Analysis

For 2019 Washington Nationals, it’s now or never



Anthony Rendon is in his seventh season with Nationals and the third baseman can become a free agent after the 2019 season. (Keith Allison)

The Washington Nationals, who play host to the Phillies in a four-game series this week, have spent the better part of the last seven seasons dominating the National League East Division standings.

In 2012, the Nationals ended the Phillies five-year grip on the division by capturing the franchise’ first-ever NL East crown. Their direct predecessors, the Montreal Expos, were considered to have finished in first place back in 1994, but that was the strike-ended season that was never completed.

From 2012-18, the Nationals registered a winning season each year. They captured division titles four times in that span: 2012, 2014, and 2016-17. In each of the other three years, the Nats finished in second place.

The club was always in the hunt for a playoff berth until suddenly falling into a deep funk from June 10 through September 6. They struggled all summer at 32-46 during that stretch, falling from first place to finish 10 back of the Atlanta Braves in the east and nine games out of a Wildcard.

In the off-season, the Nationals lost the player who had arguably become the face of the franchise over those seven seasons. Bryce Harper left the team at age 26 to sign as a free agent with the rival Phillies.

The Nationals brain trust believed that it could cover for the loss of Harper. They had a pair of exciting young Dominican outfielders ready to make an impact on an everyday basis in now 20-year-old Juan Soto, who was the runner-up for the 2018 NL Rookie of the Year Award, and 22-year-old Victor Robles.

But when the season opened, things didn’t go as planned in our nation’s capital. Injuries and inconsistent play resulted in a horrendous first two months. The Nationals woke up on Friday, May 24 back home after getting swept in four games at Citi Field by the division-rival New York Mets. They were a disheartening 19-31, and were already 10 games off the pace in the NL East.

Since that time, the Nationals have begun to regain some of their lost mojo. They have fashioned a 14-7 record over the last three weeks, and though still 8.5 out in the division, the Nationals are now just six games behind the Phillies in the race for the final NL Wildcard spot. Of course, there are also five other teams ahead of them in chasing that spot.

If the Nationals cannot continue to win consistently and make a serious move up in the standings, that brain trust is going to have a couple of extremely difficult decisions to make a month from now as the August 1 MLB trade deadline approaches. Those decisions involved two key players, their third baseman and their top starting pitcher.

Third baseman Anthony Rendon has been, as Harper was before him, a career Nationals player. Like Harper, he was a first round draft pick, taken by Washington at sixth overall in the 2011 MLB Draft. That was right after the club had made Stephen Strasburg and Harper the top overall pick in the two previous drafts.

He turned 29-years-old at the start of this month, and is leading the team in virtually every offensive category. But also, like Harper last year, Rendon is about to become a free agent at the conclusion of this current season. Though both sides have said that they were willing to remain open to contract discussions as they season went along, there are no signs that the team is making any progress in getting him to agree to forego his first shot at free agency and re-up with a contract extension.

If you want to go ahead and agree that Nolan Arenado is the best third baseman in the NL today, then you had best understand that Rendon is clearly second in that ranking. If it weren’t for the Rockies outstanding third sacker, Rendon would certainly have a handful of Gold Glove Awards in his trophy case.

Arenado just signed a seven-year, $260 million deal with Colorado at age 28 years. Already making nearly $19 million for this 2019 season, Rendon is likely going to be looking for that same seven-year package for something at or above the $200 million total mark.

While owner Ted Lerner and general manager Mike Rizzo contemplate how high they are willing to go on a Rendon deal, if he even wants to stay, that will not be the only contract consideration they will have on their minds as the trade deadline approaches.

Ace right-hander Max Scherzer, arguably the best right-handed starting pitcher in the game today and winner of three Cy Young Awards, can exercise his “10-and-5 rights” after this season. That would lock the Nationals into his contract, which call for him to be paid move than $42 million in each of the next two seasons as he turns ages 35 and 36 years of age.

Scherzer is having yet another great season this year. His 2.27 FIP mark is the best in baseball. His K/9 are actually up a tick, while his BB/9 are down. He has allowed just 87 hits over 99.1 innings across 15 starts with a phenomenal 136/20 K:BB.

So why would Washington even think of unloading Scherzer at the deadline this year? It would be the combination of those 10-and-5 rights, which would mean that he could veto any trade after this season, combined with his being owed $84 million for two more years as he continues to age.

If the Nationals are unable to climb back into the race in a serious way, they are at least going to have to entertain the idea of moving Scherzer and Rendon. Each player would bring back a substantial prospect package in trade with which Washington could continue to build a young foundation to battle in what looks like it will be a tough division during the 2020’s.

So, for the 2019 Washington Nationals, the time is now to keep winning, to keep digging their way out of that early hole. They have seven key games this week, four with the Phillies and three with the Braves. After that, the MLB schedule looks very weak for awhile.

If they can make up any further ground in these battles with the two clubs ahead of them in the NL East Division, and then do what they would be expected to do with the lesser opposition which the schedule presents over the following few weeks, Washington could end up forced to keep the band together for at least one more strong run this year.

 

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