Previously during Part 1 of our Nationals 2018 Season Review, we looked at the biggest surprises and disappointments of the season. Today we will examine at final takeaways from the season, and take a glimpse into the offseason.
What could the Nationals have done better in order to make the playoffs?
Amanda White: The dismantling of the bullpen around the trade deadline was the nail in their coffin. The team played inconsistently throughout the month of July, but was given a (probably undeserved) stay of execution by management, who chose not to take the team apart ahead of the non-wavier trade deadline. With the season going poorly, negative news articles had begun to leak, and Brandon Kintzler was abruptly traded to the Cubs because he was a suspected source. The next day, Shawn Kelly lost his temper in a blowout game and was designated for assignment almost immediately. The loss of two reliable bullpen arms from an already struggling club proved too much for the team to overcome, and the subsequent trade of Ryan Madson and injury to Sean Doolittle marked the end of the Nationals’ high hopes for 2018.
Sorry forgot Ryan Madson. Disappointing #Nationals have now jettisoned Gonzalez, Matt Adams, Daniel Murphy, Brandon Kintzler, Shawn Kelley, Brian Goodwin and Madison
— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) August 31, 2018
Tom Natali: The Nats could have valued their manager better than what the Lerner’s have shown time and time again. Am I the only one that pictures Dusty Baker relaxing on a recliner, sipping on wine and mutters under his breath “I told you so”?
The ownership group surprised the fanbase in not retaining Dusty and going with Joe Maddon’s understudy. Would the same season have happened had they paid up for someone like Joe Girardi?
Lastly, this season would have gone completely different if they performed better in close games. They lost 24 one-run games this year. Had half of those been wins, then the division is up for grabs.
Subir Nigam: In order to make the playoffs, the Nats needed to not blow games late like they did during Doolittle’s injury. His injury lasted way longer than anyone expected, and Nats could not find a reliable replacement in his absence. I don’t have the exact numbers, but I know Nats would have been at least 5-6 games better if Doolittle did not get hurt. Seems like Rizzo should have went all-in during trade deadline instead of standing pat/giving away our relievers.
Sean Doolittle has recorded 29 straight appearances of 1+ IP and 0 BB.
— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) July 7, 2018
Drew G: The Nats could have done better to make the playoffs by winning games they had in the bag. There were several games the bullpen blew solid efforts by the starters. The offense sputtered in several starts from Scherzer who got no run support. Even Bryce Harper went through a hitting slump. All in all, it just was a terrible combination of issues at the wrong time.
Hunter Rooney: The Nationals needed the veteran relievers to pitch a lot better than what they did. Ryan Madson, Sammy Solis, and Brandon Kintzler all had disappointing seasons, and really made Davey Martinez rely on his young and unproven arms more than he should have had to. The Nationals lost so many games due to their bullpen. That does not just count the games where the bullpen blew the lead. The bullpen needed to keep the game in striking distance during games where the starter had a rough outing. Overall, they just could not get the job done.
What is your major takeaway from this season?
Amanda White: The thing I really can’t get over is that Bryce Harper is unlikely to come back and that after seven years with such a generational talent, they were unable to get past the NLDS. It’s impossible to adequately explain; just a combination of bad luck and poor performances at the worst possible times, although I suspect the constant turnover at the manager position has done them no favors. Even is Harper doesn’t return, they are absolutely loaded with great players and DC fans are lucky indeed to have a team that is relevant and competitive most years. Nothing puts the pain of all those first round losses into perspective more than not even having the chance to lose in the first round!
Tom Natali: The major takeaway from this is, we don’t know what the identity of this team is. Will they turn the roster over and focus on youth and development? Or will Rizzo and company make another run at it? Can Stephen Strasburg pitch like he did in 2017? Is Victor Robles ready to be an every-day center fielder? How will Ryan Zimmerman perform on what could be his final season in DC?
Subir Nigam: My major takeaway from this season is that I should not have underestimated Dusty Baker. Regardless of Dusty’s playoffs record, he at least got the team playing their best throughout the regular season. I’m not sold on Davey Martinez yet, but I wouldn’t fire him after this year (unless some great manager is available). The Nats didn’t do the little things right on a consistent bases, such as driving in the runner on 3rd base with less than two outs.
First year Nationals managers:
2012: Davey Johnson; won NL East
2014: Matt Williams; won NL East
2016: Dusty Baker; won NL East
2018: Dave Martinez; Nats (62-63) just traded Daniel Murphy to the Cubs.
— Bill Shaikin (@BillShaikin) August 21, 2018
Drew G: The major takeaway is that the Nationals need to upgrade starting pitching. The Nats have one of top set of starting pitchers in Scherzer and Strasburg, but Strasburg is 30. The Nats need to improve their bottom 3 starters. Hellickson did pitch well in stretches throughout the season, however. The Nationals can definitely upgrade over Roark and Ross in the offseason.
Hunter Rooney: The major takeaway was that the Nationals got complacent and assumed that they would win the NL East for a third straight year. This Nationals team just never had an edge that they have had in years past. This could be do to not really having a vocal leader. The Nationals lost Jayson Werth who was the leader of the team, and also lost Dusty Baker. Although the players do generally like Davey Martinez, he is not as proven as much as Dusty and did not garner the mutual respect that Dusty did.
Many would point to Harper as someone that should have stepped up as a leader, but that is never who Harper has been, and that is not something that Harper needed to be. The problem was not that Harper as the face of the franchise didn’t step up as a leader. The problem was that nobody stepped up as the vocal leader, to keep the course steady when struggles arose.
What must the Nationals do in the off season?
Amanda White: They desperately need a reliable catcher who can provide some offense and at least one quality, middle-to-back of the rotation starting pitcher. They also need to replace Daniel Murphy with someone much better than Wilmer Difo, who is serviceable as a bench player, but really isn’t good enough to play 2nd base every day for a team hoping to contend. I’d like to see them trade some backup guys (like Michael A. Taylor) to try to restock the starting pitching depth in their farm system. But their all-out, 100% most important priority needs to be re-signing Anthony Rendon. He is a stalwart in their lineup and one of the best defensive infielders in the game, whom they absolutely cannot let get away from them.
Tom Natali: As expected, this starts and ends with Bryce Harper. He’s arguably the most anticipated free agent since Alex Rodriguez and I have no idea what’s to happen.
Scenario #1: Let Bryce walk and allocate those funds to re-signing Anthony Rendon, a front-line starting pitcher and catcher. This still gives you an outfield of Adam Eaton, Victor Robles and Juan Soto.
Scenario #2: See if there is a way to “meet in the middle”. Can Bryce remain a Nat, but not hamstring the rest of the team due to his contract? This would be ideal, in my opinion.
Scenario #3: Give Bryce the farm, knowing this would most likely cause Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner to depart via free agency. Also, the ability to acquire another starting pitcher would be unlikely.
The Nationals should be working on re-signing Anthony Rendon right now. Use the money you save by not re-signing Harper to get deals done with him and Trea Turner.
— Grant Paulsen (@granthpaulsen) September 9, 2018
Subir Nigam: In the offseason, the Nats need to sign a starting pitcher for the 3rd slot behind Strasburg. Neither Joe Ross or Tanner Roark are good enough for that spot. Fedde is a 5th option at best. They need that three-headed monster, especially when you consider Strasburg’s annual injury. Another position of need is Catcher, because unless Weiters and Kieboom can hit at least .260, that spot in the lineup will be way too weak to really compete.
If it costs over $300M to sign Harper, I am okay with letting him go. You can sign 2 or 3 solid field players for that kind of money, and our outfield is pretty darn good without Harper anyway. This is not a rebuild for the Nats, just a re-tool. Find another starting pitcher, like Patrick Corbin perhaps, and maybe even another reliever or two, and this team will bounce back and compete for the division crown.
Drew G: Nats must decide what to do with Bryce Harper. The Nats have other pieces to lock up long term and if a lot of money is dedicated to Harper, if he resigns, the Nats may lose Rendon at a minimum.
Hunter Rooney: In the offseason, the Nationals need to pick a direction to go. The worst thing possible that they can do is sort of stand pat and bank on the team rebounding in 2019. The Braves made a huge leap this year, and it looks lime they are here to stay. The Nats either need to focus on going young and set themselves up for the future built around Soto, Robles, and Kieboom, or go all in on competing for a World Series in the next couple seasons.
If Mike Rizzo is intent on going young, the Nationals would do well in letting Harper walk in free agency and trading away some players to contending teams in order to set up the team for the next ten years with young talent. This would include possibly trading Max Scherzer, Anthony Rendon, Adam Eaton and Sean Doolittle. By taking this route the Nationals could give all their young guys more playing time, and seeing whether they can contribute to a winning ball club in the future.
The route that should be chosen is to try and make a few big moves and going all-in on competing the next 2-4 years. Under this scenario, the Nats could try to re-sign Harper to a 3 or 4 year deal with a higher annual average value, and subsequently moving Soto to first base. The Nationals could then look to trade away players such as Michael A. Taylor and Ryan Zimmerman who would be more valuable to other teams than the Nationals, in an effort to tidy up the bullpen. It would be nice to find a decent catcher in free agency to upgrade over Wieters, but that is not the top priority. The top priority should be to find a starting pitcher to create a “big three” in the rotation. Some good targets would be Dallas Kuechel, Patrick Corbin, and Garrett Richards.
No matter what direction the Nats choose, they have to pick one. They can’t stay in between because all that will do is keep them in the 80-90 win range for years to come.