The similarities between the 2015 Washington Nationals and the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies jumped off the page at the start of the season. In 2011, the Phillies ran out a rotation that included Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, and Roy Oswalt. This year’s Nationals squad answered with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Gio Gonzalez. Both rosters, Philadelphia’s in 2011 and Washington’s in 2015, were primarily made up of veteran position players. That Phillies team, which rolled to 102 wins, featured seven everyday players over the age of 30 and three pitchers in their fourth decade as well. The Nationals entered 2015 with four expected starters and one starting pitcher over the age of 30.
As the season enters its final week, it’s become painfully obvious (actually it has been for about two months) that the 2015 Washington Nationals will be lucky to come within 20 wins of that 2011 Philadelphia Phillies team. A season that started with World Series expectations will end without a trip to the playoffs, and there should be serious questions about the future. The closer who was traded for to turn the bullpen into a strength just choked out the face of the franchise, the closer he replaced turned into a quivering mess, and the manager is likely to be fired come season’s end.
Not exactly what the Nationals had hoped for way back in April.
Perhaps we should have seen this coming. When I sat down with a Phillies fan in March to talk baseball, he drew the comparison to the 2011 version of his team. That Phillies team was a team plagued by its age and an inability to deliver runs in clutch situations. Who would be the one getting the big base hits with the game on the line for this Nationals team, he asked. That was, of course, before we realized Bryce Harper was about to turn into the best baseball player on the planet, but his point held water. After Harper and Anthony Rendon, the Nationals lineup falls off dramatically. Ryan Zimmerman has missed significant chunks of time the past two seasons with injuries, and at 30, it looks like his decline has begun. Jayson Werth never lived up to his massive contract, and is 36 years old. Those two aren’t getting better. They will only get worse with the passage of time.
Denard Span would have filled the role of Shane Victorino on this team, but played only 61 games. Span will be a free agent after the year, and with Michael A. Taylor emerging as a viable big leaguer, it would appear Span’s days are numbered in Washington. Span was a near .300 hitter during his time in D.C. and his presence over an entire 162-game season this year could have made all the difference for the Nationals. Like the Phillies, the Nationals also have their own All-Star second baseman dealing with injuries. Anthony Rendon, unlike Chase Utley, will bounce back and continue his upward career arch.
The Philadelphia Phillies have not had a winning season since that 102-win campaign in 2011. The Nationals were a budding powerhouse who would win two division titles in three years entering 2015. Throughout the Phillies mini-dynasty, the front office showed an increasingly strong resistance to taking minor rebuilding steps along the way. The farm system was always pillaged in an effort to win that year’s World Series. The Nationals have not totally bankrupted their farm system building this contender, but they’ve come close. Beyond Trea Turner and Taylor, there are very few fresh faces waiting in the minor leagues for the Nationals. Wilmer Difo could be a prospect, but he will find his path blocked by Turner and Rendon. There is no one coming to replace Zimmerman or Werth when they inevitably go. Another year of Yunel Escobar starting in the infield seems highly likely, but when his contract runs out after the 2016 season, there are no future stars waiting to take his place.
The Nationals built this winning ballclub on the backs of players developed in their minor league system. Harper, Zimmerman, Zimmermann, Wilson Ramos, Rendon, and many more all came up through the minors. The Phillies were the same way, but got into trouble when they began dipping into the talent pool to acquire older players to surround their core. The Nationals haven’t totally done that yet, but like the Phillies, have a very weak farm system.
Unless the Nationals make some aggressive moves in the offseason, they could find themselves looking very similar to the Phillies in a few years. Ian Desmond is unlikely to return this winter. In that regard, the Nationals are already a step ahead of the Phillies who kept pumping money into Jimmy Rollins even when he was past his prime. Somehow, the Nationals will still be paying Werth for two more seasons. He has become the Ryan Howard of the Nationals.
The Phillies saw their championship window slammed shut as abruptly as Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee saw their careers terminated by arm trouble. Despite the warning signs, the Phillies always plowed ahead with little thought for the future. The Nationals are already ahead of the Phillies when it comes to preparing for the future. Turning to Turner and Taylor over Desmond and Span is not something the Phillies would have been willing to do in the midst of their run. Holding onto the past ultimately turned the Phillies into the laughingstock of the NL East. The Nationals are not destined for the same fate, but they do still face an uphill battle against the New York Mets and their quartet of stud pitchers. By no means is the Nationals’ window to contend slammed shut, but after this year, and considering the thin farm system waiting in the wings, that window is on its way down.