One of the best teams in baseball, a five-game lead in the NL East on June 17, more exciting walk-off wins than most teams have in an entire season, how could anyone complain about the 2016 Nationals at this point? Stick around and I’ll tell you.
Complaining about a first-place team might come off as ungrateful nitpicking in another town, but in D.C. it is a necessary evil — a survival tactic to be able to say “I told you so” when the wheels fall off. Great regular seasons, even record-setting ones, mean nothing here. Perhaps you recall the 2012 Nationals. They won 98 games and seemed like a team of destiny, but ended up losing in the first round when their bats went cold and their bullpen crumbled against St. Louis. Maybe the 2014 Nationals are fresher in your memory. That squad won 96 games, but also failed to escape the Wild Card round of the playoffs, losing to the San Francisco Giants in four games and mustering nine runs for the entire series.
Playoff failure in D.C. is not unique to baseball — the 2016 Capitals thought they could ride a dominant regular season roster to Stanley Cup glory. Elsewhere the middling Penguins made moves at the trade deadline to build a team primed for playoff-style hockey. We know how that one played out. Lesson learned — don’t rest on your laurels. If the Nationals are serious about a championship run in 2016, Mike Rizzo needs to get busy. Improvements are needed. Here are five suggested upgrades:
1. A real closer
To win the pennant, you need contributions from everyone on the roster. With that said, no unit on the team increases in importance as much as the bullpen between the regular and postseason. Just ask Drew Storen. Playoff games are tight and the pressure is high in any situation, let alone late in the game. Right now, there is not a player on this roster that we can trust to hold a one-run lead in the ninth inning.
If Papelbon is our closer in October, he will destroy us. If the D.C. Strangler were a video game player, he would have a 99 rating in Confidence and a 24 in Skill. Papelbon’s swing-and-miss pitches are few and far between, he is no longer capable of blowing away professional hitters. Because of his confidence, I’m hopeful the Nats are able to retain him as a set-up man for the second half of the season, but his ego makes that unlikely and if he has to be packaged as part of a deal to bring in a real closer, no one will shed a tear.
While Papelbon enjoys his DL reprieve, the Nats’ bullpen has been bad enough that people actually miss him. Shawn Kelley has been less than stellar in his brief stint as closer and he, with his six career saves, is unlikely to run away with the job.
Felipe Rivero and his upper 90s fastballs looked like the closer-to-be a month ago, but overuse and a lapse in confidence have crushed him in the pecking order and he’ll have to significantly lower his team-high 5.34 ERA before he gets another shot at the gig.
Oliver Perez blew a save before he could lock one down. Sammy Solis is, well, Sammy Solis — great numbers this season, but not exactly an intimidating presence on the mound.
Yusmeiro Petit is far too valuable in long relief to utilize as the team’s closer.
That leaves Blake “one-year-away” Treinen, Matt Belisle, and some spare parts as other potential options.
The good news is that talented closers are reportedly available (e.g. Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman, Fernando Rodney); the bad news is that Rizzo hates trading away farm talent which makes dealing for a closer seem unlikely unless Papelbon’s injury is far worse than advertised. For Mike Rizzo, it’s never about winning this year, it’s about winning the next year and the one after that, but eventually the championship window begins to close and desperation becomes part of the equation. Sticking with Papelbon would be doubling down on last season’s poor decision. Make it right, Mike. Go get Chapman. If the Nationals fail to address their biggest weakness, nothing else on this list matters.
2. Another powerful bat
See for example, Cespedes, Mets, 2015. From flirting with the playoffs, to playing for the World Series with one transaction — that is what Yoenis Cespedes did for the Mets late last season.
The 2016 Nats are averaging 4.61 runs per game thru 66 games this season, good for 11th in the league. In 2014, the Nats finished 9th in runs, and the 2012 team finished 10th. We’re nothing if not consistent. Unfortunately, when playoff time comes, the Nats’ bats go cold. Why would this season be any different? Bryce Harper will get on base, because that’s what he does, but will Daniel Murphy be able to replicate his Ruthian 2015 postseason numbers? Will Jayson Werth still have anything left in the tank? Will Ryan Zimmerman transform back into Mr. Walk-Off from his current title of Mr. Left-On? Will the Buffalo still be in All-Star form? If all of those things happen, then maybe the Nats won’t need extra help, but these are the same names we have counted on for the past two postseason efforts and each time we have been let down. What’s that they say about doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results?
3. A spark
Alas, a need that can be addressed by someone who is already a part of this team.
Danny Espinosa has been superhuman of late, but his contributions will be coming from the bench by August. Trea Turner’s coronation is near and, if timed correctly, could be the spark that puts this team over the top. With Turner creating havoc on the bases, everyone in the lineup gains an advantage in the batter’s box. The Nats say they want Turner’s defense to improve before he becomes a full-time member of the major league squad, but it’s inconceivable that he will not be a vital part of this team’s postseason plans.
If you’re an Espinosa loyalist who would hate to see a young speedster take his place, perhaps the number one prospect in baseball will float your boat. While Turner’s name has generated more fanfare, the most valuable asset the Nats have in reserve might be another arm in the rotation. Should any starting pitcher falter, Lucas Giolito could be the September call-up with the biggest impact. The jump from Double-A ball to playing for a title contender is monumental, but Giolito has succeeded at every level to this point and allowing two earned runs or fewer in all but one of his 13 starts this season is impossible to ignore.
Someone will need to ignite this team to play their best ball down the stretch. That is what Dusty Baker was brought here to do. It will be his call to decide whether the team needs a 22-year-old (Turner), or a 21-year-old (Giolito) to provide a spark. Or maybe he’ll lean on his trusty 23-year-old veteran, who always plays like a human stick of dynamite in the fall.
4. Production from the leadoff spot
To say that Ben Revere got off to a slow start is an understatement. His Opening Day oblique injury kept him out of the lineup until May, and it took him until June 10 to get his average above .200. While he was out, Michael Taylor did everything he could to show that he wasn’t ready for primetime. Revere is playing better of late, but this team will be severely handicapped if our 9th-place hitters continue to outhit our leadoff guys.
Come October, it is unlikely that we will blow teams away with our power. Besides dominant starting pitching and a solid defense, it is going to take small ball — base stealing, and some ugliness, to win the games we have lost in the past. A huge part of our offense will rely on the leadoff hitter getting on base so that teams must pitch to Harper and Murphy. Whether the answer is Turner, Rendon, Werth, Revere, or a new addition, the situation needs to be resolved before they hang the bunting at Nats Park.
5. Championship urgency from the veterans, or as Tim Hudson would say, “What do you have between your legs?”
Youth is lovely, but you can never win a championship in baseball without a few old, salty fellas steering the ship. Dusty Baker is in his 21st year as a Major League manager — he has one pennant. The last time Jayson Werth won a championship, he barely had a goatee. Max Scherzer pitched in the World Series once in 2012, but fell short of a championship. Ryan Zimmerman is the longest-tenured National, and he’s never seen the team earn a seven-game series. The Nats are a championship-hungry bunch, playing in a championship-starved city — if they earn a spot in the postseason this year, it must come with the urgency that the championship window won’t stay open forever.
Pardon me if I can’t just sit back and enjoy the ride of an amazing baseball season. The championship drought in this city makes me want to vomit. My fond memories of the 2012 and 2014 regular seasons turned to dust the moment the team was eliminated. Winning in the regular season makes it fun to go to the ballpark, eat some hot dogs and high-five your friends. Winning in the postseason would make everything this team has done a part of baseball history — no hot dog has ever tasted that good.
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