The Washington Nationals of the 2010s are a great baseball team. They have been a great baseball team since the beginning of the Bryce Harper Era in 2012. In four of the six seasons Harper has played in the majors, the Nationals have made the playoffs. This greatness, however, has not necessarily translated in the playoffs: every one of those seasons they lost in the National League Division Series, including three game 5 losses.

At the end of the 2017 season, our friend Sam Miller asked whether the Nationals had a successful season.  Sam said “Good season, I think,” because “Arguably, no season that ends with the manager getting fired should be deemed a happy one. Arguably, though, no season that ends with a romp to the division title should be deemed an unhappy one.” 

In a way, this is a watershed year for the team: This is Bryce Harper’s last season under contract with the Nationals. Of course, the team could re-sign him (to a number likely nearing or exceeding $500 million guaranteed), but Scott Boras would never let a client of Harper’s magnitude forego free agency, and with the Yankees, Dodgers, and Cubs all presumably in play for the MVP right fielder, it will require going deep into the wallet and into the future to sign him. This is also rookie manager Dave Martinez’s one shot to make the most out of Harper’s tenure before the period of uncertainty hits, while they also have a fairly clear path to the division title. There’s a lot going on here in Washington.

Looking out on the season in February, this is a good opportunity to lay out what success looks like for the Nationals heading into 2018. To do this, we’re going to use the Success Spectrum, a toolkit used by businesses, nonprofits, and campaigns to create a “more nuanced and specific sense of what you’re trying to accomplish,” and present different scenarios for success and failure. 

In a world of binary success, one might say the Nationals are in a World Series Or Bust year – if they fail to Win The Whole Damn Thing, the whole season is a failure. In this scenario they’d have squandered Harper’s pre-free agency years with nothing to show for it, and the Expos/Nationals franchise will move higher up in discussions of franchise championship droughts and become increasingly noticeable in the list of teams that have “never won.” However, on the Success Spectrum, for a team like the Nationals, there are degrees of success, and certain things more within the team’s control than others. Here’s the 2018 Nationals through the lens of the Success Spectrum.

Minimum success: Win the division.

The Nationals have a divisional super-team right now: in 2017 they racked up 97 wins, had 5 players that received MVP votes,  had 3 receive Cy Young votes, and every one of those players will be returning for next season. Most of the offseason tinkering has been around the margins: after losing Jayson Werth and Matt Albers to free agency (much to the chagrin of those at the intersection of Washington Nationals and Effectively Wild fandom), they rounded out the roster with free agents Matt Adams and Howie Kendrick to bolster the bench, and re-signed Brandon Kintzler to round out what has become a solid bullpen. Adam Eaton is, functionally, the team’s Big Offseason Addition, after an April injury limited him to 23 games in 2017.

Meanwhile, the Nationals remain significantly ahead of the nearest competition – the Mets have tinkered but not made any significant additions to a team that fell off a cliff after its 2015-16 peak; the Phillies and Braves are relying heavily on prospects to take big steps forward but probably aren’t looking to contend in 2018 (though the Phillies have made a slight financial investment in the next 3 years with Carlos Santana); and the Marlins, well, lol.

The Nationals are built so that they could absorb a number of setbacks (injuries, regression, managerial blunders) and still win the division. This is a minimum level of success for a team that has done just this in four of the last six seasons, and something largely within the control of the players, coaches, and front office.

Target success: Win a playoff series.

The Target Success is something that you’re hoping will happen. This is hard, but you can do it. Certainly the Washington Nationals CAN win a playoff series, and they’re hoping to do so.

We think of the playoffs as a crapshoot, and in many ways that’s what it is since the “secret sauce” to winning in October seems to change every year (Is it contact? Speed? A power bullpen? Finding your own Charlie Morton? Does Good Pitching actually beat Good Hitting?). The Nationals are betting that their “secret sauce” is the manager, and that Dave Martinez has something that Dusty Baker, Matt Williams, and Davey Johnson didn’t.

Maybe it’s possible to manage your way to a playoff series win, and maybe Dave Martinez has some of that Joe Maddon pseudo-hippie-wisdom to pass on to Washington. Maybe Martinez will be able to maintain a more cohesive clubhouse throughout the season and make the right tactical decisions in a short playoff series. (Or, maybe he won’t NEED to make the right decisions, but he’ll just happen to be there when the pickoff throw comes a quarter-second too late instead of a quarter-second too early.)

The reason this goes in this section is because it’s the only thing that really can go in this section. The manager is the only major change made to the Nationals for 2018 – there’s not a drastic change in roster construction, and no major free agent or trade additions. You’re not expecting other-worldly progression from veteran players who have already established a reasonable range of production. There’s a new coaching staff, and maybe they’ll push the right buttons and win a playoff series this time around.

Epic success: Win Everything.

This section started off only as “win the World Series,” which any team would probably take as an “Epic Success” because it’s so difficult to do and seems so out of your control. Plus, with the Nationals’ track record, why hope for too much? But that’s not the point of Epic Success, which is supposed to be “Success Beyond Your Wildest Imagination.” So, that’s more than “win the World Series.” What’s the next level? Win EVERYTHING.

  • World Series Champions
  • Regular season: 110 – 54
  • MVP: Bryce Harper
  • Cy Young: Max Scherzer (or Stephen Strasburg. Spread the wealth, right Max?)
  • Rookie of the Year: Victor Robles (Where does he find at-bats? Who knows! Work backwards from here)
  • Manager of the Year: Dave Martinez
  • Gold Gloves: Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, Michael Taylor, Adam Eaton, and Eaton wins the Platinum Glove
  • Silver Sluggers: Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy, Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer
  • 81 regular season sellouts at Nationals Park
  • #Natitude is trending in Washington DC even throughout midterm election season
  • Teddy Roosevelt wins 10 presidential races (hey, I can dream)
  • Bryce Harper re-signs during the season for something like $300 million (haha)

Failure: Miss the playoffs.

Going from the extreme high to the extreme low. The isn’t that hard to visualize, since it has happened before: the 2015 Washington Nationals exemplified the “failure” section of the Success Spectrum.

Regression, injuries, bullpen issues, clubhouse strife (generally), and Jonathan Papelbon (more specifically) came together to take a team projected to win 95 games and make them miss the playoffs entirely, finishing 83-79.

The 2018 Nationals certainly could fail to make the playoffs. Strasburg could get injured for an extended period. Scherzer is entering his age 33 season and could start to stumble. Harper could be closer to 3 WAR instead of 8 WAR. Michael Taylor could regress. The entire infield could produce something closer to 4 WAR instead of 12 WAR as they’re projected in ZiPS. The bullpen could implode, as bullpens do sometimes. Martinez might not get a hold of the clubhouse. Maybe the Mets figure it out, or the Phillies/Braves take that next step. Some combination of these could happen that could lead to a disaster season.

Nobody wants this, it includes things that are, to varying degrees, out of the team’s control, and it ends pretty poorly for everyone. These things happen to teams that are supposed to be good from time to time, including the 2015 Nationals, and should be accounted for.

Three “True” Outcomes

Getting back to Sam Miller real quick to wrap it up – Sam went through baseball history to determine how each season would be remembered. Some blogs out there, such as Sox Machine, took the idea and applied it to individual teams. Who even knows how (or whether) this Nationals season will be remembered in 5 years or 10 years, but from the vantage point of February 2018, there appear to be three “true” outcomes for the Nationals this season:

  1. Washington makes Bryce Harper the highest paid player in baseball history
  2. Bryce Harper leaves the Nationals because someone else made him the highest paid player in baseball history
  3. Washington won the World Series (and flags fly forever so who cares what Harper does)

If the Nationals win the World Series, then that’s how it will be remembered, regardless of who is on the 2019 team. However, all wouldn’t be lost for the 2019 Nationals – outfielder Victor Robles already got Big League reps with the Nationals in 2017, and he enters 2018 a consensus top-10 prospect. Sure, the success spectrum would move (you’re replacing a Generational Talent peak player with an All Star peak player — someone who is still really good!), but considering the gap between the Nationals and the rest of the division, other teams will have to come somewhere close to their own Epic Successes in order to have a shot in 2019. The window on the Nats is by no means closed even if Harper signs somewhere else.

Lack of postseason success over a long period of time does beget uneasiness (I am a Cubs fan who was born before 2016, so this is a familiar feeling). But maybe, hopefully, this particular lack of postseason success won’t drive Nationals fans or observers to the World Series Or Bust perspective on success in 2018 and beyond. The window isn’t closing after this season. Let’s enjoy their continued success.

Prediction: 92 wins, National League East division winners

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