The Washington Nationals might set a major league record for most whiffs by a team -- in a single offseason.
Their latest swing-and-miss? That’d be Yoenis Cespedes, the slugging free-agent outfielder who this past weekend passed on a reported five-year, $100 million-ish offer from the Nationals, opting to sign with the New York Mets instead. If you’re a Nationals fan, Cespedes returning to the division rival Mets is painful. The fact that he was willing to take fewer years (three) and less cabbage ($75 million) in the process is alarming, especially when you consider what’s already gone down in D.C. this winter. Or, more accurately, what hasn’t gone down.
During the past couple of months, the Nats have been rejected so much that general manager Mike Rizzo has started doing pump fakes in his sleep. Darren O'Day, the top free-agent reliever available, seemed like a lock to land in Washington but ended up staying in Baltimore. Rizzo aggressively targeted Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward, two of the premier position players on the market, only to watch both sign with the Cubs. Starting pitcher Mike Leake and closer Aroldis Chapman both were on Rizzo’s radar, but they wound up with the Cardinals and Yankees, respectively. Even the Plan B's haven’t gone according to plan.
When Zobrist didn’t pan out as a solution for the Nats’ nagging second-base issue, the team tried to trade for Brandon Phillips. The 34-year-old vet has enough tenure that the Reds would’ve needed his approval to make the deal. Even though Phillips has deep ties to Cincinnati after spending the past decade there, prevailing logic was that the chance to A) play for a contender and B) reunite with his old manager (Dusty Baker) would’ve been more than enough for Phillips to green-light the trade. Apparently, Phillips thought otherwise, and the trade never happened.
While we’re on the subject of Baker, let’s not forget that he wasn’t Washington’s first choice, either. Yes, he’s a proven big league manager. Yes, he’s a renowned clubhouse chemist who specializes in turnaround projects. Yes, he crushed it at his introductory news conference in November and by all accounts is as good a man as any for the job. But in case you forgot, the Nats’ primary managerial target was Bud Black, and the only reason Baker even got the nod was because Black pulled out after being insulted by the lowball offer Washington reportedly made.
All of this isn’t to say that the Nationals haven’t made any moves this offseason. They have. But it’s not like teams were fighting over journeyman arms like Oliver Perez and Yusmeiro Petit. Fellow reliever Shawn Kelley likely had options, but it’s hard to think of him as anything other than an O'Day fallback, just like it's hard to think of second baseman Daniel Murphy as anything other than a fallback for Phillips, who was a fallback for Zobrist. Young righty Trevor Gott, who was acquired from the Angels in the Yunel Escobar trade, didn’t have a say in the matter. Nor did Ben Revere, who went to Washington in the deal that sent disgruntled hurler Drew Storen to Toronto, finally giving him the change of scenery he’d been demanding.
To recap: A bunch of really good players (and a solid manager) have all chosen to be somewhere other than Washington. Meanwhile, one of the Nationals’ more productive players the past six years (Storen) left because he simply couldn’t stand to be there any longer.
It’s a strange phenomenon, to say the least. After all, it’s not like the Nationals don’t have a lot to offer. They’ve got Bryce Harper, the reigning MVP who’s only 23 years old and who’s under contract through the 2018 season. They’ve got a legit ace in Max Scherzer, who leads one of the better starting rotations in the big leagues. They’ve got deep pockets, as evidenced by last year’s $174 million payroll, the third-highest in baseball.
Not for nothing, they’ve also got Washington, D.C. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. You know, the nation’s capital? One of the great cities of the world, the District is a must-see tourist destination that draws people from everywhere. Except, apparently, those who work in professional baseball.
So what gives? What in the name of the Honorable Muriel E. Bowser, the city's mayor, is keeping good baseball folk from calling D.C. home?
Maybe it’s the fallout from last year’s reality show. They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but those clips of Jonathan Papelbon choking Harper in the dugout probably aren’t helping Rizzo’s recruiting efforts, especially given that Papelbon is still on the Nats’ roster.
Maybe it’s Washington’s reputation as a Redskins town. Sure, the Nats draw OK, but when it comes to passionate fan bases and storied baseball tradition, D.C. doesn’t hold a candle to the New Yorks and Chicagos and St. Louises of the world.
Maybe it’s a perception that, in recent years, the Nationals' front office is becoming more and more Steinbrenneresque, simply acquiring pieces here and there without any real concern for whether those parts will mesh into a cohesive unit (see: Papelbon).
Which brings us back to Cespedes. If he had signed with Washington, he would have been the fifth key player on the Nats’ roster to come directly from a division rival. Nevertheless, adding him might have been just enough to swing the balance of power in the NL East.
Instead, Cespedes is a Met. And the Nationals are still looking up.