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MLB -- Their 2018 plans derailed, Washington Nationals seek a sense of direction

ESPN.com | Updated: 2018-08-26 22:30:16

BALTIMORE -- A rival evaluator noted the other day that among all of the would-be contenders, the Washington Nationals probably vied with the Cleveland Indians at the outset of spring training as the most prohibitive favorites to make the playoffs. The perception at that time was that the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies would need at least another year to join baseball's elite, and the New York Mets needed everything to go right. And the Miami Marlins were tanking.

By comparison, the Nationals were loaded -- and even after conceding the National League East last week with the trades of Daniel Murphy and Matt Adams, they are still loaded. Ace Max Scherzer is arguably the planet's best pitcher, and with his career-low ERA of 2.13 he has a chance to win the Cy Young Award for the third consecutive year. Nineteen-year-old Juan Soto has an on-base percentage over .400 and appears to be in a two- or three-man race for NL Rookie of the Year.

Third baseman Anthony Rendon, shortstop Trea Turner and right fielder Bryce Harper all rank among the top 20 players in the NL in FanGraphs' WAR. Murphy was hitting about .360 in the five weeks leading up to the time he was dealt. At the time of the moves, Washington had a run differential of plus-65 -- one of the league's highest.

But the 2018 Nationals make no sense, and so did a lot of decisions made along the way:

• In the final hours before the July 31 trade deadline, the Nationals decided to keep their team together and try to rebound -- hardly unreasonable, given their collection of talent. That day, the Nationals were 5½ games out of first place in the NL East. Washington was 7½ games out of first place last Tuesday and about to start a series against the Phillies, but the Nationals surrendered with more than a week remaining before the Aug. 31 deadline for contenders to add postseason-eligible players.

Rival officials wondered why Washington didn't just wait a little while longer. "It's not like the value of [Murphy] would've gone down in that last week," one rival evaluator said.

The Nationals' strategy of July and August was like giving up most of their pile of chips on a bet for a pair of fives -- and then folding before seeing the final card.

• Once the Nationals decided to sell and move Murphy and Adams, they should have made the best deal possible with all of their impending free agents, including Harper, to recoup as much prospect value as they could. The Nationals have demonstrated their loyalty and belief in Harper throughout his career, with general manager Mike Rizzo defending him repeatedly, as needed; they have proved themselves to him.

Harper is represented by agent Scott Boras, whose clients have usually signed with the highest bidder -- so the Nationals have to know that their chances of retaining Harper will come down to their offer this winter, and not because of a personal relationship fostered through the end of the 2018 season. With that in mind, they should have traded him to the Dodgers, the team that claimed him, for the best possible deal.

• When the Nationals made the decision to keep the club together through the July 31 deadline, they should have grabbed some of the pitching available in the market to augment the staff. Instead, they traded reliever Brandon Kintzler and, not long after the deadline, they cut right-hander Shawn Kelley for perceived insubordination. To merely hold the team together without improving the club was a weak half-measure.

• Dusty Baker led the Nationals to the NL East title last year, seemed headed for an extension -- and then was let go after one day of miscommunication over Stephen Strasburg's status in the playoffs. Rizzo was given an extension earlier this season, for one of the highest GM salaries in baseball, but for only two years. In so many instances in recent years, these were strange half-measures.

The demise of the Nationals' franchise for the immediate future has been overstated, with the core of Scherzer, Rendon, Turner and Soto in place. They could bounce back quickly. But as the Nationals move forward and try to correct past mistakes, it would be helpful if they work to figure out why so many players have left the organization speaking of an unusual and sometimes counterproductive clubhouse culture. Rizzo could either meet with his most respected veterans and ask for blunt assessments, or anonymously poll members of his clubhouse.

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The Baltimore Orioles are going through the same kind of transition the New York Yankees did after the 2007 season, when the children of George Steinbrenner -- who was born on July 4 in 1930 -- began to assume more day-to-day responsibility in the family business. Hal Steinbrenner eventually emerged as the primary officer.

Peter Angelos, born on July 4 in 1929, built an extremely lucrative law practice and bought the Orioles in 1993. This year, he has been less visible, and the sons of the patriarch, John and Lou, have made more decisions. The Orioles, long viewed as somewhat distracted and sluggish in the execution of baseball decisions, moved quickly through the pre-July 31 business, with GM Dan Duquette arranging trades of Manny Machado, Zach Britton, Kevin Gausman and others, beginning what will likely be a lengthy rebuilding process. The payroll of about $150 million has already been slashed dramatically, with more cuts to come.

More decisions are needed immediately, for the sake of folks within the organization who wonder what will come next.

First, Duquette's contract is set to expire at the end of this season, and the fact that ownership trusted him to make summer trades suggest it could be prepared to arrange a contract extension. If that's the intention of the Angelos family, it should do that as soon as possible, for the sake of stability, to lift the fog of doubt that has settled into the halls of Camden Yards in the midst of the worst season in franchise history. If Duquette is not the guy they want to run the baseball operations, they should already be deep into discussions about who his successor will be, because soon enough, other teams will make changes and the Orioles will have to compete for front-office talent. One of the few advantages possibly gleaned from a season in which you finish more than 50 games out of first place is certainty: The Orioles have understood the full context of their GM decision for months, and they should be prepared to move quickly.

Next, the Orioles need to determine where Brady Anderson falls into their chain of command, whether it's between the Angelos family and the GM, or below the general manager, or whatever. Anderson has played a lot of roles with the organization, from player evaluation to player improvement to complementing Duquette in ongoing negotiations. A lot of former players don't have use for analytics, but Anderson is very different; when I covered him as a player for the Baltimore Sun in the mid-'90s, he had a greater understanding of statistics than a lot of general managers at that time, and he is progressive in thought.

But in recent seasons, there has been a lot of confusion among some agents and some other teams -- and within the Orioles' organization -- about who makes the decisions, and who is the right person for the right conversation at the right time. The Angelos sons could help by defining Anderson's role, because as the Mets have demonstrated with their bizarre leadership structure -- in which subordinates have more power than the bosses they answer to, depending on whose ear they have in the moment -- a distinct chain of command makes for the most efficient operation.

Finally, the Orioles should determine the next course for manager Buck Showalter as soon as possible, with his help. His contract is also set to expire after this, his 20th season of managing in the big leagues, and Showalter has more career wins (1,541) than Hall of Famers Earl Weaver and Miller Huggins. The guy just ahead of him on the all-time wins list is Terry Francona, in 23rd place. The Orioles were a dormant franchise when Showalter took over in 2010, and he led them to the postseason three times.

But there are only three players left from the 2014 team that won the American League East -- outfielder Adam Jones, first baseman Chris Davis and catcher Caleb Joseph -- and the Orioles are headed into a time for a major rebuild.

The Angelos family should determine now whether it would like for Showalter to continue through that long transition, and if so, it should ascertain his feelings about the matter. If the Orioles intend to let him go, or if Showalter would prefer to depart, the family should allow him to go out on his terms.

To review: a resolution as soon as possible; an announcement, one way or the other; and then, if he's leaving, he should be honored for his excellent work for the franchise. Over the past year, the Orioles have reconnected with legends Brooks Robinson and Eddie Murray; clearly, there is a change in how they're conducting business. And how the Angelos family handles the big decisions ahead will say a lot about the direction of the franchise, as it enters a period in which it will need to engender as much good will as possible within the community.

• The Indians transformed their bullpen with a trade for left-hander Brad Hand and right-hander Adam Cimber, lowering the team's relief ERA by two runs. But Cleveland has a growing problem at closer with Cody Allen. He surrendered back-to-back homers Friday night, the 10th and 11th he's allowed this season, a career high, and he has a 5.70 ERA since the end of May. As the Indians prepare for the postseason, Francona might have to consider alternatives for the ninth inning.

• When Gary Sanchez went on the disabled list July 24, the Yankees staff strongly encouraged him to improve his physical condition as he went through his rehabilitation for a groin strain, and he has lost about 10 to 15 pounds. The Yankees are typically conservative in their handling of injured players, and the big deficit behind the Boston Red Sox and seeming inevitability of a second-place finish in the AL East provides even more time for Sanchez, Aaron Judge and now Aroldis Chapman to focus on healing.

• The St. Louis Cardinals have been blistering hot since Mike Shildt took over as manager July 15, and second baseman Kolten Wong is among those players whose performance has turned. Wong is hitting almost .350 since the All-Star break, with an on-base percentage of about .400, while continuing to play exceptional Gold Glove caliber defense. Shildt's formal title is interim manager, but Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt has praised Shildt for the team's play.

• The Los Angeles Dodgers weren't able to arrange a trade for Bryce Harper after being awarded a waiver claim for him, and the Nationals pulled Harper back from waivers. But that doesn't mean the Dodgers weren't serious: At the same time they made the move on Harper, they also placed some expensive veterans on the waiver wire. The perception of rival front offices is that the Dodgers, who have worked to stay under the $197 luxury tax threshold this season, were preparing to dump some salary in case they landed Harper.

And today will be better than yesterday.

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