Nationals Swim Against the Tide with Commitment to Playoff Contention

There was a story published on this site late last month about how the highly successful rebuilds by the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros have given the 28 other teams in Major League Baseball a blueprint on why tanking works, and how it should be executed. On account of that blueprint it seems like at least 10 or 12 teams in the majors aren’t even attempting to field a competitive team in 2019.

Because teams will make a push for the World Series title for six, seven, and maybe eight years before their core players get old, the franchise runs out of money to sign big-name free agents, and the other teams in their division, or league, surpass them in talent and win totals. After that, the club will scrap everything and everyone they have, intentionally suck and torture their season ticket holders, and then go for it all again in another decade.

It’s a toxic blueprint that used to be reserved for small market teams and owners that didn’t have the financial means to compete with bigger market teams. The Kansas City Royals used these tactics and won the World Series in 2015 in the midst of a run of two-straight American League pennants, and it was justified because they aren’t the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers; they can’t throw money around like it’s nothing.

But once two large market teams did it, the Cubs (Chicago is the third-largest city in the United States) and Astros (Houston is the fourth-largest), it became the new standard. Well, for every team except for the Washington Nationals was it normalized.

The @Nationals have every reason to succumb to cyclical state of baseball and rebuild, but they continue to swim against the tide and commit to pennant contention. @bytomdorsa has more.Click To Tweet

The Nationals, as a team and an organization, have their flaws, and there are thousands of fair ways to criticize their franchise’s past, present, and future direction. But in a transitioning and cyclical state of baseball, the Nationals are seemingly the only team in the sport that cares to load their team up for now, putting all but a shot at the World Series aside. They have become a model organization in terms of actually giving a damn about their fans, players, and their city’s collective baseball spirit.

This is a team that finished the 2018 season, one where the Nationals were expected to make yet another title push, at 82-80, their worst season by win/loss record since 2011. It’s also a team that has lost in the National League Division Series four times in the last seven seasons and whose most valuable player (by Baseball-Reference WAR) over the past three seasons is a 34-year-old with neck problems. Nobody would blame them if general manager Mike Rizzo and the Lerner family (the team owners) wished to shut things down.

Plus, their divisional rivals in the NL East are arguably already better than they are and are younger on average. The Atlanta Braves won the division in 2018, while the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets had two extremely productive and successful 2018-19 offseasons.

But they’re going for it again because that’s just how they roll. The Nationals bolstered their already stellar rotation of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and crew with Patrick Corbin, a highly coveted left-handed free agent starter, and Anibal Sanchez, a resurgent right-hander with a lot still left in the tank. An 82-80 team on the wrong side of a typical window of contention loading their rotation up like a 100-win club is a pretty significant thing.

They replaced Daniel Murphy with Brian Dozier and gave their team another guy with 40-home run pop, while also acquiring a pair of reliable two-way catchers in Kurt Suzuki (free agent signing) and Yan Gomes (via trade with the Cleveland Indians). They also made low-risk, potentially high-reward signings with 2011 American League Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson and former All-Star Trevor Rosenthal, adding onto the acquisition of underrated reliever Kyle Barraclough.

They might lose generational star slugger and the face of the franchise, outfielder Bryce Harper, in free agency, but that isn’t before reportedly offering him $300 million over 10 years, a contract that would be the second-largest in the sport’s history. And with Harper still on the open market despite pitchers and catchers now reporting for spring training, it’s possible the Nats retain the 2015 NL MVP.

Harper would rejoin a potent lineup that features the likes of 2018 NL Rookie of the Year finalist Juan Soto, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, Trea Turner, Adam Eaton, and top Washington prospect Victor Robles, which is an offense that can give their fearsome pitching staff constant run support.

Though their NL East competitors are experiencing the benefits of shutting down, rebuilding, and making waves later, the Nationals are swimming against the tide and have consistently chosen to spend money like crazy to win in the immediate future, rather than wait a decade to splash again. Their division, and the NL altogether, has gotten crazy competitive with nine or 10 teams ready for a pennant push, but Washington doesn’t have it in them to back down. The Nationals are in this to win.

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