I said it constantly over this series of the games but this Mets team does not scare me (for an NL East title) The Nats team I expect to see over the course of the rest of the season is better than the Mets team I expect to see over the course of the rest of the season. There are 60 games left. That difference will show. That doesn't mean I like this Nats team, the one on the field for the series, better that the Mets. That's kind of a push. It means that with Strasburg, Rendon, Werth, Zimmerman all likely back soon and Span maybe back later, that team is certainly deeper and almost certainly better than the Mets. So while the comeback victory was super fun it merely confirms what I had already thought.
I'd like the Nats to pull away now so we don't have to even talk about this anymore, but with Washington playing Pittsburgh, a pull away is probably not happening. It'll have to wait until the next series versus the Mets in a little over a week. Oh well.
The question then is 'What do the Nats do now?' Yunel Escobar seems slated for a DL stint, perhaps a long one, but with Rendon back that's not so much of a problem with the line-up as with the bench. Ian might even be hitting again (maybe... maybe)! Do the Nats make a move to get better when they likely don't have to to take the division?
I say yes.
I've talked about this before, but it bears repeating. In my opinion, the point of athletic competition, as opposed to athletic endeavor, is to win. In professional sports the dual nature of winning, winning games versus winning championships, can be seen as leading to conflict between now and later. But most understand this is faux conflict. Everyone agrees that the winning of championships take precedence. If you are not in line for a championship, it make sense to sacrifice the winning of games now to try to set up the future. If you are in line for a championship, it make sense to sacrifice the winning of games in the future to try to set up the now. That is in large part how it worked in the past. However, in today's baseball, a third type of winning has been introduced, the winning of theoretical championships in the future, and that type has for some reason assumed the top position. Now even teams in one piece away from the playoffs or one fix away from fielding the best team possible refuse to deal prospects of value. The future must be protected.
In reality, the future is extremely volatile. In baseball, you have 30 teams, each trying to do the same thing, where a good team wins 56% of their games and a bad team wins 44%. With that slim difference between success and failure, an injury or two can derail a season, and a break out or two can turn a maybe team into a powerhouse. Planning for future success is smart, but depending on it is a fool's decision.
Don't believe me? We can even look back in the Nats brief history to see that it is true. In 2012, the Nats were in arguably the best position a team could be. Heading toward the high 90s in wins. A very young pitching staff (23, 26, 26, 26) with three guys pitching like aces and a 4th guy that looked almost as good. A lights out closer just as young (24) and a decent group of not old set-up men. At worse top 5-ish young position players at 2b (25), SS (26), and 3B (27), another with that potential at C (24), and the league's best offensive prospect, who was still a teenager, in the OF. The only "old" players that were important were a 30 year old OF masher, a do-it-all veteran who had been injured but came back to put up a solid half-season, and a dependable 1B bat.
The questions for 2013 were limited - could they find a LHRP? Who would be the 5th starter? And the biggest one - do you re-sign the OF masher or dependable 1B because both are up for FA and you'd rather move the teenager to a corner OF spot? That's it. That's the list. All those names I mentioned above that weren't FAs to be? Only one would be a free agent before the 2015 season was over. You could hardly find a team in recent history better set-up for a window of success.
So when time came to potentially sit one of those aces because he was returning from injury it seemed like a safe move. Strasburg sat. They sacrificed the now in some measure for a future that looked completely secure.
In 2013 - Strasburg pitched well but the Nats missed the playoffs
In 2014 - Strasburg pitched well but the Nats won the NL East by 17 games. They did finish 1st overall in the NL by 2 games. He pitched a decent Game 1 but the Nats lost the game.
In 2015 - Strasburg, arguably injured, pitched poorly, sat out, pitched well briefly, went out again. He has barely helped a team struggling to overcome injuries to take the division.
So in 2012 the Nats looked to the future and saw the potential need for a healthy Strasburg to lead them to multiple titles. In mid-2015 we can look back and say if Strasburg did pitch in those playoffs and blew his arm out, that it would have had nearly no impact on the Nats fortunes since then. It would have probably cost them the #1 seed in 2014, that's it as of today. And that was as sure a scenario as I can possibly come up with.
Let's go with a classic and timely example - Doyle Alexander for Smoltz. You certainly know Alexander didn't get the Tigers another title and Smoltz became a Hall of Famer. You probably know Alexander did basically all he could and without him the Tigers don't make the playoffs that year. What it's doubtful that you think of is what Smoltz on the Tigers would have been like. The Tigers would miss the playoffs by one game in 88 but Smoltz was seen as unlikely to be playing for the Tigers by then and in fact struggled in a brief major league outing with the Braves. The Tigers wouldn't come close to the playoffs again before Smoltz would hit FA, though I suppose with Smoltz that maybe the 91 squad would have been close enough to make a move around the trade deadline. Maybe. Getting Smoltz helped the Braves, yes. But losing Smoltz really did nothing to the Tigers.
I can pull out a deal where things worked in reverse too. Deals where a guy was dealt for nothing and helped the team win (McGriff, Schilling, Lee got the Phillies to WS). But the reality is most trades are CC Sabathia for Matt LaPorta, Rob Bryson, Zach Jackson and Michael Brantley. Did the Brewers win? Nope. Did all those players become good? Nope. Did the player that did become good help the team win any championships? Nope. Or they are Matt Holliday for Clatyon Moretnsen, Shane Peterson, and Brett Wallace. Did that player help the Cardinals win under his current contract? Nope. Did any of those players become good? Nope. Holliday would help the Cardinals in later years but they still had to sign him to a big contract. The trade merely got them an inside track. Most trades are nothings.
With most trades being nothings you may say "why bother trading?" Ok that's fine if that's your opinion, you nihilist. But for me it comes down to the point of athletic competition again. There is no one out there that thinks that hoping these guys all hit coming back from injury and hoping the pen works itself out is the best option for the Nats winning this year. How can you look at the players and say "You give it 100% to win it all. We in the front office are going to give it 90-95%! That should be enough! Team!"
This doesn't mean trade everyone for anything that helps a little in 2015. It means that the balance needs to be set correctly. The guys that are B-Level prospects who might be ok next year or down the road should be actively shopped. The A-level prospects who are already helping or seem like good bets to be good next year shouldn't be untouchable. The Giolitos... well there's a reason why people go back to Smoltz/Bagwell for lopsided deals. The "seem like sure things" aren't traded often.
I may be a soulless automaton, but I'm a soulless automaton who was programmed to understand that winning it all is what matters. The caution that made sense in 2012 when the window was clear, does not make sense in 2015 when the window is muddy. There are big changes coming to the Nats in 2016 and beyond. They could be good. They could not. All that I am sure of is they are very likely to make the playoffs this season and based on those facts above they need to act in a more urgent fashion. Anything less is an antithesis to the reason you get into competitive sports in the first place.