WASHINGTON — The Washington Nationals have missed out on a number of high-dollar free agents, based on reports throughout the offseason, Yoenis Cespedes being only the latest.
That long list of players to spurn the Nationals and sign elsewhere includes: Jason Heyward (Cubs), Ben Zobrist (Cubs), Cespedes (Mets), Justin Upton (Tigers), Darren O’Day (Orioles), Mike Leake (Cardinals).
Both Heyward and Zobrist took less money than the Nationals offered to play for the Cubs. According to James Wagner of The Post, the Nationals were never really close in the Zobrist sweepstakes because he “didn’t feel as comfortable in the Nationals clubhouse.”
Trade talks to acquire Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips also broke down after the Nationals reportedly failed to convince him to waive his no-trade clause as a 10/5 player. Reports from Jon Heyman indicated Phillips required an extension to approve the trade.
All of this to say there is a growing sense in baseball that Washington no longer seems to be the marquee free agent destination it once was.
Is this really a thing? Or has a series of unique circumstances helped derail their chances to add a big named free agent, while also sticking the club with a damaging narrative in the process?
These questions were at the heart of an MLB Network discussion between reporter Ken Rosenthal, and analysts Harold Reynolds and Matt Vasgersian, on Monday.
“When you look at them all individually, you can understand why each player might have made the decision that he did,” Rosenthal said.
“But the other thing you hear rumbling about in the industry is that players don’t want to go to Washington,” he said. “They perceive that clubhouse to be a less than happy and harmonious place and they feel that it’s just not a great situation right now.
“That said, that situation — if it is indeed as bad as players perceive — should change this year. Part of the problem last year was Matt Williams, no doubt about it. And part of the problem was the Nationals had too many guys in their walk years [Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Denard Span, Doug Fister], too many guys thinking about individual goals, perhaps, instead of team goals. And now, you have a new manager, one of the great unifiers in the game, Dusty Baker, and you also have a situation where [Stephen] Strasburg is really the only major free agent they have at the end of this season.”
“So things should improve, but this is a team with strong personalities, and there are players who perceive them to be — again — not the best group in terms of cohesion, a place where a lot of players seemingly do not want to go,” he continued. “Whether their reasons are understandable or not, they’re making that decisions time and time again.”
It would be wrong to say this offseason has been a total net loss for the Nats. They were able to successfully sign former Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy, and pulled off a trade which sent Drew Storen to Toronto for outfielder Ben Revere. They also traded Yunel Escobar to Anaheim, receiving hard-throwing right hander Trevor Gott, and minor leaguer Michael Brady, in return. Also consider the addition of Stephen Drew and a slew of bullpen arms.
But there could be another component at play here in determining why they’ve had such trouble signing free agents they’ve targeted.
“Ken, I’ve got to ask you. I mean it’s like the elephant in the room,” Reynolds said. “Almost all these guys are represented by the same agent, too. How much effect does that have that [Scott] Boras represents so many players on this team?”
Boras represents ten players currently on the Nationals’ 40-man roster: Max Scherzer, Jayson Werth, Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Stephen Drew, Oliver Perez, Danny Espinosa, Anthony Rendon and Brian Goodwin.
“That’s a possible factor, Harold,” said Rosenthal. “And I did hear that from one agent of another player this week, that one aspect of this that made him reluctant was the fact that it is Team Boras in the perception of so many.”
“But at the same time, all these issues could go away if Dusty Baker helps make them go away and they play better,” he said. “One of the problems of course last year, they didn’t play very well, so these things came to the surface. The idea that this is Team Toxic, as well as Team Boras; that idea is out there. And the Nationals can dispute it all they want, but they’ve struck out a few times here.”
“And, again, while the individuals can all be saying this is a specific reason in each case, when you add it all up, you start to wonder,” he said.
“Yeah, 10 Boras clients on that roster,” Vasgersian noted. “That’s interesting food for thought. I, like you, think that might be a little unfair, because it is a different group this year, it’s a different manager, under new management hanging proudly in D.C.”