Washington Nationals Editorial: Where Do the Nats Go From Here?

brandonconner
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Today, the Washington Nationals will their final game of 2015, putting the ultimate nail in a coffin full of injuries, disappointment, and clubhouse dissension. Most of the time, the final game of a season carries a bittersweet taste, but for Nationals fans, this feels more like a merciful end than anything. Today’s game serves as the bullet to put this year out of its misery.

No longer will we have to watch an impotent offense struggle to push runs across. No longer will we be forced to cover our eyes when Casey Janssen or Blake Treinen or Drew Storen comes trotting out to the mound. No longer will we have to deal with the unending questions swirling around every single decision made by the clueless Matt Williams.

It couldn’t have come soon enough.

It seems so long ago that everything looked bright for this team. The time that has elapsed since Bryce Harper sat in front of his locker as the team prepared for spring training and asked – even demanded – to know where his ring was feels more like seven years than seven months. Now, for a team that was once a World Series favorite, there’s nothing more to do than play the final nine innings, go home, and ask themselves two very big questions: First, where did it all go wrong? Then, the bigger question, where does the team go from here?

The first question, it seems, has already been answered. The incomparable Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post laid out the timeline of the unraveling in Part III of his series in the Post. The issues with Matt Williams, the emotional frailty of Drew Storen, the team’s unease about Mike Rizzo’s methods; Svrluga lays everything bare, and the results seem somehow shocking and completely expected all at once. No one really knew the details, but after reading, everything makes sense. With the sort of dysfunction that apparently ran rampant in the clubhouse, the bigger question would be how anyone ever expected the Nationals to succeed.

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The answer to the second question, however, is a lot murkier. Where does this team go from here? Can they expect to win with just a few minor tweaks, or is a massive overhaul necessary? Who goes? Who stays? And who’s going to be in charge?

Given everything that’s been revealed over the past few weeks regarding Matt Williams and his control (or lack thereof) of the clubhouse, it’s practically a certainty that he’ll be let go. As for the players? Question marks cloud every position, and that isn’t exactly helped by the number of key players set to hit free agency.

One has to assume that Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann, as much as they’ve meant to this organization, will not be back in 2016. Denard Span‘s back injuries have put his career in jeopardy, much less his time with the Nationals. Doug Fister, a rock for the team in 2014, played himself out of the rotation in 2015 and likely out of any shot at another contract.

The list of worries doesn’t end with free agents, though. If anything, the questions only get harder to answer.

At the top of that list are two of the team’s biggest earners: Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman. Both missed significant time with injury in 2015, and both appear to clearly be on the downward slope of their career. For Zimmerman, the question is simply one of health; can he keep his body from breaking down over the grind of a 162-game season?

For Werth, the question is performance. Sure, his bat finally came around at the end of the season, but he looks incapable of fielding his position any longer, making him a liability in the field. Playing in the National League, the Nats also don’t have the luxury of being able to slot him in as a DH, and unless the Lerners are willing to eat a large chunk of the $42 million that Werth is owed over the next two seasons, it’s impossible to see Werth as trade bait.

The rotation appears to be the most stable part of the equation. Sure, they underperformed in 2015, but Max Scherzer is still an elite pitcher, and once Stephen Strasburg was healthy, he pitched up to expectations. Joe Ross appears to be another of Mike Rizzo’s hidden gems. Gio Gonzalez is a serviceable fifth starter. The biggest concern will be Tanner Roark, and whether he can return to 2014 form after being jerked back and forth from the bullpen to the rotation and back again so many times. And if he can’t, can one of the young arms in the Nats farm system step up?

Lastly, of course, is the smoldering pile of hot garbage that is the Nationals bullpen, which contains more difficult questions than the LSAT. Run your eyes down the list of relievers on the Nationals roster, and it’s shorter to list the players who aren’t flaming piles of excrement. The Nationals bullpen doesn’t need to be reworked. It needs to be launched into the sun and rebuilt from scratch.

Casey Janssen and Matt Thornton are the easiest to get rid of. Janssen has a $7 million mutual option on his one-year deal, but it’s impossible to see the Nationals opting to keep Janssen on at that price given how poorly he performed, particularly in key spots. Thornton is an unrestricted free agent and almost 40; if he’s back in 2016, it’s on no more than a one-year contract.

The most intriguing pieces of the Nationals bullpen, however, are the two who served as closers in 2015, Jonathan Papelbon and Drew Storen, and the fact is that the Nationals might be better off without both.

If there is one thing that was made abundantly clear by Mike Rizzo’s maneuvering at the trade deadline, it’s this: he doesn’t trust Storen in October. Storen’s numbers in the regular season, as good as they were, weren’t enough. If the Nationals needed three outs with a one-run lead in the playoffs, Rizzo wanted someone else on the mound. Storen clearly read between the lines, too. After Papelbon arrived, he pitched angry for all of two games. Then, he turned into an abject disaster, playing a key role in the Nationals meltdown against the Mets. Now, the best bet for turning Storen’s career around is a change of location; a trade in the offseason likely lies in Storen’s future.

Storen’s replacement looks every bit as likely to wind up outside of Washington in the offseason, too. In addition to being the straw that broke Drew Storen’s heart, Papelbon also lived up to his reputation as a malcontent and a locker room cancer. He threw at Manny Machado, and then, to top it all off, he went after the one player on the Nationals who lived up to expectation this season, Bryce Harper. Papelbon’s option is guaranteed for 2016, but there’s no way he can be on this roster come April. As much as it hurts, ownership needs to write Papelbon a check and tell him to get out. If Papelbon ever shows up at Nationals Park ever again, trespassing charges should be filed.

Sunday will mark the end of a long, difficult road for the Nationals, a road fraught with disappointment and unmet expectations. It will also bring with it more questions about what lies ahead, more concerns about what direction, exactly, this team is headed. Soon, fans will have to start worrying about how to fix all the things that went wrong in 2015.

For a moment, though, Nationals fans can exhale and at least know that the pain and the suffering that they’ve endured over the past six months have finally come to a close. For a moment, they can catch their breath and not have to worry about blown leads and bad decisions. For now, they can take a break from all the heartbreak of the 2015 Washington Nationals.

All good things must come to an end. Fortunately, so too must this season.

Next: Nats Drop Season Finale To Mets, 1-0

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