Since the Braves have decided not to field a team for the foreseeable future, I thought readers might enjoy another episode of our favorite soap opera, AS THE NATS TURN. When we last left our story:
The three-peating Nats had gone from a sure WS ring to a barely .500 team, while sporting one of the highest payrolls in the game
The Nats traded in the stretch for a clubhouse cancer closer who ended the season, in a scene that will be played forever and ever, world without end, his hands wrapped around the throat of the NL MVP and Nats’ Golden Child in the dugout (the Nats removed Papelbon’s jersey from display in the stadium stores in the middle of a game)
The Nats fired the feckless Matt Williams as manager, while retaining the equally feckless Mike Rizzo as GM
The cheapskate Lerners offered their first choice candidate as skipper, Bud Black (the pitching-savvy manager they need) a deal so insulting that he cut off negotiations with them
The Nats then hired journeyman manager Dusty Baker, who was quite available, having been freed of his duties in every previous job held
The Nats spent the winter chasing a number of high-to-mid-range free agents, virtually all of whom decided to sign elsewhere
Their Golden Boy MVP is openly rumored to be gone to the Yankees as soon as he hits free agency in 2018.
So what has transpired since then? Same old same old. The Nationals have put their brogans on the stand, and the Washington toady sportswriters are falling over each other to get in line to lick. As Kevin Bacon screamed in Animal House, “ALL IS WELL!” Two prominent examples:
First, Adam Kilgore posted this article, the thesis of which is that Scott Boras, Supergenius, invented in 2009 the “tanking” strategy that the Nats have deployed to perfection and has been or is being widely imitated by such teams as the Phillies, Astros, and our Braves, among others. The Nats’ recent success, Kilgore asserts, is directly caused by their adoption of this groundbreaking Boras stratagem, bringing them Harper and Strasburg, who are the primary engines of the Nats’ juggernaut.
This story had to have been spoon-fed by Boras’s people. In an effort to pretend that this is some sort of Moneyball New Age thinking, Kilgore employs the tried and true journalistic practice of adopting a conclusion, juggling the data to support the conclusion, and ignoring all facts that inconveniently disprove the conclusion. A few problems with his thesis:
Anyone over the age of 30 who has followed sports even sporadically knows Scott Boras didn’t invent tanking, and the idea that he did, or this is some sort of atom-splitting event in GM strategy, is embarrassing to whoever asserts it. Tanking for draft picks has been going on for as long there have been draft picks in any sport. Tanking was such a problem in the NBA that the NBA draft lottery was expressly created to decrease the reward for tanking. Thirty years ago.
The Lerners didn’t need any advice on tanking; their natural stinginess had already tanked the team. They took over a 91-loss team in 2006 in midseason. They immediately cut the payroll in half to $37 million and lost 89, then lost 102 in 2008. According to Kilgore, Boras’s brilliant epiphany of tanking was in conjunction with the Nats’ pursuit of Boras client Mark Teixiera, i.e., the winter before the 2009 season when Tex was a free agent. The Lerners were well versed in tanking by then.
Getting Strasburg and Harper as draft picks wasn’t the reason for the Nats’ success, such as it is. The Nats won the division twice, in 2012 and 2014. In 2012, Strasburg was their 3d best starter (behind JZimmerman and Gonzalez); in 2014, their 4th best (Fister, JZim, Roark). Before last season, the word “bust” was being openly used in DC (unfairly perhaps, but he was viewed as good/inconsistent but not remotely justifying the hype as the No. 1 pick overall). Same with Harper. Before Harper’s monster season last year, his career high in RBI was 59. Heck, he only had 350 ABs in 2014. Yes, he had a monster 2015, which resulted in the Nats barely finishing above .500. Rather, the guys who played key roles in those division winning years were either free agent acquisitions (Span,Werth, Laroche, Fister) or guys who were drafted before the Lerners even took over (RZimmerman, Desmond) or right after they took over (JZimmerman). Not Harper and Strasburg, who just happened to be Boras clients, though.
Their top prospect, Lucas Giolito, considered the top pitching prospect in all of baseball, wasn’t acquired by tanking, but by good scouting and some luck – he was drafted No. 16 after a .500 season by the Nats in 2011.
Other than that, it’s pretty much true.
Tom Boswell, probably the king of the Nats-colored glasses, posted this gem of wishcasting. Boswell claims that the guy who choked Harper in the dugout on national television is actually genuinely contrite about the episode and may very well be a team leader now. Meanwhile, even if the Nats clubhouse is a tinderbox of jerks and bad feelings, Dusty Baker is just the man for the job, as he “got MVP years from both Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent, who fought and hated each other through six successful years with Dusty.” “Just have more fun” is Dusty’s mantra, allegedly.
A few problems, Boz:
Papelbon isn’t sorry. When the Nats suspended him for four games after the Choke, he immediately filed a grievance to have the suspension (i.e., the lost pay for those games) revoked. And he hasn’t withdrawn it.
Papelbon is as far away from a clubhouse leader as possibly exists in MLB, and Boswell’s attempt to pass off this tripe and expect us to eat it is simply astounding. This is the guy who flipped off his own fans in Philly and spent most of the season openly agitating for a trade. The Phillies couldn’t wait to unload him.
The way Dusty Baker “handled” Barry Bonds was to let him do whatever the hell he wanted to, bringing his personal drug dealer, personal videographer, personal trainer, personal masseur etc. into the clubhouse, having four lockers and his own personal recliner and flatscreen, etc. As a result, the entire Giants team hated his guts, leading to the famous non-celebration of Bonds’ 500th HR, when not a single Giant would come out of the dugout to greet him. Baker’s inability to control the clubhouse led to the Giants’ letting him go after the 2002 season. He went to Chicago, where his inability to control the clubhouse, notably Sammy Sosa, led to the Cubs letting him go (Sosa more than once left the stadium in the middle of a game). Saying Baker is the man for the job because of his “experience” dealing with clubhouse cancers like Bonds and Sosa is like giving the captain of the Titanic command of a vessel going to the North Pole because of his “experience” dealing with icebergs. This is going to be a poopshow.
Dusty didn’t play a role in milking MVP years from Bonds and Kent; no manager does. If they did, they’d have to also take the blame for not getting MVP years from the same players. This is sportswriter horsepoop. Bonds got his MVP years from BALCO, and Dusty was merely along for the ride.
Dusty Baker’s history of failing to win important games is too long to list here. But the ‘93 Giants swoon (losing division to us by one game), 2002 WS loss (up 3 games to 2, with a 5-0 lead in Game Six), 2003 NLCS loss (up 3-1, lost three in a row), and 2012 Reds swoon (lost last six RS games, then WC game) are on his resume.
The last thing the Nats need is “to have more fun.” One of the reasons they flopped so badly last year was that they spent far more time clowning around than playing crisp, fundamental baseball. There was little accountability or consequences under Matt Williams’s tenure for making boneheaded mistakes, which unsurprisingly flourished as a result. Most of the Fun Without Fundamentals Bunch (Gio Gonzalez, YEscobar, Werth, Harper) are back, and a good chewing out is what they could use, not “more fun.”
Again, other than that, it’s pretty much true.
There is often a positive “new manager” effect, which is due perhaps as much to relief over the escape from the doubt and turmoil from the old regime as to any earthshaking changes the new guy brings. It could happen with Baker too. But those effects are generally short-lived. I fully expect this season to continue the circus that is the Nats, particularly with the addition of the laissez-faire and generally clueless Dusty. It remains to be seen. But it might give some comic relief from a depressing season for Braves fans.