House of Nats


If you have devoted roughly 15 hours of your life to the Netflix show House of Cards, you might recognize some spectacular similarities between the series and the team whose stadium is prominently displayed in its opening credits.  For those who have never watched it (and those who don’t see the link), allow me to explain…

Without going into too much detail, the Kevin Spacey vehicle centers on the life of Francis Underwood, an established politician who is not afraid to use any trick in the book to further his career.  As the title suggests, each move he makes places his entire body of work in an increasingly precarious position.  Still, he presses on, rising to higher and higher heights despite the fact that one misstep will topple everything he has built up.

The reason why House of Cards is so great, in my opinion, is that even though Mr. Underwood is unrivaled in his game, he ultimately must rely on the fickle personalities of his subordinates and his opponents for his plans to come to fruition.  The House of Nats is no different.  Playing the part of Francis (minus the conniving nature) is general manager Mike Rizzo.  I say this because it’s difficult to find a single opinion column on the Internet that questions Mr. Rizzo’s acumen or execution outside of a few hindsight pieces filed well after transactions have been made and didn’t work out for whatever reason.  In short, he was born for the role.

Since being elevated to primary decision maker for the Washington Nationals in 2009, the organization has improved every year.  Early on, those results were harder to detect, but by the end of the Honorable GM from Illinois’ second two-year term in office (2012), his team arrived on the scene as a major force to be reckoned with, even finishing with the best record in baseball.  Never one to let others dictate the strings he should pull, Rizzo was willing to sacrifice short-term success by shutting down Stephen Strasburg before the postseason began.  [I suppose this was the one instance where columnists proactively derided him.  Still, I think it was the right move.]  No doubt, he made the calculation that the bigger picture was more important than the flesh wounds he might receive from the arrows being launched at him that autumn.  He was thinking a few moves ahead in an effort to form a dynasty that would cement his legacy.  Frank Underwood would be proud.

By 2013, there was no one in his world, or the media that covers it, who didn’t recognize that Mr. Rizzo was playing chess while they played checkers.  The Nationals were the runaway favorites to win it all in the preseason.  Many predicted that the addition of Dan Haren gave them the best rotation in baseball and adding Rafael Soriano to the closer role rounded out a formidable bullpen.  Neither of these moves worked out entirely as planned, but neither was an outright disaster, although Haren was close.  What Rizzo could not have predicted was that for the second straight season, a rising star named Drew Storen that Rizzo had hitched his wagon to was going to send him and his staff into damage control mode.  If you are a fan of the Netflix show, I dare you to dismiss seeing the self-destructive Peter Russo in Storen.

In 2012, it was Storen who was responsible for making that Strasburg move look bad (by not letting them advance to the NLCS).  In 2013, I still contend it was Storen that destroyed the clubhouse chemistry and consequently the team’s record.  All he did was whine about being removed from closer during spring training, which I’m sure did not help Soriano feel welcomed (especially when the other late-inning guy, Tyler Clippard, is Storen’s best friend).  This had to lead to a divide internally, let alone with the fan base (Soriano was never able to recover from this).  Storen then followed this up with pitching so poorly he had to be demoted.  And, again, he came out publicly to complain.  The team eventually took him back and won some meaningless games at the end of the year to finish 10 games over .500.  But they missed the playoffs and,as a result, Rizzo had to work overtime to strengthen his power.

Which brings us to 2014.  As expected, Rizzo worked some backroom deals to land the previously massively underrated Doug Fister for a bunch of spare parts.  A new manager was hired, in the form of Matt Williams.  I liken him to Underwood’s wife, Claire, although I won’t dwell on this connection because it is weak.  [Basically, Williams is on his side and will do whatever Rizzo tells him to do, but you’re never quite sure if his own shortcomings will sabotage Rizzo in the end.]  He also made it his mission to address the one deficiency the club has always seemed to have: bench strength.  Bringing in Nate McLouth and Kevin Frandsen should have done this, but Nate McLouth did not cooperate.  Rizzo didn’t hesitate in-season to sign Nate Schierholtz as a replacement when he became available, a wily move to say the least.  The House of Nats cruised to a division championship and seem poised to make some noise in the NLDS and beyond.  But then Peter Russo fell off the wagon again.

Just to torture Rizzo, Storen had a great regular season that happened to coincide with a Soriano rough patch toward the end of the year.  Consequently, Storen was named closer and excelled in a number of relatively unimportant wins in September.  Fast forward to Game 2 of the NLDS, the linchpin moment of the series.  Jordan Zimmermann was masterful, but, for whatever reason, Claire decided to hand the ball to Russo and Russo promptly gave up two hits that erased the win.  Say whatever you want about the bats in the series, but there would have been a Game 5 if Storen hadn’t blown the lead in Game 2.

Drew Storen has been a liability for Mike Rizzo for too long.  If Mike wants to reach his ultimate goal of constructing his House of Nats to the ceiling, he’s going to have to ditch Storen the way that Underwood took care of Russo.  Okay, not that ruthlessly, but you catch my drift.  I don’t care how many arbitration years Storen has left, he has to be traded.  He does not have the mental makeup to survive in this arena.  I freely admit that the constituent blowback will be strong and that Rizzo would always have such a move hanging over his head, but he has to make Storen disappear to keep moving forward.

In closing, the show and the ballclub are both works in progress, but the similarities between the primary characters is uncanny!