Being a Nationals fan has got to be tough. For the fourth time since 2012, Washington has finished the regular season with at least 95 wins. That makes them one of the more successful regular season teams in that span. They have not had a losing season since 2011, so one would think they would have at least won a playoff series by now right? Well, it’s not that simple for Washington apparently.
On Friday the Nationals fired Dusty Baker, making him the third Washington manager to be canned since 2013. What is interesting to note with the two other managers that have been fired (Davey Johnson and Matt Williams), is that each of those managers won the NL Manager of the Year while in Washington. Not only that, but they won the award the year before they each got fired.
Dusty Baker did not win Manager of the Year while in Washington, but that does not mean he should be used as a scapegoat for the Nationals’ failures.
Ownership is addressing the wrong issues
The only real issue with the managerial position in Washington is its lack of stability. After Dusty Baker was brought in after the 2015 season, Bryce Harper was ecstatic.
After two years, the front office doesn’t seem to think that this All-Star staff is cutting it. Which begs the question: What will? What manager is out there that will be able to change to the culture and play of Washington so much that it will help them win game 5 of the NLDS?
This is what it really comes down to. In 2012, 2016 and 2017, the Nationals got to game 5 of the NLDS. Only one win away on three occasions were the Nationals from winning their first playoff series in franchise history. They obviously have not been able to get it done though.
Washington has built one of the most solid rosters in all of baseball. It is difficult to point out a whole lot of issues at any position. Especially after management traded for some reliable relief pitchers during the summer. That is what makes it difficult for them to blame the players for the inability to follow through in the postseason.
Since 2012, the Nationals are second in the majors in regular season wins. The Los Angeles Dodgers are the one team ahead of them, and it is only by four wins. Thus, it is reasonable to say the Nationals have put together a solid team of players that know how to win. When it comes down to clutch time, the inability to move on in the postseason falls squarely on the shoulders of the players.
Dusty Baker managed under a microscope
By saying the Nationals played under a microscope, what is really meant is that Dusty Baker managed under a microscope. What he had to be thinking in the back of his head during every move in the postseason is whether or not the move would get him fired.
Ownership never necessarily were fans of Baker. Washington originally wanted Bud Black, but when that fell through they hired Dusty Baker. With him getting the Nationals to the postseason twice in two years, it is hard to believe this firing has much to do with performance. Baker probably thought his job was on the line from the moment he started.
Having managers worrying about their jobs at all times is not the way to run an organization. It can lead to impulsive decisions and make a manager do what they think ownership wants them to do.
The Nationals knew this was the year they needed to really prove themselves. They have one of the most well put together teams in baseball, and showed they were during the regular season. A 97-65 record and finishing 20 games in front of the second place in your division is nothing to be taken for granted.
Inability to come through in the clutch
Teams get defined by their postseason performance. In 2012, the Nationals were favored to beat the Cardinals in the NLDS. The series was pushed to five games where the Nationals had the home field. The Nationals had a 7-5 lead, and Drew Storen blew it in the ninth by giving up four runs and losing the game.
In 2016 the Nationals were pushed to another game 5 where they had home field advantage. Washington had a one-run advantage going into the seventh against the Dodgers, where they then exploded for four runs and eventually won the game 4-3. In that seventh inning, there were five pitchers and none of them faced more than two batters.
This year, the Nationals were down 2-1 to the Cubs. They fought back in order to force (wait for it) another game 5 in Washington. It was another hard-fought game, but the Nationals’ mental errors cost them.
Where the Nationals really got hurt was the defensively play of their catcher, Matt Wieters, who had two errors and a passed ball. He ultimately cost the Nationals three runs in a game where they scored eight.
The players themselves need to be held more accountable for their inability to come through when it matters.
What the Nationals can do
It is too late now, but what the Nationals need is stability at the managerial position. The constant coaching carousel in Washington makes it difficult for players to truly get behind their leader.
However, it seems unlikely for that to happen when their next manager (who is yet to be decided on) will probably be on their way out the door before the 2021 season.
Here is a bold statement: The Nationals should trade Bryce Harper. Now, that would never happen in a million years. However, what the front office should think about is what is going to happen this year.
Washington will probably not get the experienced manager they are looking for. If the past is any indication, they will reach the postseason again where they will lose it in the NLDS.
Bryce Harper is in a walk year, and is anticipating a massive haul for his services. Ten years, $400 million is not out of the question for Harper who will be 26 when he hits the market, and has already cemented himself as one of the best hitters in the league.
The Nationals won’t be able to give him that payload, and it doesn’t seem Harper is thrilled about staying in Washington. If the Nationals were to trade one year of Bryce Harper to another contending team, they could get players who could help out immediately as well as good prospects. Now, the chances of succeeding this one year with Harper are slimmer, but it would be much better for their future.
Harper is going to have his fourth manager since he joined the league in 2012. That has to be frustrating for any player. One would think that doesn’t bode well for his opinion on ownership. Especially considering they can’t manage to keep solid leadership in the clubhouse. It also gives off the impression that they don’t necessarily know what they are doing. Either way, Washington has a lot to think about this offseason.
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