Almost exactly 13 months ago, the Washington Nationals and Max Scherzer agreed on one of the most lucrative contracts ever given to a pitcher. At seven-years, $210 million, Scherzer seemed like one of the last pieces to a team that should surely contend for a World Series.
After April tempered expectations, an 18-9 May seemed to put the Nationals back on the right path. Following the All-Star break, the team couldn't even maintain a .500 record, and they saw themselves slip disappointingly to 83-79 on the season. Adding insult to injury, the division rival New York Mets were the ones to end up in the World Series.
Just one year after having World Series aspirations, a division rival got there instead.
Compounding matters even further, when the Nationals petered out, they did so in the worst conceivable way. Matt Williams had lost the clubhouse, and their newly-acquired closer -- who had already endeared himself to the media by demanding he close -- had grabbed the team's best player by the throat because he didn't run out a shallow flyball.
By the end of it all, it seemed like the thing this team needed was some time off of baseball. Mike Rizzo and the rest of the Nationals front office would have months to sit and evaluate the team, make good decisions, and perhaps build on those World Series expectations.
Instead, the offseason started with the Nationals finding Williams's replacement in Bud Black. Black, a veteran manager, would be able to maintain a clubhouse of egos with the best of them. Everything seemed set to get this team back on track. Until the Nationals low-balled his salary offer so badly that Black stepped away from the team. This was the type of public embarrassment that the Nationals desperately needed to avoid.
Instead, Dusty Baker will bring similar veteran presence. However, the damage was done, and the remainder of the offseason would follow suit.
The Nationals made two trades of note this offseason. And one was to resolve that pesky closer situation they had at the end of last season. But wait, instead of trading Jonathan Papelbon, they traded away Drew Storen.
That's right, instead of trading away their problem-piece, the Nationals doubled-down on allowing Papelbon to close. To be fair, the market for Papelbon was likely non-existent. And, if there was a team willing to take him, they likely would have expected the Nationals to retain some of the salary. So, in a way, trading Storen was the Nationals only option.
Despite spending the end of the season on the disabled-list thanks to a hand injury following a pretty epic team collapse, Storen is coming off of his best season yet. His strikeout rate hit 29.4 percent and, in the first half of the season, his FIP was a sparkling 2.14. The demotion to setup man from closer might have played, at least partially, into his second half struggles.
In exchange, the Nationals got Ben Revere. The contact-expert will help shore up their need for a leadoff hitter. Last season, 11 batters saw their name on the top of the lineup card for the Nationals. Furthermore, of those leadoff hitters, they only stole 17 total bases. Revere has stolen 176 bases over the past five seasons. Only Dee Gordon and Rajai Davis have stolen more in that time frame.
All told, despite the optics of retaining Papelbon as the team's closer, this was a good trade for both sides.
The other trade sent Yunel Escobar to the Los Angeles Angels in exchange for right-handed reliever Trevor Gott. While Escobar is coming off of a great year -- especially at the plate -- the Nationals had an extra infielder.
The Free Agents
Throughout the offseason, the Nationals were seen as top contenders to sign players like Yoenis Cespedes, Ben Zobrist, Wei-Yin Chen, and Gerardo Parra. They were the top contender to sign Darren O'Day as well.
Instead, the Nationals ended up with Daniel Murphy, Oliver Perez, Shawn Kelley, Stephen Drew, and Yusmeiro Petit. That's pretty underwhelming. It then broke that the Nationals were reportedly so unsuccessful at wooing free agents because they were offering contracts consisting of "heavily deferred" compensation.
While this is an embarrassing story, the Nationals did still find ways to address the majority of their concerns.
After one of the hottest postseason's in recent memory, Murphy agreed to a three-year, $37.5 million deal with the Nationals. Not only does this add to their infield production, it subtracts from the division-rival Mets. Furthermore, it seemed as if Murphy would be destined to be overpaid.
However, a $37.5 million deal seems totally reasonable. By FanGraphs dollar per WAR estimations, Murphy has been worth, on average, more than $20 million per season over the past three years.
Furthermore, Drew represents a good, low-cost utility infield option following the loss of Escobar.
Kelley represents a pretty key addition to the bullpen as well. By ridding themselves of Storen, the Nationals resolved a potential closer controversy. However, they also seemed to lose a very good strikeout pitcher. Kelley will hopefully go a long way to replacing that following two consecutive seasons of posting strikeout rates above 30 percent.
Reasons to worry
The Nationals owners unwillingness to further invest in the team seems to be a tad worrying. However, one year after signing Scherzer to a $210 million deal and seeing it pay mixed dividends, blaming ownership's willingness to spend seems a tad foolish.
If this TV deal is so detrimental to the Nationals ability to offer non-deferred contract, that is something for fans to kind of worry about. Not only is it an unfortunate circumstance, it's also never fun to hear the home team complain about payroll constraints.
Similarly, the Nationals lost a key cog in their rotation in Jordan Zimmermann and didn't replace him. What perhaps stings even more, is that the Detroit Tigers finished in the bottom third of the league, thereby keeping their first-round selection. Another reason why qualifying offers are hurting baseball.
Other than that, the rosters only real weakness seems to be at catcher. The Nationals will rely on Wilson Ramos and Jose Lobaton to get them through the season. Perhaps if they are doing well at the trade deadline, acquiring a certain upgrade behind the dish would be a possibility. Perhaps even a particular Milwaukee Brewers catcher.
Reasons for hope
The team still has the NL MVP, which is always a good start. Bryce Harper unanimously won the MVP award after posting the highest wRC+ since Barry Bonds hit 133 percent better than the league average in 2004.
Anthony Rendon is coming off of a bad season hampered by injuries. Steamer projects a slight return to form. While his 2014 dominance shouldn't be expected, Nationals fans can put some hope on Rendon.
Having the top pitching prospect in Lucas Giolito waiting in the wings can also help substantially. He could be asked to help the rotation as early as this season, or he could be the centerpiece of a big trade for the postseason push come deadline time.
While Stephen Strasburg may test free agency following this season, the Nationals still have him for 2016. With a rotation featuring Scherzer, Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Joe Ross, and Tanner Roark, the Nationals could absolutely compete again in 2016.
Besides, maybe a tempered expectations will help the team succeed in 2016. With nobody really picking them as World Series favorites anymore, maybe that's right where the Nationals need to be.