The Washington Nationals are heading to the World Series.
Normally, now would be when I would write a recap of the last two games, but this situation calls for more than that. This moment means so much more.
Here’s what it means — aside from the obvious.
Davey is a Good Manager
I’ll start by throwing myself under the bus. Back with my former employer (as Colin Cowherd would say, in reference to ESPN), I declared that Dave Martinez deserved to be fired — and even suggested potential replacements.
As an aside, some of the internal options are getting looks for managerial positions with other teams — that’s what happens to successful organizations.
To be clear, my opinion of Davey hasn’t necessarily changed — at least retrospectively. Up until mid-May, he had not shown the qualities of a competent manager.
On the other hand, the team was in shambles. There was a period in early May when Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Trea Turner, Ryan Zimmerman, and Matt Adams were simultaneously on the injured list. Top prospect Carter Kieboom was rushed to the majors (not everyone can be successful at 21 years old with less than one year of action above A-ball), Wilmer Difo was over-exposed, and the team was forced to sign and start Gerardo Parra — more on him later. Martinez also fired his pitching coach (and longtime friend) Derek Lilliquist. How can you expect a team to succeed under those conditions?
That, combined with the departure of Bryce Harper, forced Martinez to learn how to manage on the fly. He never had actual decisions to make before. Washington’s on-field struggles also took the team out of the spotlight, easing some of the expectations that Davey often couldn’t seem to handle. But it was clear that he was always personable and a player’s manager, leading to something else taking over.
Baseball is a Child’s Game
I don’t mean this literally, although the rapid ascension of Soto and Victor Robles is part of it. Rather, I’m referring to two other aspects: personality and a care-free attitude.
This team was pressing to start the season. Soto was struggling as he tried to fill Harper’s shoes, and no one was comfortable with the thought of losing. Parra’s acquisition flipped a switch. As soon as he showed up and “Baby Shark” overtook the nation’s capital, everything started clicking.
Parra’s impact was noticeable, but so was Rendon’s rise to on-field leader. The underrated star has always been as cool as the other side of the pillow, and the big moment or adverse circumstances have never phased him. That approach began to spread, which led to success, which led to Parra/Soto/Robles-driven dance parties after home runs or Adam Eaton and Howie Kendrick “going racing” after big hits — which led to continued success. The Nationals quickly became the most amusing team in the majors, not to mention the most dangerous one on the field.
The Trades Paid Off
Let’s start with Yan Gomes. Last offseason, Mike Rizzo dealt prospects Jefry Rodriguez and Daniel Johnson to the Indians for the All-Star catcher. He didn’t live up to expectations — until he did. Gomes had a largely subpar season, but he hit nearly .250 with six home runs in 74 at bats in September, and has four hits in 13 at bats this postseason. His early-season defensive woes have also sured themselves up.
In terms of this year’s trade deadline, Daniel Hudson for a low-level prospect was clearly a win for Washington. The Hunter Strickland and Roenis Elias trades don’t look as favorable, but each of them have two more years under contract, so that’s to be determined.
Sean Doolittle for Blake Treinen looks like essentially a wash at this point. If young lefty Jesus Luzardo becomes a star in Oakland, the trade might hurt, but it’s still paying dividends right now. Nothing to complain about for either team.
Now for the big deal. In December 2016, the White Sox traded Adam Eaton to D.C. for young pitchers Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Dane Dunning. For this argument’s sake, we can ignore the latter pair — Lopez is a league-average (at his high points) starter, and Dunning is still in the minor leagues. It’s Giolito that I’d like to focus on.
While he came into his own this season, his first two years in Chicago were extremely lackluster — bad, actually. The White Sox were patient with him, whereas the Nationals would’ve stashed him away in AAA. He wouldn’t have been in his third full big league season if he had stayed in D.C., and he likely wouldn’t have had his breakout season yet. He likely wouldn’t be good enough to be a part of Washington’s postseason rotation, which would make him useless right now. Instead of three players who would be providing nothing this postseason, the Nationals have Eaton. He may not be flashy, but I’d call that a win — even if it’s only in the present.
More Rendon and Strasburg
It’s the elephant in the room, but Anthony Rendon is an impending free agent, and Stephen Strasburg has the option to opt out of his existing contract (with an estimated $100 million remaining over four seasons). The former is known to be hitting the open market, and the latter is looking increasingly likely to do the same.
It’s tough to say which way they’re leaning. The team’s success could compel the players to re-sign in D.C., or their performance in big moments could raise their market value and drive them somewhere else. There’s no way to know, but we do know that every series win keeps them here for ay least a few extra games.
Old Guys Still Matter
Soto and Robles are a big part of this team, but there’s more to this team than this youth movement. Howie Kendrick had a monstrous season (and just won NLCS MVP), Ryan Zimmerman has had a great postseason, Anibal Sanchez has pitched more like a All-Star than a fourth starter for the last four-plus months, and the catchers and two (seemingly only) trusted relievers are well over 30 years old.
Oh, and then there’s that Gerardo Parra guy again.
Not only are they all performing at their peak levels, but they are also great teachers of the game and clubhouse influences — shoutout to party animal Brian Dozier and late-season addition and RBI savant Asdrubal Cabrera.
Maybe teams should rethink the unwritten rule that players over 30 years old aren’t worthwhile investments.
Zimmerman Has Been Validated
Speaking of Ryan Zimmerman, doesn’t this run do him justice? The organization’s first ever draft pick was once a solid-hitting Gold Glove third baseman. He was later overtaken by injuries (and Rendon at his defensive position) and his consistency at the plate subsequently began to slip.
This season, Zimmerman was hit with his second — and third — instance of plantar fasciitis, but his glove never failed him. His bat also rebounded, as he hit .283 in September and .290 with four extra-base hits thus far in the postseason. His role was reduced for most of the regular season, but he returned to full-time starting during the playoffs. There’s no questioning how much this means to him, and it’s nice to see him playing an integral role in the team’s success.
Zimmerman has always been well respected by his teammates, peers, and the entire industry. But being a part of a pennant-winning roster adds a missing piece to his resume. I’m not saying this makes him a Hall of Famer, but given what he’s meant to this franchise, it certainly adds to his case
Better Without Bryce
Bryce Harper’s presence forced Martinez’s hand last season. In particular, once Eaton returned to full health, Harper had to play center field — he was the only one of his three starting outfielders who was physically capable of doing so, but it wasn’t pretty.
Here’s a more interesting evaluation — maybe you’ve seen a variation of it before. Robles has filled Harper’s slot in the outfield this season, and the bulk of the money saved went to Patrick Corbin. That duo significantly outperformed Bryce (7.3–4.6 in fWAR and 9.8–4.2 in bWAR). It doesn’t hurt that they (as well as Michael A. Taylor) have also been major drivers of the Nationals’ playoff surge.
The biggest component, however, may tie back to culture. Harper has often been referred to as the fun police, and he absolutely marches to the beat of his own drum. The absence of such a higher figure could be the biggest reason why the team is so much looser. Many of the same parts appear to be enjoying themselves much more — even Strasburg.
No Longer the Punchline
We all know how D.C. sports work: Even if they’re good, the teams never show up under the bright lights. The Nationals may have become the most prominent examples — a division winner and title favorite nearly every season since 2012, just to fall short in the first round of the playoffs.
No longer! The Nationals have defeated the rest of their postseason history in wins (8–7). They have exorcised two of their greatest demons (the Dodgers and Cardinals). And they have a chance to match the 2018 Capitals and 2019 Mystics as world champions.
So now they’re off to the World Series, where some more players — and possibly the team — will further solidify their names in baseball history. But even if they don’t win it, this iteration of the Nationals has already shifted quite a few narratives.