The Washington Nationals’ post-All Star Break slide continued this weekend as the record for the former NL East leaders sunk under the .500 mark. Though the team has moved up the timetable of their latest epic collapse from the postseason, Nationals ownership and management have not responded in a manner consistent with an organization seeking to maximize its contention window.
After the Nationals’ two historic playoff collapses, this was the year that the team hoped to right the ship. However, after the All-Star break, it was clear that changes needed to be made for the Nationals to maintain their hold on first place. Enough issues emerged to make it clear that simply getting back players from injury wasn’t going to equate to the change needed, especially as the players in question hadn’t been producing at the rate needed before going on the DL.
As the Nationals are set for significant roster changes this offseason due to impending free agency for many starters, many had expected the team to make changes as needed to both the roster and the on-field leadership. Such changes occurred with many contenders including the then-second place Mets, while the Nationals made one questionable swap, one with obvious potential to negatively affect team chemistry. The error of the team’s approach at the deadline has been made quite plain, especially by the team the Nationals are now chasing in their division.
The lack of moves to improve the roster was correlated with a reported reluctance to add salary to this year’s payroll, which would be a curious priority for a team professing to have committed to contenting this year and having broken the bank to add a player (Max Scherzer) at a position of organizational strength. As the Nationals signed a deal with Scherzer that no other team was reportedly anywhere near matching, it wouldn’t have been the first time the Nationals’ priorities were driven by agent Scott Boras (who handles Scherzer, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Jayson Werth, etc.). It also wouldn’t be the first time that the Nationals’ on-field product was caught up with issues in the wake of acceding to the wishes of Boras (see the Strasburg Shutdown).
Despite the severity of the Nats’ swan dive in the standings, neither manager Matt Williams nor any member of his staff has been relieved of their duties. Changes in these positions is completely justifiable by a team selling itself to its fans and to its young players as a perennial contender. What ownership and management are risking with continued inaction on this front is not only further freefall in the standings but a serious crisis in confidence from both the ticket-buying public and the team’s young stars nearing their years of free agency.
The Nationals fan base has endured quite a bit, from the absence of a team to the early cellar-dwelling years and finally to the historic postseason flameouts. Sales of tickets and ticket plans has remained strong (#9 in 2015 attendance), but this year’s confluence of events threatens to put a hitch in the Nationals’ money train even more than ponying up for trade deadline help would have.
The Nationals’ ticket plan renewal deadline of August 31st (recently announced along with an increase in some ticket plan prices) was anticipated to hit with the team comfortably in first place or at least very close to it. The team might have been counting on that combined with the lure of the All-Star Game in 2018 to guarantee strong renewals and additional ticket plan sales. Instead, the team is under .500 and would need to play 10 games above .500 (with the Mets playing at .500, or below their current pace) for the Nationals to force a playoff with the Mets.
The fact that the math doesn’t look favorable for 2015 postseason hopes while it had just two weeks ago is likely to result in non-renewals by fans mainly hoping to score postseason tickets. There are other plan holders who likely would renew were they to see the front office act in a way consistent with the priority of winning and not giving up on the season. With the unlikelihood of a waiver wire player acquisition of significance, a change in manager or coaching staff (well-earned by just about any objective measure) is likely the only way the team prompts those on the fence to renew.
It’s not only the portions of the fan base willing to invest in the team and ticket plans who are at risk in this critical juncture. The team needs to sell itself to its young stars, especially Bryce Harper, as a place to build a career and a legacy of winning. Not retaining Harper, a player in his prime with Hall OF Fame potential, could be disastrous to the team both in the short and long term.
The Nationals need only look to the equally disappointing Capitals to see the lasting value of having a Hall of Fame talent in his prime. It’s hardly a stretch to say the primary reason the Caps have been able to remain a draw despite their horrific collapses is the presence of multi-time league MVP Alexander Ovechkin.
Capitals ownership has milked Ovechkin’s long-term contract for all it’s worth, and the Nationals have the ability to build a winning environment around Harper. The profile of the Nationals on the national radar would immediately plummet were they to not be a credible option for Harper. Of course, the other way to maintain that is postseason success, so one would think those priorities would override the continued presence of a manager helming an epic collapse.
One other reason for a change is that September call ups are imminent. Does management and ownership really want to have the team’s call ups, especially the new shortstop phenom Trea Turner, in the middle of this toxic environment? No baseball observer anywhere would consider it bad form to drop the manager in the midst of such a swan drive. The situation is tailor-made for a major change, and not doing so is extremely risky for the nationals in the future of the ticket buying fan base.
Moreover, it’s not like they’ve got a seasoned, proven staff who at least could instruct the September call ups if that was the only objective the team had left for the season. They’ve got a second-year manager who from most objective analyses has major learning to do but displays a temperament that works against the likelihood that improvement is imminent, as well as a pitching and hitting staff which is hardly renowned or covered with accolades for their player development. Given the lack of preparedness demonstrated in executing fundamentals that marked the Nationals as they up the 2015 season, there appears little reason to unleash the current staff on the team’s minor leaguers.
A veteran manager like Bud Black, a name often mentioned as a replacement for Williams, might even bring some needed teaching fundamentals to the current players as well as the September call ups. In fact, Black has more of a relationship with highly–regarded minor league shortstop Trea Turner then Williams, as black managed Turner in this year’s spring training for San Diego. Whether it’s Black or someone else, it’s time for Nationals management to move proactively rather than wait until next year.