Three weeks ago, the Washington Nationals had the chance to do what many in the Major Leagues believed they should — become sellers at the trade deadline.
But the Nationals, the two-time defending National League East champions, who were 52-53 and only 5½ games behind in the division race on July 31, decided to stand pat, particularly when it came to dealing Bryce Harper, the most valuable chip on their poker table.
With Harper set to become one of MLB’s prized free agents, you would think the Nationals could have recouped, at the very least, a treasure trove of top-flight Minor League prospects. They didn’t.
Then on Tuesday, after losing seven of their last 10 games, the team finally decided to give up on the 2018 season.
Washington dealt second baseman Daniel Murphy to the Cubs and Matt Adams, the power-hitting first baseman/outfielder, back to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Two things are for certain, as they relate to Murphy. He will love his time with the Cubs. He is 43-for-104 (.413) at Wrigley Field in his career with the Mets and Nationals, with seven homers, nine doubles and 14 RBIs. And the Nationals will miss him. He hit .342 and .328 in his first two seasons in Washington (with 90 doubles and 48 homers) and was hitting .300 in 56 games at the time of the trade.
“I still think today, we have the talent base on this team to play competitive games at the end of the season,” General Manager Mike Rizzo told ESPN.com after announcing the deals.
This sentiment came on a day that Washington was still just a game under .500, but now 7½ games behind the first-place Braves in the NL East.
“We’re only 7½ games back,” Harper told ESPN.com. “So we’re going to play it ’til the end and see what happens.”
As for Harper, MLB.com reported he had been placed on waivers and that the Los Angeles Dodgers claimed him. But no deal has been announced prior to Wednesday.
All this is not to say that the Nationals haven’t tried to improve themselves over the last two seasons. But most of the effort was devoted to shoring up their bullpen. They acquired Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson from the A’s. They traded for Kelvin Herrera and signed Brandon Kintzler.
That work has backfired. Madson has been hit hard. Kintzler hasn’t been as effective. Herrera and Doolitte are hurt.
And as a result, the Nationals have struggled this season putting games away, even with a Cy Young candidate like Max Scherzer (16-5, 2.11 ERA, 0.887 WHIP) on top of their rotation.
The Nationals will likely rationalize trading Murphy and Adams by plugging Wilmer Difo into second and relying on the Ryan Zimmerman/Mark Reynolds platoon to compensate for the loss of Adams. And tjhey have one of baseball’s top younger players, Juan Soto, who has 15 homers, 44 RBIs and is hitting .289.
The trades were also a preemptive strike since Murphy, Harper, Reynolds, Adams, catcher Matt Wieters and pitcher Gio Gonzalez will all be free agents after the season.
Nationals owner Mark Lerner addressed the state of the team in an open letter to its fans on Tuesday.
“I believed in this team and would have loved to see them all play healthy together this season,” wrote Lerner. “However, the time has come for us to make decisions that will bolster our roster for next season and beyond. … Mike Rizzo and his team will be busy during the offseason making sure we have all of the pieces necessary to come back and be competitive next year.”
Remember, the Nationals have never won a World Series or a National League pennant, although they have won five division titles (1981 in Montreal, 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017).
But those last four titles carried them no further than the NLDS. The Nats are 0-4 in those, with three losses in a deciding Game 5, including the last two seasons to the Dodgers and Cubs.
And they have employed a number of managers over the last two decades in the effort – Frank Robinson, Manny Acta, Jim Riggleman, Davey Johnson, Matt Williams, Dusty Baker and now Dave Martinez.
“By no means are we done,” Zimmerman said.
He must mean shaking things up. Don’t you think?