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It’s Now, Next Year, or Never for the Nationals

With Bryce Harper still on his rookie contract, the volatility of Stephen Strasburg’s arm, and a talented roster filled with backloaded rookie contracts, Washington has two more seasons to make a World Series run. But before the Nats do that, they have to win their first playoff series.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Life is full of mysteries, and so is baseball. This week, as part of The Ringer’s 2017 MLB Preview, we’ll be taking a closer look at some of the most intriguing people and teams entering the season. Some excite us, some confound us, but they all leave us asking the same question: What’s Your Plan?

In December 2014, the Tampa Bay Rays, San Diego Padres, and Washington Nationals hooked up for a three-team, 11-player trade. The headliner, Wil Myers, moved from Tampa Bay to San Diego, while the Nats quietly moved Steven Souza, a 25-year-old corner outfielder with no place on a team with Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper, to the Rays. In return, Washington acquired two former first-round picks: shortstop Trea Turner and pitcher Joe Ross, both of whom debuted in 2015 before featuring prominently in Washington’s playoff run in 2016.

Turner now boasts a career slash line of .329/.361/.539 with 35 stolen bases in only 100 career games, while Ross, in 35 career appearances and 181.2 innings (essentially a full season’s workload spread out over two years), has a 116 ERA+, which is about what Dallas Keuchel, Chris Sale, and Stephen Strasburg have done over the same span. Both Ross and Turner are 23 years old, and both will remain under team control through at least 2021, making them building blocks for the next half-decade at least.

Incidentally, both are less than nine months younger than Harper, a four-time All-Star and the 2015 NL MVP.

Harper himself was acquired as part of a run in which the Nationals landed the best prospect in every draft from 2009 to 2012:

  • 2009: Stephen Strasburg, no. 1 overall. The best college pitching prospect since at least Mark Prior nearly a decade earlier.
  • 2010: Harper, no. 1 overall. Might have been the best high school hitting prospect ever, only he got his GED and, at 17, went to junior college, where he became the second juco player to win the Golden Spikes Award (baseball’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy).
  • 2011: Anthony Rendon, no. 6 overall. The Rice third baseman could easily have gone ahead of UCLA’s duo of Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer if he hadn’t battled persistent ankle injuries.
  • 2012: Lucas Giolito, no. 16 overall. Had a chance to be the first high school right-hander taken no. 1 overall until he missed his senior year with a torn UCL. Giolito tumbled out of the top 15 thanks to the injury and high bonus demands backed up by a strong commitment to UCLA. Since traded to the White Sox for Adam Eaton.

That draft run and the Souza trade are the kind of player-development wins that set up dynasties. They’ve been bolstered by GM Mike Rizzo’s willingness to spend big, in prospects and money, for established talent: Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, second baseman Daniel Murphy, catcher Matt Wieters, and the signing that started it all, Werth. The Nationals have been both good and lucky, in the same way that the Cubs and Red Sox have been. Taken as a whole, Washington represents just as monumental a team-building achievement.

Except the Nationals, winners of 458 games and three division titles over the past five years, are running out of time. They haven’t even won a playoff series yet, and though it seems impossible for a team this talented to not even play for a World Series, it’s happened before.

From 1995 to the record-tying 116-win campaign of 2001, the Seattle Mariners made four playoff appearances. In that span, the Mariners ran out two Hall of Famers in their prime (Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson), plus three more players who deserve to be in the Hall of Fame soon (Alex Rodriguez, Ichiro, and Edgar Martínez). Mariners won two Rookie of the Year awards, a Cy Young, and two MVPs in those years. (It should’ve been three MVP awards, but in 1996 Juan González’s 144-RBI season beat out A-Rod hitting .358/.414/.631 as a 20-year-old shortstop. We made a lot of bad decisions back then, like wearing JNCOs and encouraging Adam Sandler.)

Johnson and Griffey were traded partway through that run, but they brought back Mike Cameron, Freddy García, and Carlos Guillén, three fundamental players on the 116-win club. Perhaps most impressive of all, this team from the most remote city in MLB, that plays most of its games at a time when many East Coast fans are fast asleep, became the coolest baseball team since the strike.

Somehow, they never won a pennant. The Mariners dropped the ALCS three times, first to the 1995 Indians, who went 100–44, then in 2000 and 2001 to the Yankees, back when the Yankees were the Yankees. They haven’t been back to the playoffs since.

The Nationals haven’t even gotten that far, illustrating just how thin the margins of a best-of-five playoff series can be. Maybe they would have gotten past the Cardinals in 2012 if Strasburg hadn’t hit his innings limit and been shut down. Maybe they would have beaten the Dodgers last year if Harper’s shoulder wasn’t bothering him, or if Wilson Ramos hadn’t blown out his ACL, or if they’d gotten into the Dodgers bullpen an inning earlier in Game 5 of last year’s NLDS.

Here’s where Washington stands right now: The NL East remains one of baseball’s most winnable divisions. The Phillies and Braves are assembling their own masses of talented youths, but both teams are still at least another year from being competitive. The Marlins, by contrast, have no plan at all. That leaves the Mets, who have passed the division title back and forth with the Nats over the past three years. The Mets still have a lineup of Yoenis Céspedes and seven guys who are just sort of OK, but the starting rotation — whichever five of Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler, Jacob deGrom, and Robert Gsellman is healthy at the moment — is so good the position players don’t matter that much.

However, the real threat to the Nationals isn’t the competition; top to bottom, they’re the most talented team in the NL East. The threat is that Rizzo might not be able to keep this team together much longer.

The Nationals lineup is built around the 24-year-old Harper, who in 2015 posted the best offensive season since Barry Bonds, and the 26-year-old Rendon, who is an All-Star-caliber third baseman when healthy. Both of them are Scott Boras clients who resisted signing the kind of long-term extension that will keep, for instance, Buster Posey in San Francisco and Anthony Rizzo in Chicago through their primes. Harper will hit free agency after the 2018 season, Rendon a year later.

Many of the Nationals’ older position players are on a similar timeline. Wieters can become a free agent after this season if he so chooses, and Murphy, who will turn 32 on April 1, is signed through 2018.

In other words, in the past three years the Nationals have had three different position players finish in the top five in MVP voting, and in the next three years all three will be free agents.

Among pitchers, the Nationals control no. 4 starter Gio Gonzalez for two more years, no. 3 starter Tanner Roark for three, and ace Max Scherzer for four, by which point he’ll be 37 years old. Strasburg will be 35 when his contract runs out in 2023.

Strasburg has been a little disappointing as a big leaguer just because he came in with such high expectations — the best college pitching prospect of his generation didn’t become literally the best pro pitcher of his generation. But when he’s healthy, he’s still outstanding. Over the past five years, 160 active starting pitchers have thrown at least 200 innings and come in at replacement level or better. Among those, Strasburg is fourth in strikeout rate and 22nd in ERA+. When it comes to counting stats, he’s 19th in WAR, though only one pitcher ahead of him, Yu Darvish, produced more WAR in fewer innings. He’s also ninth in total strikeouts, despite having thrown about 200 fewer innings than anyone ahead of him on the leaderboard.

Those caveats — “when he’s healthy” and “in fewer innings” — are what make it difficult to project Strasburg out as a key member of Washington’s core in the long term, despite his relative youth and lengthy contract. In five full big league seasons, Strasburg’s qualified for the ERA title only twice, and topped 200 innings once. He’s appeared in only one of Washington’s three postseason series, for a grand total of five innings.

Scherzer, meanwhile, has none of those durability concerns — he’s one of the best pitchers of his generation, full stop. But he’s also four years older than Strasburg, and while sometimes pitchers like Scherzer age gracefully into their late 30s, sometimes it all goes away in a hurry and it’s hard to tell which until it happens.

After 2019, the Nationals will still have Ross, Turner, Eaton, an aging Strasburg and Scherzer, and Victor Robles, a 19-year-old center fielder who came in seventh on Baseball Prospectus’s Top 101 prospects list this year. Barring another brilliant stretch of first-round draft picks (which is unlikely, considering Washington won’t be drafting no. 1 overall anytime soon), that’s about it; Washington’s half-decade-long prospect binge is just about over. Around the same time, superstar shortstop prospects J.P. Crawford of Philadelphia and Dansby Swanson of Atlanta will be hitting their primes as the Phillies and Braves transition back to win-now mode.

Rizzo’s transactions over the past two or three seasons suggest that he knows this. Strasburg, Scherzer, and Murphy are all signed to backloaded contracts heavy on deferred money. Scherzer, for instance, makes $15 million a year from 2015 to 2021, at which point he becomes a free agent and the Nationals will continue to pay him $15 million a year for seven more years. Between those three, Wieters, and veteran reliever Joe Blanton, Rizzo’s Nationals have almost $200 million in deferred money.

Deferring that money has given Rizzo the payroll flexibility to pounce on veteran free agents left without a home after the market settles — Murphy, Blanton, and Wieters in particular — and strengthen the Nationals for the next two, maybe three years at very little short-term cost. In other words, Rizzo knows he’s never going to draft another player like Harper, and he’s doing everything he can to win while Harper’s in Washington on a below-market deal.

It’s extremely pragmatic, even admirably so, but it’s a plan that leaves Washington in a big hole once Harper, Rendon, and Murphy are gone. Basically, the prospects of 2009 to 2014 have until 2019 to win a title. The Nationals have been in a position to do so since 2012, and they’re still good enough to have a decent shot in a short series against any team in baseball. But they won’t have many more chances.