The Darkest Timeline: The 5 Worst Moves the Nats Never Made (But Damn Well Tried To)

Mike Rizzo has presided over what is literally the winningest era in DC baseball history so the man clearly has some clue what he’s doing even if he has made some very questionable manager hires. His reward for this unprecedented (by DC sports standards) success will be either an extension to continue trotting out good teams in spite of the Lerner families sometimes odd hang ups or he’ll get an absurd amount of money to try and do it again somewhere else in the league.

Rizzo probably deserves another run at it because of his success, the crapshoot nature of the postseason and the fact that not that many people are likely to win with the Lerner family, who while not cheap , get very hung up over small amounts of money ,block deals for established closers and need to be threatened with resignations in order to get reasonable done.

That said, this is not a post in the one way “probably a good idea to extend Rizzo” argument, which has been made a million times and is probably right. Rizzo’s success was by no means foreordained and things could have come off the rails at a number of points, several of which the Nationals even pushed for, could have send the success off the rails, or at the very least made the team far less enjoyable to watch . This isn’t a dig on Rizzo since every deal seemed like a very good move at the time and even the best teams have whiffs, if you don’t believe me look at the Astros passing on Kris Bryant for a pitcher who never made the majors or the Cubs giving Edwin Jackson a long term contract.

5) 2008 -Offering Mark Teixeira 8 Years and 160 Million

Technically speaking Rizzo was still the Assistant GM at this point so it might not be fair to treat this as his baby but the whole thing was an odd pursuit with the real winner being Mark Teixera getting the Yankees to up their offer significantly (he eventually got 8/180 to play in New York). At the time, Teixera was coming off an elite offensive season and was one of the top free agents that season. The Nationals had just completed the first of what turned out to be 3 straight very bad seasons (59-102, 59-103, 69-93) and no amount of extra offense from one player, especially from a position like 1B , would have been able to save them. In addition to being a cash sink, this offer would have hamstrung the Nationals long term by blocking 1B and most likely keeping them from one of the more productive moves they would eventually make after becoming contenders . While I dont think Teixera would fix them, he’s probably worth a few more wins for the 2009. The problem is that the 59-103 Record the team had in 2010 netted them the #1 overall pick and a guy named Bryce Harper, by comparison let’s look at some of the other picks in that draft and their total major league  Wins Above Replacement (WAR):

  1. Bryce Harper (26.1)
  2. Jameson Tallion (3.6)
  3. Manny Machado (27.9)
  4. Christian Colon (1.8)
  5. Drew Pomeranz (11.3)
  6. Barret Loux(Never reached majors)
  7. Matt Harvey(9.9 War, Baseballs first broken dick injury, lost his shit when Julian Edelman was seen with his ex-girlfriend)
  8. Delino Deshields, Jr. (3.1)
  9. Karsten Whitson (Never played above Low A)
  10. Michael Choice (-2.0)

Obviously Manny Machado would have been great to have but the rest of this class is a mix of guys who didn’t make the majors , weren’t good , or ended up having weird injuries. For those of you not clear what Wins Above Replacements means, translate it this way: Bryce Harper has generated more than twice as many wins as the next best player in that years top 10.

In short, this is probably the one time I’m glad the Yankees beat out a team based entirely on deeper pockets.

4) 2015: Agreed to trade for Brandon Phillips

Heading into the 2016 season it was painfully clear that the Nats were in need fo a second baseman so they could move Anthony Rendon to 3B, after a not so great year playing second. After failing to land Ben Zobrist as a result of the “everyone and their mother choosing to sign with the Cubs” offseason of 2016 , they turned their eyes to Reds 2B Brandon Phillips. The two teams even agreed on a trade that was thankfully never consummated as Phillips exercised no movement clause In a vacuum the move isn’t particularly bad as Phillips could play fairly solid defense and was only slightly below average as a hitter, which is honestly pretty good for a glove first position. After this rejection the team eventually “settled” on Mets 2B Daniel Murphy, whose old team had given up on him. While Murphy’s reputation as weak defender has certainly proven true, he more or less has murdered the shit outta the baseball coming to Washington, with extra zeal on display every chance he gets to face the Mets. Those ‘16 and ‘17 Nats sure look a lot weaker with Phillips at 2B.

3) 2015: Offering Jason Heyward approximately 8/184

Man, doesn’t it it seem like an eternity ago that the Nationals had a shortage of talented outfielders? Anyways, as part of their efforts to find a CF/repeatedly give up on Michael Taylor the Nats got hard into pursuit of free agent Jayson Heyward. At the time the deal made sense, Heyward had gold glove caliber defense (actually backed up by the metrics) and was batting very well. The Nats ended up losing out to the Cubs for the second time that offseason (again the “everyone and mother signing with  the Cubs effect”) and it may have been the best thing for them. Heyward’s offensive stats cratered in Chicago, to the point of having an OPS+ of 68 in 2017 . For those who don’t know baseball stats, that translates to “he was 32% worse than than an average player, regardless of where he played”. While Heyward is credited with a rousing locker room speech during the rain delayed game 7 of the 2016 world series , it’s hard not to view this as an ex post facto attribution to the Cubs success that night (has anyone ever heard of of a rousing speech given during a major loss?). Not getting Heyward hurt in the short term as the 2016 team got so desperate for CF production that it moved noted non CF Trea Turner to the spot for a season, keeping entrenched SS Danny “strikeout king” Espinosa in the lineup far longer than he had any right to be . Long term though, the team was able to acquire Adam Eaton, who fluke injury notwithstanding looked to be a sparkplug, and eventually Michael Taylor developed into a better hitter and defender. With Robles and Soto in the wings( unless Soto gets traded before I post this) the team is in remarkably better OF shape with the acquisitions it made as a  result of NOT getting Heyward.

2) 2016: Offering Marc Melancon 4 years/52 million

Man , I remember how getting Marc Melancon felt like it had changed the team. Even though the 2016 Nationals didn’t have that many blown saves, incumbent Jonathan Papelbon was not making anything look easy, to the point the team started pulling him three batters into  save opportunities because he just looked so damn bad. This led to another of the seemingly annual efforts to add a closer, with the winner being Pittsburgh rental Marc Melancon. It felt like a damned revelation. The 9th inning looked easy and crisp, no more saves with 30 pitches, 2 men on and a home run allowed. While the team failed in the postseason again, Melancon was solid, including 2 impressive innings of relief in game 5. The Nats, desperately not wanting to have to go through a repeat of not having a closer, offered Melancon what would have been the richest contract for a reliever in MLB history, that is until the San Francisco Giants offered him the largest contract and then some. While the Nats certainly suffered immensely the first 100 days of 2017, Melancon in San Francisco has been a disaster. He set the tone by blowing the save opening day, saw his ERA shoot from 1.64 to 4.65 and got shut down over a series of injuries. The Nats eventually got their hands on Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson for a combined  annual salary (plus some prospects) that is roughly equal to Marc Melancon’s total salary.

1)2014/15: Trying to keep the 2012 Core together

Again, another offer that makes perfect sense at the time. In 2014 J-Zimm was part of the teams strong pitching core and after a no hitter followed by an 8.2 inning playoff start that got screwed by a bad call (and Drew Storen being Drew Storen) there were quite a few voices that argued that perhaps he was the ace of the team and not Stephen Strasburg, who while brilliant had a history of injuries and  inconsistency. Heading into a 2015 the team new that the corp that had led it out of the wilderness was going to be retooled and made it a goal to lock up some of that good ole homegrown talent. Zim was offered 105 million over 5 years, an offer that was probably below what he was worth at the time but mostly in the realm of reasonable home team discount. According to the Washington Post Zimmerman’s agent countered with a deal that was so high the team not only said no, they instead decided that maybe not signing him was a better move. Holy shit were they right , Zimmerman was okay(ish) only in 2015   and signed with Detroit for roughly what the Nats offered him.  He has been bad. Really bad. To the point that Detroit can’t even get rid of him, possibly not even if they offered to pay nearly all of his salary, probably because constantly needing nerve block injections in the neck  isn’t particularly confidence inspiring.

Ian Desmond was the other member of the teams corp and arguably the most important given his ability to slug and play Shortstop. He was so important the team offered him 107 million with two years before he even qualified for free agency. Desmond turned the deal down, and maybe not unreasonably so since comparable players like Elvis Andrus were getting absurd amounts of cash to sign long term extensions at SS. As it turns out, the Nats got very lucky as  during his walk year Desmond collapsed in seemingly every way, he led the National League in errors, his on base percentage and hitting became pretty bad. While I’m broadly skeptical of most defensive metrics, every single team in the league apparently looked at Desmond that offseason and essentially decided that “nope this dude cannot be trusted at SS”. Since leaving Washington, Desmond has played CF, LF and 1B and had has bat slightly recover but hasn’t been the player he was at his peak.

The end result of these moves? The Nats signed Max Scherzer in order to have an option to replace Zimmerman and made a trade for then minor leaguers Trea Turner and Joe Ross, who even after injury riddled 2017 seasons look to be franchise mainstays, with Turner having an incredible set of tools that could become absurdly deadly if he manages to figure out how to take a walk or hit lefties. It’s because re signing these players that the lack

Honorable Mentions

Trying to trade for Aroldis Chapman on multiple occasions- I have no sympathy for perpetrators of domestic violence.

Making a huge offer on Yoenis Cespedes in 2015 and 2016 -Cespedes bat has played well, but those injuries are a red flag, with the obvious counter being that the Nats may have managed his health better than injury joke that was the 2017 Mets.

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