The Washington Nationals are in an enviable position right now. They hold the second-best record in baseball. They have a four-game lead in the National League East. It's July 28 and Stephen Strasburg has one loss. The clock on Daniel Murphy's Cinderella turn still hasn't struck midnight. It's all good in D.C. right now.
So it probably feels a little foreboding for them, or their fans, that the Nationals are in a familiar place right now. Despite all those positives, they seem lacking and short-sighted once again. Washington needs a closer — the kind you can actually rely on in the postseason — and they don't want to pay for it.
This seems like an ongoing theme for the Nationals. They are a team that thinks big in the offseason and too often thinks long-term in the middle of the season. It's great in terms of building teams that can contend year after year but it's a cost when there is glory to be gained. Remember, they shut down Strasburg abruptly in September in 2012, helping to torpedo a team that looked like the National League favorites. Or that in 2014 their big play was acquiring Asdrubal Cabrera for a team that had the best record in the league.
The Nationals have developed a reputation as a regular season giant and an playoff patsy. It's not that they have some kind of defect or fall into one of the worn-out bromides about mental softness. It's that top-end talent plays in October and the Nationals are too-often too-willing to pass on it. They'll pay Max Scherzer $210 million in December but then lose out on Aroldis Chapman in July.
According to the Washington Post, the Nationals have told teams that they will not trade any of their top four prospects — all in MLB.com's midseason top-50. Three of them are even in the top-17. It's understandable, of course. Building something that lasts is virtuous. It gets general managers extensions and owners the long-term profitability that comes with a multitude of high-attendance seasons. But it also means missing out.
The price for closers is astronomical now. You can thank the Astros for getting Ken Giles at whatever the polar opposite of a discount is, or the Red Sox for willingly revitalizing the Padres' farm system to get Craig Kimbrel, or the Cubs for trading the 26th best prospect in baseball for a half-season of Chapman. Maybe it's short-sighted but Theo Epstein obviously loves the gamble and believes that having a freakish left arm that can throw 105 mph in the 9th inning in the NLCS is worth a whole lot more in certainty than the spec-play that is Gleyber Torres.
So the Nationals will continue to move on with Jonathan Papelbon, whose velocity (90.9 mph on his fastball) has never been lower and his ERA (4.18) never higher. Tuesday night, he allowed three runs, didn't get an out and blew a save, the night after allowing four runs to the woeful Padres. His own manager was exasperated.
"I mean, that's his job," Dusty Baker said. "That's what he's getting paid for. I don't know. We just have to go back to the drawing board."
This is the bet the Nationals have made. What could go wrong?