Have you ever looked at something that is supposed to be perfectly fine, and just thought to yourself, “There is a problem here”? With maybe the exception of a few blindly optimistic fans, this is the general feeling around the Washington Nationals. On paper, this team looked great, maybe even World Series contenders. This isn’t just my opinion, as plenty of sports writers and media outlets predicted that the Nationals were going to be a very good team last year. Later on, they had to retract that assertion. Without seeing any obvious reasons for the Nationals failing to meet everyone’s expectations, one can assume there must be some other cause for their underachievement.
When I say the Nationals looked great on paper, I mean it. They had Bryce Harper (42 HR, 9.9 WAR), a former No. 1 overall pick, patrolling in right field. They had Stephen Strasburg, a former No. 1 overall pick, in their starting rotation. They featured a solid lineup of homegrown hitters including Harper, Anthony Rendon (3B), Ian Desmond (SS), Ryan Zimmerman (1B), Wilson Ramos (C), and Danny Espinosa (2B), with additional veteran pieces in Jayson Werth (RF) and Denard Span (CF). After signing Max Scherzer to an enormous, “win now” contract (7 years/$210 million), the Nats had a deep pitching rotation in Scherzer, Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, and duo of Doug Fister/Tanner Roark, which was eventually replaced by Joe Ross.
At the All-Star break, the Nationals were in first-place in the NL East. As the 2015 trade-deadline approached, they felt they needed to bolster their bullpen. They already had a very strong closer in Drew Storen, but the 7th and 8th innings were shaky. To address this “need”, the Nationals acquired closer Jonathan Papelbon from the inner-division Philadelphia Phillies. Papelbon is known for his…personality, and refused to waive his no-trade clause unless the Nationals promised him the closer’s job.
Storen was having an excellent season at the time that Papelbon was acquired, pitching to the tune of a 1.73 Earned Run Average with 29 saves through his first 38 appearances, and he was not pleased to know he would be displaced as the closer. In an interview with MLB.com’s Bill Ladson following the trade, Storen made his stance pretty clear:
“All I’m going to say is, I’m aware of the move and I’ve talked to Mike about it. I’ve talked to my agent about it…We’ve had some ongoing discussions. Until those have progressed, I’m just going to leave it at that. No comment for now. But as the situation goes, I’ll keep you guys posted.”
This man said much more than he needed to. If he really had no opinion to express, he would have simply said “no comment.” He wouldn’t have brought up Mike Rizzo (the team’s GM), and he wouldn’t have mentioned his agent. Clearly, Drew Storen was upset with his bosses. This trade seemed to cause a shift of mindset in the team’s clubhouse, and started a downward trend in the nation’s capital.
Papelbon’s fiery attitude didn’t seem to blend well with the rest of the team, and eventually, the competitor’s mentality got ahold of him. When the team started losing, the man lost his patience. It was the end of September, and the Nationals were no longer in the pennant race. Papelbon was ejected during the 9th inning of a game versus the Orioles for hitting Manny Machado with a pitch. Bryce Harper, a young man that’s got plenty of character of his own, expressed his opinion on Papelbon, publicly, during a postgame interview in Baltimore.
That’s a big no-no for teammates to do, and seemed to warrant a need for Harper to be put in his place. Papelbon, an 11-year veteran, took care of this himself just a few days later during a game against the Phillies.
In case you couldn’t tell, that’s a picture of the Nationals’ All-Star closer choking their All-Star left fielder. On principle, Papelbon did the same as Harper: called out a teammate in front of everybody. As the story goes, Pap said something to Harper about running hard on a pop-up, and Harper decided to challenge him. This was all the reason Papelbon needed to go straight for Bryce Harper’s throat, in the dugout, during the middle of a game…for everyone to see (full video here). Immediately following the game, Papelbon was suspended for 4 games.
Unfortunately for the Nationals, their “bullpen fix” caused more problems than it solved. Not only was Drew Storen upset that he’d been replaced, his confidence on the mound appeared to be gone. Over his final 16 ⅔ innings pitched following the Papelbon trade, Storen had an ERA near 7.00. Instead of making the necessary moves to solidify a playoff contender, the Nationals acquired a clubhouse cancer that choked out one teammate, and ruined another’s mojo (that second one isn’t as tangible, I know). Heading into this offseason, it was clear that the team needed to make some changes to their roster. At the season’s end, Storen requested a trade. On January 9th the Nationals gave him what he wanted, and Drew Storen was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for Ben Revere.
After they’d solved the closer problem (supposedly), there was more work to be done to fix this team’s terrible aura. Following much criticism of how he handled the bullpen, as well as the Harper/Papelbon situation, Matt Williams was relieved of his duties as manager. According to Williams himself, he didn’t even notice the altercation between Papelbon and Harper, which explains why he let Papelbon pitch the 9th inning following the incident. Lack of strong leadership will almost certainly ruin any hopes of success, and Williams had to be let go. The Nationals are hoping that the seasoned manager Dusty Baker will solve that problem.
Replacing the manager was important, but that wasn’t enough. This team had missing pieces, so they would have to explore the free agent market and entertain trades to improve the roster. With the departure of Ian Desmond via free agency, the Nats had a hole to fill in their infield. The uber-versatile Ben Zobrist was their main target, but he didn’t seem interested. The Nationals reportedly offered Zobrist $60 million over four years, but chose to go with the Cubs for less money, agreeing to four years and $56 million with Chicago. When asked why he chose the Cubs over the Nats, Zobrist gave “being more comfortable” and “the clubhouse” as his reasons. This was a sign of things to come for the Nationals.
Shortly afterwards, the market for outfielder Jason Heyward began to heat up, and the Nationals were said to be right in the thick of the bidding wars. According to Jim Bowden at MLB.com, the Nationals were a serious threat to sign Heyward, and reportedly made him an offer worth $200 million. Once again the curly W’s came up short, and Heyward opted to sign with the Cubs for less money (he signed for 7 years/$184 million in Chicago). What must be even more disappointing for Nats fans, is that D.C. wasn’t even Heyward’s second choice. The Cardinals were considered the “runner up” to sign Heyward, with the Nationals in third place despite reports of them offering the same amount of money.
Looking at this offseason, the Nats appear to have a very big, and very complicated problem. If they aren’t being outbid for players, that means that free-agents are simply choosing not to play for them, regardless of the money. It was only the 15th of December, and Washington had already been snubbed by their two biggest targets of the offseason (Zobrist and Heyward), despite outbidding the competition. Money is not the deterrent, and the team is very talented, so that begs the question: why are free agents choosing other teams over the Nationals?
Fast-forward to January 26th and reports had emerged that the Nationals extended a 5-year offer to Yoenis Cespedes worth roughly $110 million. At first glance the Nationals seemed like a decent landing spot for Cespedes, but after looking over their roster, I don’t see a good fit. Their outfield already consists of Bryce Harper (RF), Ben Revere (CF), and Jayson Werth (LF) with Michael Taylor as a backup/center field platoon, so the Nats would have needed to create a spot.
Harper is fresh off an MVP campaign in which he finally lived up to his potential, and batted .330/.460/.649. There is no displacing Bryce Harper. Revere was acquired less than a month ago to play center field, and there’s a chance that Michael Taylor also sees a lot of time in center, meaning left field was the only possible spot for Cespedes. Left field was a bit of a problem for the Nats last season, but they already have three options there.
Former All-Star Jayson Werth is the incumbent starting left fielder, but he’s been hurt off-and-on for the last two seasons, and his production has begun to decline. Clint Robinson split time last season between left field and first base, putting up solid (yet unspectacular) numbers. Matt Den Dekker is the third option that the Nationals already have on the roster, but he’s a reserve player – at best – on a team that sees itself contending for the playoffs. The only way it would have made sense for the Nationals to sign Cespedes would be if they had somewhere to put Jayson Werth, and that’s no easy task. Werth is owed $42 million through 2017, and as I mentioned before, he’s missed a lot of time (played in 88 games last season).
Trading Werth does not appear to be an option, so signing Cespedes would have meant displacing Jayson Werth as the starter. The phrases “Nationals” and “displacing” sound like they go together, and we already know why. The drama that followed the acquisition of Jonathan Papelbon should provide a recent and applicable example of why signing Cespedes could have gone poorly for the team. I am in no way implying that Cespedes would choke out a teammate, but I do believe the man he is replacing would be displeased to lose his starting spot. One must acknowledge that Jayson Werth is a well respected player, and a leader in the clubhouse. The Nationals should consider their failure to sign Cespedes a blessing in disguise, because disloyalty to its players is not the reputation a team wants to have.
The implications of the Cespedes “non-signing” could actually be the answer to why so many players are deterred from playing in D.C. Despite having a front-row seat for the drama that ensues from displacing an established starter (without good reason), the team’s front office was prepared to do it again. For this reason, I see disloyalty to players as one potentially major deterrent for free-agents considering the Nationals as their next team.
Of course this is just a theory, and isn’t necessarily the only deterrent for potential newcomers. The next reason is far less tangible than loyalty, and it regards the current state of the clubhouse. It is obvious that replacing Matt Williams with Dusty Baker is an attempt to change the environment in the clubhouse, but the manager is only one man. While I have (almost) total faith that Baker will be a positive influence on this team, the players must be held accountable too.
The player that must accept the bulk of that responsibility is Bryce Harper. He is the self-assumed leader of this team, and as the 2015 NL MVP, he is now expected to be. As a 17-year old, draft-eligible player, Harper was being compared to the likes of Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez in terms of talent and skillset. Now I can imagine that sort of hype around one’s name could give that person quite an ego. Actually, I don’t have to imagine it, because Harper has a documented history of being big-headed.
Before he was drafted, Baseballprospectus.com did what they do best, and wrote a profile on the projected No. 1 pick. Everything regarding Harper’s talent and potential was very encouraging, but when they discussed his character makeup, they left much to be desired:
“This should not be underrated. It’s impossible to find any talent evaluator who isn’t blown away by Harper’s ability on the field, but it’s equally difficult to find one who doesn’t genuinely dislike the kid. One scout called him among the worst amateur players he’s ever seen from a makeup standpoint, with top-of-the-scale arrogance, a disturbingly large sense of entitlement, and on-field behavior that includes taunting opponents. “He’s just a bad, bad guy,” said one front-office official.”
These aren’t regular fans like you or me watching the screen and saying “that guy’s a jerk!”. Scouts are oftentimes ex-ballplayers, and really don’t interact much with the player’s they’re scouting. For several experts who have lived in the baseball world for decades (most of them at least), and barely spent face-to-face time with Harper, to express that they “genuinely dislike the kid”, there has to be some substance to the theory that Bryce Harper doesn’t make a very good teammate.
It’s very difficult (at this point, impossible) to put any sort of measured value on a player’s personality. The word “bad” is just an opinion, and everybody has those. To be fair, the BP profile was done back in 2010, when Harp was just a teenager. It’s reasonable to expect that 17 year olds that are projected to go No. 1 in the draft might lack some mental maturity. By the same token, it is reasonable to expect that Harper would grow out of that, and become a respectable leader.
Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case. Going back just over a year ago, during the 2014 season, The Washington Post, was demanding that Harper “stop acting like a 12 year-old”. That’s not a rival team’s opinion, that’s coming from the hometown publication. Of course that was way back in ‘14, and this past season he lit the world on fire (from a statistical standpoint). As one can imagine, the criticisms turned into praise. The Washington Post even did a piece on how great it was that Harper had finally matured.
However, a poll on current and former MLB players, done by the New York Post, seemed to put an interesting spin on the Papelbon/Harper drama. This is the point where players and spectators oftentimes cannot see eye-to-eye: unwritten rules. The responses to the poll may not have been what you’d expect:
“I would have done the same thing if I were Papelbon.”
“Kid has been allowed to loaf for the past two years. Williams got crucified for benching him last year…Veteran finally said something; kid ran his mouth at the wrong guy and got beat up.”
“He quit on his team after the fight, just like he does on popups.”
The general consensus was that Harper had it coming, not Papelbon. The quote “Harp drew the line” essentially sums up the opinion of the players. As painful as it may be for the Nationals to realize this, their best player on the field appears to be their biggest problem on the team.
There is good reason to believe that the front office simply doesn’t believe this to be true, and will “wait it out” until Harper departs in free agency following the 2018 season. Because of the fact that no one player’s attitude has any tangible correlation to a team’s success, the Nationals are in a very tough position. If I were in the team’s front office, I would be gauging Harper’s value on the trade market. The team would undoubtedly receive a king’s ransom if they were to trade the young star, and that might actually be the best option for the Washington Nationals.