Nationals Baseball: Monday Quickie - 2018, the year it all fell apart

Monday, August 08, 2022

Monday Quickie - 2018, the year it all fell apart

A lot of the discussion late last week turned from lamentations about the loss of Soto to angry yells at the Nats management for letting it get to this point. A lot of "Rizzo should be fired" and "Lerners only care about getting ready for the sale" talk which is in part true but also these were the same people who got the Nats to the top. You can by luck and by chance find yourself on top of the mountain for a year or two, but the type of sustained excellence the Nats had, being a legit playoff and usual title contender for 8 straight years from 2012-2019, is something that takes work and commitment. 

But the question still must be asked - what went wrong? How did the plan fall apart such that the Nats ended up with both a bad team and a barren farm putting the rebuild in enough of a question and far enough away to make trading Soto years before they had to make sense? 

The short answer is 2018. 

A quick rehash of stuff we talked about before - to have a bad team you have to draft/sign/develop bad, not trade in good talent, and mess up FA.  We noted how, after doing well on these for years, they did all three. Part of it was by the design of the sport - good teams draft lower and it's hard to draft, good teams trade away young guys - and partly it was them messing up. If you want to pinpoint the turning point though I'd put it on 2018. 

The Nats went through a dry spell from 2017-2019 and that's what we are seeing now. 

Internationally it makes sense. The Nats spent in 2015 and 2016, giving the big money to the can't miss prospect of... Yasel Antuna. But they also gave pretty good sums to Juan Soto and Luis Garcia.  Antuna and Garcia in the same year put the Nats into penalty and basically they couldn't sign anyone worthwhile until 2019. Eddy Yean, who got included in a trade, and Jeremy de la Rosa, a low current prospect, were probably the best. 2019 they began spending again but Andry Lara and Pablo Adonis were too young and raw and haven't made a strong surge.

Draft failings are tougher to accept. The Nats drafts had never been great, but that had been in part lower draft picks. They knew this and usually signed FAs and gave up those picks. But as recently as 2016 the Nats had had decent draft. That year they brought in Kieboom, Dunning, Neuse, Luzardo, Daniel Johnson, and Tres Barrera, along with three other cup of coffee guys who have seen the majors. That's a pretty good return and it was one they used in trades in 2017 and 2019 to help try to win it all. 2017 though was an off year. Seth Romero was the first pick and that gamble busted. Wil Crowe and Jake Cousins* have shown to be at least major league level but no one else so far. 2018 was the nadir Mason Denaburg and Tim Cate as the 1-2. Three low round picks have made the majors but the two to do so for the Nats are hard pressed to say they really deserved it. 2019 is pretty bad but Jackson Rutledge is working back from injury (his last two starts were good) and should make his way to the majors as well as Matt Cronin, but little else.  Three years and likely fewer major leaguers than the 2016 draft alone. Off years are fine but the very weak 2017 and 2019 sandwiching a near complete nothing of a 2018 right when the Nats couldn't bolster the minors by signings made a huge impact. 

But the biggest miss was in trades. Yes the Nats sent out talent, not brought it in, but in 2018 that wasn't the case. An off-year led to a late season sell off of multiple players the Nats didn't expect to keep. The returns could not expect to be very good, but you hope to get a usable player or two  out of it. 

Jacob Condra-Bogan - out of baseball

Jhon Romero - waived after being quickly brought to majors, now hurt with Twins

Andruw Monasterio -traded to Cleveland for nothing

KJ Harrison - awful in AA probably about to be released

Gilbert Lara - awful in AA but younger so maybe not released this year

Andrew Istler - hurt out of baseball

No one helpful. No one good. Given the rare opportunity for a contender to do something to bolster their minor leagues the Nats completely struck out.

Over three seasons the Nats in the international scene (understandably) and through the draft (less so) got nearly no usuable major leaguers. They also squandered an opportunity to use a rare trade off to shore up the minors bringing in guys that couldn't even break deep lists of a weak system.

How bad was it?  By 2021 only Jackson Rutledge remained in the Top 10 from 2017-2019 organization building. It was a complete wash out of talent.

2017 and 2019 were off years. They made a choice to go big internationally before and hurt 2017 signings and they traded off talent. The draft failures hurt in this environment. 2019 when traded away again but they could sign guys might be worse though we still have to hold off on some guys in development.  2018 though was a complete disaster - no signings, terrible draft, and traded in but traded in nothing. This is when it turned and even if since 2020 has been ok (Cavalli, Henry, House, int'l signing Armando Cruz, Christian Vaquero all look like major leaguers of a sort) it was too late. The damage had been done. 

*he was released by the Nats and grabbed by the Brewers for his so far mediocre stint


Chas R said...

Given the Nats lack of investment in analytics and player development, I wonder how many of these draft failures could have been avoided or mitigated. Could some of these guys have done something with a little more help?

Anon said...

Harper, how would the rumored 2018 trade of Bryce to the Astros have affected this analysis? My guess is "not by much," but curious what you think.

Anonymous said...

@Anon I'm pretty sure the specific FV 50 we were rumored to get in that trade was a catcher that went on to bust, but if you swap in a random FV50, that's another useful piece (eg a Garcia-level OF prospect instead of Lane Thomas or Yadiel Hernandez).

So, yeah, "not by much" but every little bit helps.

Also, @Harper, another thing that happened in 2018 is the Corbin signing. Flags fly forever, but that's a decent part of our current troubles too.

Anonymous said...

Actually, thinking about it more, the Lerners didn't just nix the Harper trade -- they thought we could close the gap with Atlanta until we had another bad stretch and had to trade Murphy and Adams (and others?) during the revocable waiver period, which meant they could only negotiate with a single team.

If the fire sale happened in July like it should have, maybe we could have gotten 2 or 3 useful pieces in total (especially if 1 or 2 of those were relievers). And I think that would begin to make a bit of difference (though probably not enough w/o Corbin or Stras cratering a little less hard).

And while we're reminiscing about 2018, I've always been sympathetic to the Lerners about that decision. I mean, it was a mistake and it was obvious at the time -- we were all but technically eliminated and everyone here knew it -- but we were the best true talent team in the division. Like, if the season started over on 8/1, we'd have been the favorite. They just got caught up in the sunk cost fallacy and couldn't pull the trigger. It was a very human mistake.

SM said...

The real mystery to me is how the Nats' opponents are able to stop laughing long enough to concentrate on playing baseball.

Harper said...

Anon @ 9:46.

It's one of those eternally unanswerable questions. Do players develop the same under different orgs? Would getting one good prospect in a position change a later draft pick or trade target? All we can do is take what we know now and apply it. In that case if the Nats did end up with the take at the time - JB Bukauskas, Garrett Stubbs, and a throw in then no - nothing would have changed. Bukauskas is finding himself as a reliever and Stubbs, would be a nice surprise after coming into the year fighting Lane Thomas for 4th OF innings. But neither of those would have made a difference.

If they got a different set of similar ranking guys? I mean you can flip it and end up with Yordan Alvarez and Cristian Javier. You don't feel the need to draft a SP in the first round of 2019 and instead you go with Anthony Volpe. That could be a completely different feel but now you are definitely wishcasting (note I tried to change the Nats fortunes in the 2019 or 2020 int'l signing periods but the 2019 one seems to be especially weak)

Anonymous said...

Do players develop the same under different orgs, you ask.

SM said...

I'm not sure "player development" is a discrete function, but supplements coaching and scouting as a continuous process.

The Dodgers are the gold standard obviously. Take Ty Anderson, an okay pitcher in Colorado and the same briefly in SF. The Dodgers get him, rework his delivery and suddenly: no longer a hit-per-inning pitcher; raised his K to BB ratio to 4:1; and cut his ERA in half. He's also throwing to a catcher whose position coach taught him how to call a game. (Clearly somebody Ruiz could use.) And bingo, a 30-year-old pitcher with a 13-1 record.

I sometimes wonder about that 2016 draft and four of the high schoolers chosen.
The Dodgers picked Gavin Lux. Interesting to muse what could have been had the Dodger Way been applied to Mickey Moniak, Bo Bichette or Carter Kieboom.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious about what people mean by player development. It's common knowledge that the Nats are bad at it--even ESPN brings it up now and then--but is it possible to see in the stats? On the pitching side, sure, there were Giolito and Trienen and other organizational failures that I'm certainly forgetting. But on the hitting side, the biggest examples are usually Robles and Kieboom. And I'm not so sure that either of them fit.

Robles, who was always known as a glove-first prospect, had a good full season in the majors at age 22, after a short but promising visit to the big leagues at 21. How is what happened a full year and a half after his arrival in the major leagues "player development?" Or, put another way, when does "player development" just become "coaching?"

Kieboom never had the major league success. But his age 21 season at AAA looked at least in-line with other promising prospects, who did succeed in the major leagues. He only collapsed when he reached the Nationals, and again, I wonder what part player development really played there.

So when people talk about player development do they mean coaching in the big leagues? Is there some intangible skill that doesn't show up in the stats at AAA but that is vital in the majors, which player development has to teach hitters? What's going on here that the Nats so obviously lack it, until you look at the batting stats?

kevin r said...

@Anonymous - the stats are there but it takes a little step back.
1) Giolito - bad here great elsewhere. But that could just be normal development arc.
2) Voth -- helpless here, immediately adequate rotation guy in Baltimore. That's 100% on us.
3) 3 years of lost drafts - Denaburg, Romero, etc. Just a dozen guys who did bupkis.
4) Corbin - healthy, hasn't had Rick Ankiel syndrome, same velo, just gets pummelled and can't figure out how to fix it.
5) Robles - great potential, lost all his power and can't hit worth a damn.
6) Garcia - great bat but still has abysmal fundamentals.

All those things put together scream 'bad at details'. I could probably find it in the stats, but I think the case is compelling either way. I don't have the first idea how to fix them, but evidently neither do the Nats. And evidently someone else does.

Mr. T said...

Was it Soto who, after getting called up, said something about how the biggest adjustment to the big leagues was the (Nats) coaches not giving any instruction?