ERA in 2009. Capps had 26 saves and a 2.74 ERA at the end of July 2010, but he was the same pitcher as always: a strike thrower who allowed more than one hit per inning.
The days when a team could trade Larry Andersen for Jeff Bagwell are long over; clubs are generally unwilling to give up top prospects for any but the most elite relievers anymore. But the Twins were desperate, and they had Wilson Ramos, a top-100 prospect who was blocked by Joe Mauer from ever being the starting catcher in Minnesota. So in exchange for a reliever they had just signed and didn’t need, the Nationals acquired Ramos, who was in the majors for good that September, and who has hit a very respectable .268/.318/.434 as their first-string catcher over the last four years.9
And last winter, when Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski had the mother of all brain farts, Nationals GM Mike Rizzo was happy to collect. Dombrowski’s track record for making trades is largely impeccable, which made his decision to trade Doug Fister last winter for two minor prospects and a utility infielder even more perplexing. Fister had averaged 196 innings and a 3.30 ERA from 2011 to 2013, ranking ninth in the major leagues in bWAR in that span, and was still two years from free agency.
After missing the first month of last season with a strained lat muscle, Fister returned to make 25 starts with a 2.41 ERA (fourth-best in the NL) and throw seven shutout innings in the NLDS. Meanwhile, the most prominent player the Nationals gave up in the deal, left-hander Robbie Ray, was so disappointing in Detroit that the Tigers foisted him on Arizona in a three-way trade in December.
The Fister trade defied all attempts to explain it the day it was made, and it has only grown more inexplicable with time. Maybe one day we’ll find out some hidden, ulterior motive that explains why the Tigers would give up two years of Fister for chicken feed. For now, all we know is that the Nationals know better than to look a gift horse in the mouth.
2. Draft well, early, and often.
At the heart of the Nationals’ success has been their remarkable ability to find players in the draft, even when they weren’t holding the no. 1 overall pick when a consensus historic talent was waiting to be plucked. The year after the Nationals drafted Harper, they held the no. 6 overall pick, and the idea of them again landing the player who’d been the presumed top pick before the season — Rice University third baseman Anthony Rendon, who as a sophomore became just the fourth underclassman ever to be named Baseball America’s College Player of the Year10 — was considered a pipe dream. But Rendon, who had already undergone surgeries on both of his ankles while in college, suffered a strained shoulder before his junior year and was limited to DH duties for most of the season, and his performance at the plate suffered.
Even so, Rendon was projected to go second to the Mariners, after the Pirates had selected Gerrit Cole. But Seattle called an audible and drafted Danny Hultzen,11 setting off a chain reaction that ended with Rendon falling to the Nationals. Two years later, Rendon debuted in Washington and hit .265/.329/.396, and last year he broke out, hitting .287/.351/.473 while playing above-average defense at both third base and second base, finishing fifth in the NL MVP vote. Rendon, not Harper or Strasburg, was the Nationals’ best player in 2014.
While the Nationals have cleaned up in the first round since Rizzo was hired as GM before the 2009 season, they also owe a debt to the man he replaced, current ESPN analyst Jim Bowden, under whom they drafted nearly as well. In 2005, the Nationals used the no. 4 overall pick on Ryan Zimmerman, who by WAR is the greatest Washington National in history;12 they also got middle reliever Craig Stammen in the 12th round. While 2006 brought only Brad Peacock in the 41st round, they cleaned up in 2007, landing Ross Detwiler in the first round, Jordan Zimmermann in the second, current top prospect Steven Souza in the third, and catcher Derek Norris in the fourth. Their 2008 draft was hurt by their inability to sign first-round pick Aaron Crow, but they drafted Tommy Milone in the 10th round, and in 2011 they traded Milone, Norris, Peacock, and A.J. Cole (fourth round, 2010) to Oakland for Gio Gonzalez.
Even without including Ian Desmond — a third-round pick back in 2004, two administrations and one city ago — the Nationals have drafted as well as any team in baseball since the franchise moved to Washington, D.C.
3. Don’t be afraid to dance with the devil.
Playing the role of Mr. Applegate tonight, and every night, is Scott Boras. Teams don’t exactly relish the opportunity to negotiate with him, but if they refuse to do so, they refuse to employ the services of some of the most talented players in the world. Both Strasburg and Harper were represented by Boras in the draft, and while it might seem like a no-brainer that the Nationals would still draft and sign both players, baseball history says otherwise: Ask the Phillies, who refused to meet J.D. Drew’s demands after drafting him in 1997, or the Royals, who passed on Drew13 with the no. 4 overall pick the next year to select a guy named Jeff Austin.
Boras’s influence on the Nationals didn’t end on draft day, though. It is widely assumed within the industry that Boras was a driving force behind Rizzo’s worst decision as GM of the Nationals: shutting Strasburg down in September 2012 with the team barreling toward its first playoff berth since moving to Washington. It still makes no sense that the Nationals would jeopardize their postseason chances14 in order to theoretically protect Strasburg’s long-term health, but such is the cost of keeping Boras placated.
Enjoying a good working relationship with Boras has its upside, though. It enabled the Nationals to sign his client Jayson Werth after the 2010 season, and until this winter, Werth was the only significant player they had acquired through free agency. Werth’s seven-year, $126 million contract stunned the industry, and after a disappointing 2011 and injury-marred 2012, it looked like a significant mistake. But Werth hit .318/.398/.532 in 2013 and .292/.394/.455 last year, and he ranks fourth among major league right fielders in bWAR over the last two years. Boras clients are insanely expensive. They’re also usually worth the money.
And now the Nationals have signed another Boras client in Scherzer, who was nearly as good in 2014 as he was in his Cy Young campaign in 2013. No one in baseball has struck out as many batters (723) as Scherzer has over the last three years, and he’s only 30.
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Adding Scherzer to a group that already included Strasburg, Zimmermann, Fister, and Gonzalez gives the Nationals a rotation that is, in Harper’s words, “absolutely stupid,” with a chance to be the best since the 1990s Braves heyday. It’s a rotation so good that Tanner Roark, who made 31 starts last year with a 2.85 ERA, is being forced to the bullpen.
Roark is the perfect exhibit of the kind of charmed life the Nationals are living. He was a 25th-round pick by the Rangers in 2008. Two years later, he was such a lightly regarded prospect that the Nationals got him as one of two pitchers in a deadline trade for Cristian Guzman, a 32-year-old middle infielder who had exactly 15 games left in his major league career. In 2011 Roark had a 4.69 ERA in Double-A. In 2012 he had a 4.39 ERA in Triple-A. In 2013 he had a 3.15 ERA in Triple-A and finally reached the majors in August, at age 26.
And in one year and two months in the majors, Roark has put together a line that looks like it was ripped out of Jim Palmer’s Baseball-Reference.com page:15 a 22-11 record with a 2.57 ERA in 252 innings. Last year, Roark ranked sixth among NL pitchers in WAR. This year, he’s the Nationals’ sixth starter.
The lineup isn’t quite so spectacular, but with the acquisition of Escobar it also lacks any holes. Escobar’s defensive numbers cratered last season at shortstop, but the move across the keystone to second base should refresh his glove. Escobar has a history of wearing out his welcome — his tenure in both Atlanta and Toronto ended with some acrimony — but on a one-year deal, playing for his next contract, he’s a shrewd gamble on the Nationals’ part. With Zimmerman moving over to first base to replace departing free agent Adam LaRoche, the Nationals have average or better production projected at all eight positions, and in Rendon and Harper they have two guys who could go supernova at any moment.
If the Nationals have one potential weakness — other than the specter of injury that hangs over every team — it’s in the bullpen, which lost closer Rafael Soriano after the team declined his $14 million option.16 The Nationals replaced him with former Blue Jays closer Casey Janssen, who suffered through his worst season since 2009 last year but still projects as a quality setup man in front of Storen. And given the vast difference in the degree of difficulty between starting and relieving, Roark should be the Nationals’ secret weapon in the pen, capable of throwing 80 or 90 innings with an ERA in the 2s.
In any case, if the Nationals’ biggest problem is their lack of bullpen depth, they’ll have plenty of opportunities to make a minor trade or two to shore it up on their way to the NL East title. They’ll have the resources, too, because as stacked as the Nationals are in the majors, their farm system isn’t dry yet.
The Nationals made another brilliant first-round pick in 2012, when they somehow may have once again landed the best player in the draft despite picking 16th overall. Lucas Giolito was a threat to become the first high school right-hander ever to go no. 1 overall, but in the spring he sprained the UCL in his elbow, an injury that usually presages Tommy John surgery. As they had with Rendon, the Nationals realized that an injury was no reason to pass up a potential superstar talent, and they nabbed Giolito at no. 16. He underwent TJ surgery later that summer, but he dominated A-ball after returning late in 2013, and he’s now rated by Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and MLB.com as the best pitching prospect in the game. We may look back in 20 years and say that no team ever nailed four consecutive first-round picks as well as the Nationals did with Strasburg, Harper, Rendon, and Giolito.17
While Giolito’s breakout wasn’t all that surprising, the same can’t be said for Souza, who emerged from obscurity last year by hitting .350/.432/.590 in Triple-A with 18 homers and 26 steals in just 96 games; in a late cup of coffee with the Nationals, he made one of the defensive plays of the year, a circus catch to clinch Zimmermann’s no-hitter on the final day of the season. The Rays were so impressed that they included the Nationals in the three-way trade that sent Wil Myers to San Diego so they could get Souza to be Myers’s replacement in right field. In exchange, the Nationals got right-hander Joe Ross and shortstop Trea Turner,18 both former first-round picks and both currently on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list.
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The late emergence of guys like Souza and Roark proves that the Nationals are as elite at developing talent as at drafting it. They were in the right place at the right time with Strasburg and Harper, sure, but they’ve found talent up and down the draft. They made a no-brainer trade to acquire Fister, but they’ve been unafraid to trade legitimate prospects to acquire difference-makers like Gonzalez and Span. They’ve been unafraid to splurge on free agents when the opportunity presented itself. They’ve been unafraid to be bold.
Going all in for 2015 is certainly a bold move. And make no mistake: The Nationals are all in. It’s not simply that they signed Scherzer but that they didn’t use his arrival as an opportunity to flip one of their excess starters for young talent that might cushion the exodus of players that’s about to come. Desmond is a free agent at the end of the season. So is Span. So is Zimmermann. So is Fister. Strasburg, Gonzalez, and Ramos are all free agents after 2016. If guys like Giolito and Turner turn out to be more-than-adequate replacements in the rotation and at shortstop, and if the Nationals continue to find talent with anywhere near the success they have for the last decade, they may continue to contend for NL East titles for years to come. But they will probably never be as well positioned to do so as they are this year.
And this gets to the central conceit of their strategy: No matter how strong of a roster a franchise assembles for the regular season, it’s impossible to account for the meat grinder of randomness that is the playoffs. The Nationals know this as well as anyone; they lost the 2012 NLDS to St. Louis despite winning 10 more regular-season games than the Cardinals (98 wins compared to 88), and they lost the 2014 NLDS to San Francisco despite winning eight more regular-season games than the Giants (96-88). In 2012, they lost despite having a two-run lead with three outs to go in Game 5. In 2014, they lost in four games, but all three losses to San Francisco came by one run, including Game 2, which the Nationals lost in 18 innings — tied for the longest playoff game in history — after manager Matt Williams pulled Zimmermann with a 1-0 lead, two outs in the ninth, and Zimmermann throwing a three-hit shutout.
Williams’s decision that day was at least defensible — a fresh Storen was probably as likely to close out the ninth as Zimmermann was pitching to the Giants’ lineup for the fourth time. But Williams otherwise showed himself to be unwilling to adapt his managerial ways for the urgency of the playoffs. The Nationals lost the decisive Game 4 when Williams let Matt Thornton and Aaron Barrett — at best the fifth- and sixth-best relievers on his roster — pitch in the seventh inning of a tie game. Last season was Williams’s first go-round as a manager, and the Nationals have to hope that if he gets another chance this October, he will manage with the sense of urgency that the situation dictates.
That’s because winning the postseason is hard no matter how decisively you won the regular season. The 1986 Mets did both, going 108-54 before claiming a world championship, but they survived as many near-death experiences as any championship team ever has.19 And in the 28 seasons since, dominant regular-season teams have not seen their success carry over to the playoffs. Since 1986, 26 teams have won 100 games,20 but just two of them — the 1998 and 2009 Yankees — won the World Series.
The Nationals will be disappointed with becoming the 27th team to do the former if they aren’t also the third team to do the latter. And no matter how much they try to stack the deck with talent, they can improve their odds only so much. But whether or not they succeed, we have to respect the attempt, and we have to appreciate that they’re trying to give us all a spectacle that we haven’t seen in far too long: a team that dominates from Game 1 to Game 162. October is a long way off, so let’s enjoy the ride the Nationals want to give us from April through September. Dominance may be passé, but it’s fun to watch a team try to bring sexy back.