Phillies DC Rivals Face Big Questions


I’ve been taking the time to highlight each of the Phillies rivals in the NL East as the season winds down, discussing their current situation and their outlook heading into the 2016 season.

I previously highlighted both the Atlanta Braves and Miami Marlins, and next up is the Washington Nationals, a club that looked destined for a playoff spot just two months ago.

The Nats have collapsed, watching helplessly as the New York Mets roared past them to take the division crown after what has been a tumultuous and disappointing final few weeks of the season for the team in the nation’s capital.

The team surely had more than their fair share of injuries this year, including starting the season without Anthony Rendon, Denard Span, and Jayson Werth for significant lengths. 

They lost veteran Ryan Zimmerman for a long stretch of the season, and had to use rookies Michael Taylor and Clint Robinson in extended playing time. But this 2015 Nationals team cannot use injuries as an excuse for what has happened this year, not completely.

The Nationals have simply underperformed as a whole, especially for a team that was a World Series pick in many 2015 MLB previews. They were unanimous preseason picks to win the NL East by our staff here at TBOH..

As defending NL East champs, the club signed Max Scherzer last offseason to a seven-year, $210 million free agent contract. He joined a rotation that already included the likes of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, and Gio Gonzalez, all of whom were capable of vying for an NL Cy Young Award.

With the exception of Fister, who also spent time on the DL before being demoted to the bullpen in August, the rotation has been solid. Strasburg, Zimmermann, Gonzalez and Scherzer all have double-digit wins, accounting for 46 wins between the four starters. The group’s collective 3.83 ERA is the ninth best in the big leagues. Their performance has been the only thing working right on the mound this season.

While the bullpen got off to a strong start, it has been shaky since the arrival of Jonathan Papelbon in a July trade deadline deal from the Phillies. Papelbon had been publicly adamant about being the closer wherever he was traded to as rumors swirled around him in Philadelphia. When it seemed like no team wanted to take on the headache of having Papelbon in their clubhouse, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo oddly pulled the trigger on a deal for Pap, sending pitching prospect Nick Pivetta to the Phillies.

The move was odd in that it effectively forced out the Nats’ previous closer Drew Storen from a role in which he had thrived in all season. Storen owned a 1.73 ERA before Papelbon came to D.C., and had blown only two saves in 31 chances.

After Papelbon joined the club and assumed the closer’s role, Storen would post an 8.49 ERA in 11.2 August innings. He had given up five runs in five innings this month before being shut down with a thumb injury. His ERA had jumped almost two full points, to the 3.44 mark, by the time of his shutdown.

Papelbon, who hadn’t blown a save with the Phillies in 17 tries this season, has blown two crucial games for his club since putting on a Nationals uniform. The first came against the Fightins on September 14th, and the second in his next appearance against the Miami Marlins. Fortunately for the Nats, they were able to come back and win both games.

Big players underperforming has also been a common theme this year in Washington. While Bryce Harper has been fantastic, and should receive the NL MVP Award, other cornerstones of the franchise have faltered.

Zimmerman has hit just .249 over 95 games. Ian Desmond, who reportedly turned down a seven-year, $107 million contract extension from the Nats two years ago in hopes of a richer deal, is expected to have to settle for much less than that when he becomes a free agent at the end of this season. He’s currently slashing .236/.289/.389 and has struck out 179 times. And although Werth has been hampered by injuries, he has hit just .228, and has been worth a -0.1 oWAR.

The Nats biggest problem may be their manager, Matt Williams. Awarded the NL Manager of the Year honors in 2014 as the team went 96-66 and handily won the division, many of his moves have been questionable this year.

Williams is clearly on the hot seat despite having a contract that runs through 2016, and didn’t exactly get words of encouragement from his boss. In a radio interview with Grant Paulsen and Danny Rouhier on 106.7 The Fan in D.C., GM Mike Rizzo was non-committal when talking about Williams returning for the 2016 season.

“After the season, we’re going to take a look at all aspects of our operation, from general manager’s office all the way down to the 40-man roster, and we’ll make decisions based on what our findings are, and how to proceed to make this organization continue to be playing meaningful games in September and October,” Rizzo said.

As things have unraveled on the field over the last couple months in D.C., so too has the situation in the Nats’ clubhouse. There has reportedly been a rift between some Nationals players and Papelbon. The Nats’ closer, often good for at least one bonehead comment per week, recently found himself in the news again this time for what he did on the field. 

Last Wednesday, Papelbon plunked the Orioles’ Manny Machado with a pitch two innings after Machado launched a go-ahead, two-run home run against Nationals starter Max Scherzer. Papelbon was immediately ejected from the game, and has since received a three-game suspension, which he appealed. After after the incident, Harper seemed annoyed with Papelbon’s antics.

“I mean, Manny freaking hit a homer and walked it off, and somebody drilled him,” Harper said, per CSN Mid-Atlantic’s Mark Zuckerman. “It’s pretty tired. It’s one of those situations where it happens. I don’t know. I’ll probably get drilled tomorrow.

Things really boiled over between Papelbon and Harper in Sunday’s game against the Phillies in an incident that seemed to encapsulate everything that has gone wrong for the Nationals down the stretch of this season.

Papelbon had come on to pitch the 8th inning after Jeff Francoeur hit a game-tying two-run home run off Nats’ reliever Casey Janssen. In the bottom of the 8th, Harper flew out to left field, and was barked at by Papelbon upon returning to the dugout for what Pap perceived as a lack of hustle. Papelbon and Harper then scrapped in the Nationals’ dugout, with Pap lunging at Harper’s throat.

The two had to be separated by teammates and coaches. Harper didn’t return to the game, and Papelbon proceeded to serve up a go-ahead, two-run homer to the Phils’ Andres Blanco in the top of the ninth. It was then announced Monday that Papelbon had been suspended for the remainder of the season.

Things may not be getting any better for the Phillies’ rivals to their immediate south next year, either. The Nationals are at risk of losing Span, Desmond, Fister, and Zimmermann to free agency. Those are four crucial pieces, players who played huge roles in their 2014 success. 

The team also has two aging pieces that are owed a lot of money in Zimmerman and Werth. The oft-injured 31-year-old Zimmerman is now limited to 1st base, and is owed $78 million over the next five seasons. Ex-Phillies hero Werth is now 36 years old, has two years remaining on his deal, and is still owed $42 million.

And now, the Nationals have to decide if it is worth keeping Papelbon and his $11 million salary around in 2016. Trading the enigmatic closer is unlikely, so would the Nats simply eat his contract to give the role back to Storen?

Papelbon has been suspended for the rest of the 2015 season by the Nats, and his jersey removed from the team store at Nationals Park already, which may give a strong early indication of their plans.

Following a stunning collapse and all of the dramatic clubhouse turmoil, the Nationals are in for a long offseason. The organization faces many tough decisions, and a changing of the guard in the NL East has already begun to take shape.

The Mets won the division this year, and have the pieces to do so again next year. The Marlins, with the return to full health of Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez, could be set to make some noise of their own in the division. 

Next year’s Nationals will likely see a number of new faces, possibly led by a new manager. Rizzo has shown the willingness to makes moves to bring in big names, but it has time and again gotten him into trouble. There could be a change at the front office level in store as well, as his decisions have to be questioned.

For a team that was a popular World Series pick back in spring training, and a playoff contender for four months, things have certainly taken a turn for the worse in the nation’s capital. Without some dramatic changes in personnel and “Natitude”, they may not get much better in 2016.