Do the Washington Nationals have team culture issues?


The Washington Nationals have watched free agents reject their offers for less money with other teams, trade targets block trades in order to stay with rebuilding clubs, and highly respected members of the baseball community criticize their clubhouse culture. Is there really a serious problem in this organization?

On December 4th, it was reported that the Nationals were the “clear front-runner” for premiere free agent reliever Darren O’Day and that “a deal could happen soon.” Three days later, the news broke that the Baltimore Orioles had signed him on a four-year deal.

After things fell through with O’Day, the Nats shifted their sights to free agent super utility man Ben Zobrist, reportedly offering him a four-year, $60 million contract. However, the 34-year old switch hitter decided to sign with the Chicago Cubs for $4 million less.

As if things couldn’t get any worse, Washington wasn’t done yet. On December 10th, the Nats emerged as the “mystery team” in the Jason Heyward sweepstakes, offering the three-time Gold Glover winner a reported $200 million deal. He went on to sign for $184 million with the Cubs the next day.

While the free agent market began to thin, several trade targets grew more attractive. Mike Rizzo and Co. discussed possible deals with the Cincinnati Reds for All-Stars Aroldis Chapman and Brandon Phillips. They ultimately lost out on Chapman to the Los Angeles Dodgers (who rescinded their offer after domestic abuse allegations) and could never reach an agreement with Phillips, who held leverage in trade talks as a 10-and-5 player.

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Now, this offseason hasn’t been a total failure for this Nationals franchise. They have signed free agent relievers Oliver Perez, Shawn Kelley, and Yusmeiro Petit to reasonable deals while trading expendable infielder Yunel Escobar for 23-year old bullpen arm Trevor Gott. However, despite winning their division in two of the past four seasons, boasting the National League MVP, and playing host to one of the most formidable front ends of the rotation in all of baseball, superstars are showing a disturbing trend of not wanting to come to D.C.

The clubhouse atmosphere at the end of 2015 began to falter once they lost the division to the eventual pennant-winning New York Mets. Midseason addition Jonathan Papelbon put the team’s anger and frustrations on display during his dugout altercation with Bryce Harper. Harper himself faces constant criticism for his supposed bad attitude and “inflated ego.”

Former closer Drew Storen collapsed after the organization stripped him of ninth inning duties in favor of Papelbon, despite his stellar season to that point. He finished the year on the disabled list after breaking his thumb while slamming his locker following a rough outing.

Tanner Roark finished 2014 with a 2.85 ERA in 31 starts with the Nats, but was demoted to a bullpen role after Washington signed Max Scherzer over the offseason. He was never able to find any consistency in his new position, ending the year with a 4.38 ERA and a lot of questions surrounding his future with the organization.

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When all was said and done, the Nationals missed the postseason in 2015, despite their hyped preseason expectations. Players, fans, and the media began to get the impression that the Nats punished players for being successful.

The top reliever on the free agent market isn’t going to sign with a team that decides that their dominant closer should take the back seat to a guy with comparable numbers and a history of anger management issues. Experienced veterans know when they see a troubled clubhouse, and Zobrist was willing to take a pay cut in order to play in a different uniform. Heyward decided that his ultimate destination would depend on the team’s young, controllable talent that he would play alongside, and deemed Chicago a better fit. Brandon Phillips decided that his already costly contract wasn’t worth it if he made the move to Washington.

These developments are alarming, not just for fans, but for the organization’s future as well. If the playoff wins don’t start adding up, their best player might end up wearing pinstripes in 2019. Next season will be a very telling year for this Nationals franchise. Can Harper repeat his other-worldly success? Will Trea Turner emerge as a franchise cornerstone? How will the bullpen fare after the offseason mini-rebuild? With all these crucial questions looming over the Nats’ heads, clubhouse drama is the very last thing this team needs.