My friend “John” loves baseball. He knows baseball. He played in college and has a brother who works in baseball.
A Yankees fan living in metropolitan D.C., John has been amused by the Nationals’ struggles since they earned their first playoff berth in 2012. He also suffers from an obnoxious case of I-told-you-so.
“You still think the Nats GM is good or is it the Lerners? LOL,” he texted on the eve of last month’s trade deadline, after Washington — this sounds familiar — lost two consecutive games to the lowly Miami Marlins.
“They are accursed,” he continued. “The curse of Strasburg.”
“Haha,” I texted back, preferring to avoid another knockdown battle over Washington’s version of “The Decision.”
But more and more, I wonder if John is onto something.
He railed when general manager Mike Rizzo shut down ace Stephen Strasburg as a precautionary measure six years ago, about three weeks before the playoffs began. Based on my totally unscientific measurements, about 90 percent of the national media blasted the move, too.
Earlier this year, we learned that a well-respected voice gave a thumbs down, despite defending the strategy publicly at the time. In his new book, “My Wild Ride in Baseball and Beyond,” manager Davey Johnson writes that he “adamantly disagreed” and the decision “was hard to swallow.”
“I felt we would have gone to the World Series with Strasburg in the rotation during the playoffs,” Johnson writes. “I really don’t know how the team doctors came to the conclusion to keep Stephen under a given number of 160 innings. That was their deal, not mine.”
Yours truly supported the move and still does, believing that Rizzo had Strasburg’s best interests at heart — which were synonymous with the franchise’s best interests long-term, not just 2012. But John said he saw something else at work and I think we’ve all detected it since then:
I don’t think it was a factor in taking the ball from Strasburg. But there’s no denying arrogance has taken root and given the Nationals something to choke on for six seasons and counting.
Johnson had a “World Series or bust” mantra in 2013. Bryce Harper asked, “Where’s my ring?” in 2015. After firing Dusty Baker for only winning back-to-back NL East titles and nothing further, owner Ted Lerner explained: “We have been very clear about our goals as an organization.”
Sure, every team’s goal is to win the World Series (though few expect that from a rookie manager). But the Nats have turned aspirations into expectations, which isn’t a good look.
The latest example was July 31, the deadline for non-waiver trades.
Sporting a losing record through two-thirds of the season, having shown no ability to go on a tear and get hot, the Nats stood pat. Despite having a multitude of desirable players to deal away for prospects in return, Rizzo doubled down on the squad that had less than a 50-50 chance of reaching the playoffs.
“I believe in this team,” Rizzo said.
Maybe that was just confidence. But it could’ve been arrogance, too
He ignored ample evidence that this isn’t Washington’s year. Maybe he had a cocky belief that the Nats ultimately would come around because 2018 was SUPPOSED to be their year. Everyone said so, including Sports Illustrated, which picked Washington to win the World Series.
But Rizzo’s belief wasn’t affirmed. The Nats played true to form (10-10) in the crucial 20-game stretch after the July trade deadline. Finally, prior to Tuesday’s game against Philadelphia — with the Phillies in town for a suddenly meaningless series — Rizzo surrendered. He traded three-time All-Star Daniel Murphy and first basemen-left fielder Matt Adams and weakened his .500 team.
“We feel that this was the best way to facilitate what we’re trying to do not only in 2018 and beyond,” he told reporters Tuesday. “We always have the one-, three-, five-year plan in place, and this helps expedite those plans.”
Spare us the notion that the deals did anything positive for 2018. The one-year plan has expired. This is another season in which the Nats won’t reach the playoffs, let alone advance past the first round. This postseason absence will be their third in six years.
Next year? Who knows? The Nats could be anywhere from fair to good to formidable. Rizzo has done a masterful job of massaging a team that’s won four of the last six NL East titles. The streak will end, but he’ll have significant pieces to build around in 2019, even if Bryce Harper doesn’t come back.
Rizzo loves to talk about the Nats’ window, how it isn’t close to being shut yet. My friend just laughs, as if that’s the beauty of their curse. The window can remain open indefinitely, but he says Rizzo’s Nats will remain doomed.
I say that would be cruel.
John calls it payback.
⦁ Deron Snyder writes his column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.
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