Even having had a night to process the result, it still doesn’t quite feel real: The Nationals won the World Series. When improbable comeback after improbable comeback is the defining method of the championship team, it can be difficult to interpret the outcome from a forward-looking perspective. Everyone who doesn’t win the World Series wants to learn lessons from those who did, but go down by two runs in every elimination game doesn’t really seem like repeatable advice.
Yet in the case of the Nationals and their title-winning roster, one lesson in particular stands out in the way said roster was constructed. Incidentally, it’s the same lesson offered by the 2018 Red Sox, Washington’s championship predecessor—but one that few teams followed last winter in the wake of Boston’s win. That’s something of an anomaly in modern sports, when most champions seem to supply takeaways for the rest of the sport to adopt.
As I wrote earlier this season, after Dave Dombrowski was fired as Boston’s president of baseball operations mere months after winning the World Series, “Other World Series winners of recent vintage have passed on lessons to the rest of the sport: the Royals, the elevated postseason value of a shutdown bullpen; the Cubs and Astros, the viability of a tanking and rebuilding approach. But few teams, if any, have learned the lesson of Boston’s 2018 title: spend and spend big.”
Boston triumphed last year with the majors’ highest payroll, after signing the likes of David Price and J.D. Martinez in free agency and making splashy trades for Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel. The Nationals, on the surface, might not reflect a similarly expensive sheen, as the seeds of their decade of competitiveness came not from the open market, but from the draft: From 2009 through 2011, they picked Stephen Strasburg (first overall), Bryce Harper (first), and Anthony Rendon (sixth) after lots of losing.
Yet as that young core grew, and as the Lerner family that owns the club grew desperate for a title, the Nationals supplemented the young players with expensive ones. By 2018, they joined the Red Sox as the only two teams to pass the luxury tax line. And the Nationals were also one of the sport’s biggest spenders in 2019 as they won the title: Only the Red Sox, Cubs, and Yankees summed a higher Opening Day payroll this season.
The Nationals payroll could have climbed even higher had the team made a real effort to retain Harper last winter, when the former MVP reached free agency. Instead, the front office presented Harper with an offer ostensibly for $300 million, but with so much of the money deferred that the deal would have been worth in the neighborhood of $100 million less in present-day value.
That decision fit the trend of so many teams that have decided to slow-play the winter market, and downplay free agency entirely. But unlike many of its competitors, Washington didn’t stop with letting Harper leave; the club reinvested a sizable portion of that money in other free agents like Patrick Corbin, the best available pitcher, who had completed a breakout season in his walk year in Arizona. Corbin signed for six years and $140 million as the Nationals outbid competitors like the Yankees and Phillies.
Overall, only the Phillies and Padres, with Harper and Manny Machado, respectively, spent more on free agents last winter. And no team signed more MLB players than the Nationals, who in addition to Corbin’s nine-figure deal handed out contracts to a handful of other veterans. Those veterans, along with others who arrived in D.C. via trade, would enjoy various degrees of success with their new team.
Some of those degrees, admittedly, tilted toward the disastrous. On the mound, Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough, Tony Sipp, and Jeremy Hellickson combined for a 7.14 ERA in 92 innings; the first three were on different teams by the summer, while Hellickson didn’t pitch after landing on the IL in May. At the plate, neither Matt Adams nor Brian Dozier hit at a league-average rate, and both were bench fodder by October.
But as the Nationals sought new veteran contributors, they were able to replace the underperformers via a range of transactional activity. After coming to Washington from Toronto in an under-the-radar July trade, Daniel Hudson ascended to the closer role by October and secured the final outs of the World Series. Asdrúbal Cabrera joined the club in August after being released by the Rangers, and he ended up starting five World Series games. And the likes of Howie Kendrick, signed as a free agent two years ago, and Aníbal Sánchez, signed last winter, gained much more prominent roles than the Nationals initially anticipated.
Corbin was the prize of the winter and he pitched like it, a half-decade after the Nationals’ last lucrative addition, Max Scherzer. Those two signings, along with a Strasburg extension, meant the Nationals had the most expensive pitching trio in the majors this year: Scherzer, Strasburg, and Corbin each ranked among the top 13 starting pitchers in average salary. The combined outlay for those three pitchers outstripped some entire team payrolls.
The expenditure was undoubtedly worth it. In the regular season, the Nationals led the majors in WAR from starting pitchers. And in the playoffs, they were able to leverage their top arms even further. Strasburg became the first pitcher to go 5-0 in a single postseason, collecting a 1.98 ERA and 47 strikeouts versus four walks; he beat Justin Verlander in two World Series starts and won MVP honors. Scherzer went 3-0 with a 2.40 ERA, even as he battled injuries. And while Corbin was less consistent than his right-handed rotation-mates, he was just as important because of his flexibility in usage: He made three starts plus six relief appearances, ranging in length from one out to three full innings, and secured key outs in the club’s series-clinching wins in the NLDS, NLCS, and World Series.
Washington’s no. 4 starter received much less playing time and hype, but he further epitomizes the club’s roster-building strategy. Sánchez had suffered through three consecutive dreadful seasons in Detroit before bouncing back with Atlanta in 2018, and Washington trusted his numbers enough to offer him a two-year deal worth $19 million (plus a 2021 club option) last December.
Sánchez wasn’t the equal of his Cy Young–contending teammates, but he gained considerable value in the role he was asked to fill. The soft-tossing veteran was worth 2.5 wins above replacement this year, and among no. 4 starters, only the Cubs’ Yu Darvish (2.6) and Twins’ Kyle Gibson (2.5) were as valuable in the rotation. Sánchez’s resurgence carried through his first two playoff starts, as he allowed one run in five innings against the Dodgers and nearly no-hit the Cardinals in Game 1 of the NLCS, before he finally ran out of steam against the Astros.
The lineup’s version of Sánchez—a veteran seemingly on the downslope of his career who outperformed expectations to support a more celebrated core—was Kendrick, who first joined the Nationals at the 2017 trade deadline. Upon reaching free agency that winter, he re-signed for two years and $7 million; after missing most of the 2018 season with a torn Achilles, he forced his way into the starting lineup this year and, by championship win probability added, proved the Nationals’ second-most-important player of the entire championship run.
Kendrick helped Washington reach the playoffs after a 19-31 start to the season, as he would have led the majors in batting average had he managed enough at-bats to qualify. In October, he clubbed the NLDS-winning grand slam on the road in Game 5, then won NLCS MVP honors, then clubbed the World Series–winning home run on the road in Game 7. That final blow tied for the ninth-most-important play in postseason history, by cWPA—well worth a $7 million price tag.
As so many MLB teams seek cost-controlled talent, with service time and arbitration considerations seemingly as important as on-field ability, the Nationals stocked the back of their lineup and bench with veterans. They were active in free agency and the trade market, and they added both players who were generally valuable and players who could fill a specific hole. In 2018, for instance, the Nationals’ catchers combined for sub-replacement-level production, so the team signed Kurt Suzuki and traded for Yan Gomes.
The final, title-winning lineup ended as a worthy mix of young and old, starry and supporting, homegrown—from the old guard, Ryan Zimmerman, to the new, Juan Soto—and mercenary. The pitching staff, meanwhile, underscored the roster’s dynamism: The only homegrown pitchers who appeared in the playoffs were Strasburg and Wander Suero, the latter of whom didn’t pitch in a game the Nationals won.
It’s somewhat silly to draw conclusions from a succession of small-sample series. The Nationals easily could have been eliminated a number of times before winning the title; had Josh Hader or Clayton Kershaw or a number of different Astros pitchers successfully staved off Washington comebacks this month, the Nationals wouldn’t seem like an obvious model at all.
No team in @MLB history had ever trailed in 4 elimination games in a single #Postseason and come back to win them all.— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) October 31, 2019
The 2019 #WorldSeries champion Washington Nationals did it 5 times. pic.twitter.com/sdZojp7omf
But that binary assessment does a disservice to the Nationals, who have experienced sustained success ever since breaking through earlier this decade. In the past eight years, they finished above .500 eight times and reached the playoffs five, and only the Dodgers won more total games. Plus, a complying team shouldn’t need to win a title in order for the general message to translate: Teams win with good players, and they can generally find good players if they simply try, and aren’t afraid of costs. The Astros, for what it’s worth, had the top two starters in average salary because they weren’t dissuaded from trading for contracts belonging to Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander.
Still, too many teams seem excessively concerned with the luxury tax to learn this lesson, as even recent winners in Boston and Houston seem intent on reining in costs to the point that a superstar like Mookie Betts might be traded. With that grim reality in mind, it wouldn’t be a surprise for the upcoming offseason to adopt the same arduously slow process of its predecessors. Last winter, the Nationals were among the first teams to strike; by the end of December, they had already signed Corbin, signed Sánchez, and added two new catchers while the rest of the league dawdled.
Now the Nationals are champions, and even if they required a succession of miracles to reach that finish line, their general team-building model should stand tall of its own accord. Their offseason activity is why they appeared to be a title contender before the 2019 season began, and their concentrated talent core and midseason surge are why they looked like a threat to better teams by September. A month later, they finally fulfilled that promise—and in so doing, added another piece of evidence that clubs can contend if only they try.