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Why Teams Want To Avoid Becoming the Nationals, to Become the Nationals

Before Howie Kendrick’s grand slam in Game 5 of the NLDS in Los Angeles, the Nationals had the biggest embarrassment of a sporting franchise this century locked up. I’m not sure any other franchise could even challenge. 

After moving to Washington D.C., the team was understandably bad, with their best season being 81 wins in their inaugural season in 2005, and then 80 in 2011. However, out of those terrible rebuilding season, they were given the opportunity to draft Stephen Strausburg and Bryce Harper #1 overall in 2009 and 2010, followed by Anthony Rendon #6 overall in 2011. They had the building blocks of a future powerhouse. 

In 2010, they signed Jayson Werth to a 7 year, $126 million contract. Coming off of a season where he finished 8th in MVP voting and was apart of a Phillies team that won their second straight NL pennant and a year after winning it all in 2008, this was the Nationals showing vital signs of a team trying to win. In 2012, they signed their first draft pick ever (#4 overall in 2005) and face of the franchise, Ryan Zimmerman, to a 6 year, $100 million contract. They threw $210 million over 7 years to Max Scherzer in January of 2015, and $37.5 million over 3 years to Daniel Murphy a year later. They dedicated $37 million to Adam LaRoche over his 4 years with the team. They traded for and locked up Gio Gonzalez to a 5 year, $42 million extension. GM Mike Rizzo was given the full go ahead to spend money, and he certainly did that. 

He traded top prospect Lucas Giolito for Adam Eaton, and another top prospect Jesus Luzardo in a deal for Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson. 

And through all that, that Nationals had zero playoff series wins. 

Their first playoff appearance in Washington in 2012 saw them one out away from a series victory and blown six run lead to the Cardinals in Game 5 of the NLDS. The won the division again in 2014, 2016, and 2017, and lost once again in the NLDS each time, blowing a 4-1 lead in game 5 against the Cubs in 2017. The lost big names players to free agency: Wilson Ramos, Alfonso Soriano, and most notably, Bryce Harper.

They were the laughing stock of playoff success, or lack thereof, as they literally didn’t have a playoff victory in the history of the Washington Nationals. Down 2 runs in the bottom of the 8th of an elimination game in both the Wild Card game and NLDS, it looked like the Nats were going down the same path. Stephen Strausburg and Anthony Rendon were pending free agents, and just like that, all those years of struggle in their first years in Washington would all be for nothing. They were the epitome of a GM’s greatest nightmare. Young, controllable players, money and resources from the owner leading to a winning, well assembled baseball team. A winning, well assembled baseball team that routinely fell victim to the pressure (and let’s be honest, randomness) of playoff baseball. The baseball executives can’t hop on the field and get Drew Storen to not let up 4 in the bottom of the 9th. There’s only so much the guys up top can do.

And just like that, a GM’s nightmare turned into a GM’s dream: a clutch team. When was the last time there was a team with the magic the Nationals had? You probably have to go back to 2004 for the answer. A team can buy a filthy left-handed slider, or a 20/20 season, but you can’t buy the magic that the 2019 Nationals displayed. People often say “it’s a copycat league.” Well how do you copy what the Nationals just did?

In a league that’s being taken over by analytics, the long answer is probably a lot of complex calculated numbers in high leverage situations and stuff of that nature, which I love. Maybe I will do a deep dive into that one day, but today is not that day. The short answer is you can’t. You can’t sign Howie Kendrick with the expectation of him hitting two series winning home runs in winner take all games. Not every team gets to sign a Juan Soto out of the Domincan as a 16 year old, and not every team has a historic psychopath with two different colored eyes like Max Scherzer.

If you’re a GM looking to become the Nationals this offseason, you’re doing the right thing. You’re looking to build a winner.

But becoming the Nationals should also be your biggest fear.

That’s baseball. It doesn’t make any sense.

Follow me on twitter @jlabruins

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