Should the Nationals 2014 Season be Viewed as a Failure

After losing in the first round of the playoffs the Los Angeles Dodgers went out and hired Andrew Friedman to be their team president and are still searching for a GM. This is the reaction of a team that views not winning in the post-season to be a failure. The Nationals made no such move and shouldn’t. There are some that have said Matt Williams should be done after this season and if Mike Rizzo can’t take the Nationals deep into the post-season in 2015 then perhaps he should be gone as well. A 96 win season should never be viewed as a failure.

The playoffs are a funky thing. The Los Angeles Angels got swept by the Royals in the first round of the playoffs and the Royals are currently on an eight game post-season winning streak. The Royals are a good team, but even bad teams can get hot. The Washington Nationals suffered sweeps at the hands of the under .500 Atlanta Braves and Miami Marlins this season. Any team can sweep another team in a short series. A cold good team meets a hot bad team and there is a recipe for a sweep. It is less likely in the playoffs as teams get to line up their pitching staffs but it still happens where a lesser team wins in dominating fashion because baseball is not a game made for small sample sizes.

 The Oakland A’s are well known for finding ways to win without money and Billy Beane has built roster after roster that has found its way to the post-season, but post-season success has continued to allude the Oakland A’s. This has more to do with the nature of the playoffs than anything that Billy Beane has done wrong. Mike Rizzo built a roster that won 96 games, the NL East, and lost in four games to the San Francisco Giants. Losing in such a way in the post-season doesn’t wash away all the other accomplishments and viewing it as such can only lead to disaster.

The goal for every off-season should be to build a 90 win team. There are many roads the Nationals could take to that goal this off-season and in house projections are going to have a lot to say about how the roster is constructed. There are five players that will be entering the last year of their current contracts: Denard Span, Tyler Clippard, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, and Ian Desmond. There is a case to be made for trading any of them, but keep in mind the Nationals are also trying to win in 2015.

Sure the Nationals could trade Ian Desmond for some good prospects that could help the team in 2016 or 2017 but the Nationals are already short one middle infielder in a market not exactly ripe with middle infield talent so trading Desmond and facing the possibility of an Espinosa/Frandsen double play combo doesn’t make a lot of sense if winning in 2015 is still a goal. Think about it in the terms of WAR. Desmond is likely to garner the Nationals between four to five wins and Frandsen is a replacement level player. That is trading away a full four to five wins for the possibility of prospects that could be worth one or two wins in 2016 or 2017. That just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense especially when Desmond will turn down the qualifying offer and the Nats will get a first round pick of their choosing.

Applying the same type of reasoning to Denard Span yields different results, but mainly because the Nationals have his replacement and a couple of back-up plans in house. Span has a $9 million option that the Nationals would be dimwits to not pick up. Span is also coming off his best season since 2009 and the defensive metrics all point to his defense starting to slip. Given that Denard Span plays a valuable position at a high level and is affordable he should net a decent prospect or two in return. Span will likely see some regression in 2015 and if his defense continues its downward trend then he’ll be closer to a 3.0 fWAR player than the 3.4 or 3.8 he’s had in his two seasons with the Nationals.

With it also being difficult to be a replacement level center fielder with BJ Upton with average defense and well below average offense still earning 0.4 fWAR in 2014 it isn’t out of the realm of possibilities to expect Michael Taylor or Steven Souza Jr. to be able to earn the Nationals one win between them. This means the Nationals would be trading away two wins from the 2015 roster in order to get a prospect that could contribute that many as soon as 2016 until free agency six or seven years after that. Trading Span is minimal risk for a minimal reward whereas trading Desmond is massive risk for a minimal reward. In other words trading two wins from the 2015 roster for the possibility of a two win player for the next six or seven seasons is worth it whereas trading four to five wins for the possibility of the same is not.

The General Managers job is to manage risks. Every deal comes with an upside and a downside and in trading Span the downside is the Nats lose two wins from the 2015 roster and end up with nothing in return. The upside is that Michael Taylor continues his power display and plays defense the way the scouts say he can and the Nats have an equal to above replacement in center field and the prospect they get back for Span makes it to the majors and contributes a win or two for six or seven seasons.

It is these types of smaller minimal risk moves a team makes when they don’t view 90 wins and a division title as a failure because of a bad five game series in October. Panic would involve trading Desmond because the draft pick isn’t enough and the team needs prospects for another run in 2016 forfeiting 2015 and if that is the move they might as well trade Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister and if 2015 is forfeit then why not 2016 as well and trade Strasburg. Think of all the prospects they’d get back for the big run in 2017. The Marlins have won two World Series in this fashion, but for all other seasons have been the Marlins.

Quiet small moves aimed at 90 wins every season is why the Cardinals and Giants are always in the NLCS. A massive overhaul is for organizations that view the post-season as different, and that teams can be built for October. The most important thing about October is getting there, and if the Nationals engage in a fire sale then they won’t get there in 2015 and if the prospects they get back don’t work out then they could end up looking more like the 2008 or 2009 Nationals and memories of a good regular season and disappointing post-season will become a distant and sweet memory.


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One comment

  1. The trade scenarios mentioned are all for prospects, but trades for equal (or near equal) players at less scarce positions with more time under team control could garner the team equal return in 2015 and continue that value beyond. Just as a for instance, trading Desmond for a 3rd baseman with 2 years of control left would move the IF “hole” to SS where someone like a (Right Hand Only) Espinosa (or likely a platoon of glove 1st SSs – someone has to bat 8th, right?) could provide comparable value to most 2B options being mentioned and would allow for a higher offensive output from the combination of the new 3B & Rendon at 2B.

    A scenario for CF is also possible, with Werth taking over leadoff duties Span spot in the order could be filled internally and his trade used to upgrade at 2B (or 3rd as above) or even at 1B with Harper playing CF and Zim in LF.

    My point is there are lots of options for Rizzo to explore than don’t fall under the “ride it out” plan or a forced rebuild.

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