Welcome back to “What If?” Wednesdays, our now-regular feature where we take a peek into the funhouse mirror to see how the Nationals’ history might have been different if one event had changed.
It’s kind of like in “Back to the Future Part II,” where Old Biff gives Young Biff a book with all of the sports scores for the next 45 years, paving the way for gambling riches that allow him to take over Hill Valley. Except our version doesn’t have any horrific alternate universes or threats of space-time continuum tears. Then again, this is only our second time doing this, so we probably can’t completely rule that out.
Anyway, we’re taking a trip today back to August 2008, when the Nationals were heading down to the wire in their heated negotiations for first-round pick Aaron Crow. You know what happened: General manager Jim Bowden went back and forth with the Hendricks brothers, Crow’s advisers, trading versions of offers with different bells and whistles like a major league contract, a guaranteed September call-up and more money than the Orioles gave Brian Matusz, the fourth pick in the draft. At the end of the night, though, the two sides ended up less than $1 million apart. Crow went to play independent ball for the Fort Worth Cats, and went 14th overall to the Royals in 2009, signing for $3 million after another protracted negotiation. The Nationals got the 10th overall pick as compensation, and took Drew Storen, pairing him with Stephen Strasburg in a draft that has the potential to define the organization for the next five to seven years.
But what if the two sides had come to a deal that night and the Nationals had signed Crow? Bowden had said the Nationals were promising the right-hander a September 2008 call-up, like they gave Ross Detwiler the year before, and it’s feasible to think he would have contended for a spot in a thin rotation in 2009.
From Crow’s time with the Royals, though, it’s safe to guess he might not have worked out as a starter, considering the team moved him to the bullpen in 2011 after he had a 5.73 ERA between Single-A and Double-A in 2010. Maybe his results would have been better in Washington; maybe they wouldn’t have. But when Crow made his first All-Star appearance this year, it was as a setup man. He was taking questions on media day a few feet away from where Tyler Clippard, the Nationals’ own All-Star setup man, had taken them earlier that day.
Let’s say Crow comes to Washington, fizzles as a starter and becomes a solid setup man. Does that mean Clippard ends up in a different role in the bullpen? What do the Nationals do about a closer? They took Storen in 2009 while Joel Hanrahan was bouncing in and out of the closer’s role, and traded Hanrahan three weeks after Storen signed. Hanrahan became an All-Star closer in Pittsburgh, but he also said at media day this year that he didn’t think things would have worked out for him in Washington.
That’s what makes this particular case so interesting: three of the pitchers involved in the outcome ended up at this year’s All-Star Game, and a fourth became the second pitcher in Nationals history to save more than 40 games in a season. Had Crow stayed in Washington, all that may have worked out the same way, assuming Hanrahan had put things back together in 2010 and Clippard had still gotten a chance to pitch late in games. There’s even a chance the Nationals could have taken Storen with the 50th overall pick of the 2009 draft, if the teams picking later in the round hadn’t valued him as highly as they did.
In all likelihood, though, Hanrahan needed a change of scenery to become a top-end closer - which would have meant the decision to sign Crow would have probably left the Nationals looking for someone else to handle the end of games. Would that have been Clippard? Would that have been Matt Capps? Would he have stayed in Washington, instead of going to Minnesota for Wilson Ramos last year? We won’t follow the trail that far - though I’m curious to hear what you think might have happened in that case - but it’s hard to believe Storen would have been on the board at No. 50 in 2009, considering many teams had ranked him as a first-round talent.
The way things worked out in the end, it’s hard to imagine everyone’s not happy: Crow is pitching for his hometown team, Hanrahan has become a success in Pittsburgh, and in Clippard and Storen, the Nationals have a pair of wisecracking roommates who look like they could be shutting down games for years.
Had Crow signed in August 2008, maybe everything would have gone just as smoothly. But with so many contingencies that could have changed, it’s probably safe to say things worked out for the best.
What do you think would have happened if the Nationals had signed Crow? Are there other ripple effects from the decision that I’m missing? Leave your thoughts in the comments section and let me know?
Follow Ben Goessling on Twitter: @MASNBen