The general manager and manager stopped short of calling it a concession on the remainder of a disappointing season. The owner’s statement, though, was more forthright in its admission that today’s dumping of Daniel Murphy and Matt Adams came about once Nationals officials decided it simply wasn’t going to happen in 2018.
“I believed in this team, and would have loved to see them all play healthy together this season,” managing principal owner Mark Lerner said in that prepared statement delivered shortly after the Nats traded Murphy to the Cubs and Adams to the Cardinals in waiver deals. “However, the time has come for us to make decisions that will bolster our roster for next season and beyond.”
After watching a team that was widely expected at the outset to win its third straight National League East title continually shoot itself in the foot throughout a summer of missed opportunities, Lerner and general manager Mike Rizzo made the decision today to trade away two popular, key veterans who were six weeks away from free agency, receiving marginal prospects and cash in return.
While Rizzo and manager Davey Martinez insisted they aren’t waving the white flag on 2018, the fact that the Nationals take the field tonight with a 62-63 record, a 7 1/2-game deficit staring them in the face and Adrian Sanchez and Andrew Stevenson on the active roster instead of Murphy and Adams speaks volumes about the state of things on South Capitol Street three weeks after the front office stood pat at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline in the hopes the season would turn for the better.
“As you all know, we took a chance at the first deadline and held tight with the belief that that was our best way to compete, kept almost our entire roster intact,” Rizzo said. “I still think today we have the talent base on this team to play competitive games at the end of the season. Realizing, I know what the standings say and what the calendar says, the talent level in that locker room is still great.”
Whether Rizzo and Co. can convince the talented players still left in the clubhouse there’s still a chance to return to the postseason for the fifth time in seven years in the wake of today’s moves remains to be seen. The immediate reaction certainly wasn’t one of overjoyed celebration.
“We have to play better, and when we don’t win games it’s because of us,” said Ryan Zimmerman, the only person to have appeared in a game in every one of the Nationals’ 14 seasons in the District. “It’s not because of Davey or Riz or any of those guys. Those guys get the blame all the time, but at the end of the day if we want to win games we’ve got to play better. So far this year we haven’t. ... We’re not done yet, but it’s nobody’s fault but our own.”
With both traded players only six weeks away from free agency, the Nationals weren’t able to get a haul back in these deals. After Murphy was claimed by the Cubs over the weekend, the two teams worked out a trade that will bring Single-A infielder Andruw Monasterio and a player to be named or cash to Washington. (Rizzo suggested the second player would be chosen at the conclusion of the Florida instructional league or Arizona Fall League.)
The Nationals aren’t getting any players back from the Cardinals for Adams, who simply was allowed to be claimed off waivers for cash considerations.
Rizzo mentioned the “financial flexibility” the Nationals gain from these moves. And they indeed stand to recoup roughly $7 million in 2018 payroll and $5 million in 2019 payroll after their recent trades of Murphy, Adams and reliever Brandon Kintzler.
The Nationals have been over Major League Baseball’s $197 million luxury tax threshold this season, after already crossing the $195 million threshold in 2017. If they exceed the 2019 threshold of $206 million, they would be subject to a 40 percent tax on any money they spend beyond that mark. Asked whether today’s moves were made in part to try to get the club below that figure, Rizzo said that was not the intention.
“I don’t think it moves the needle in the form of getting us under the luxury tax for ‘18,” he said. “But again, it’s such a complicated calculation that I don’t want to say that firmly.”
The Nationals could have ensured that scenario had they dealt away more veterans who had been placed on waivers in recent days. But they did not complete any other deals, electing not to move Bryce Harper despite a reported claim on the slugger by the Dodgers.
“You have to get a deal that makes sense to trade one of the elite players in the game,” Rizzo said.
The deals come exactly three weeks after the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, at which point a Nationals club that was 5 1/2 games back in the National League East essentially stood pat, with Rizzo saying he believed in the talent that already was assembled in the clubhouse to ultimately overtake the Braves and Phillies.
Today, the Nats find themselves under .500 at 62-63 following a brutal road trip to Chicago and St. Louis and a weekend series loss to the last-place Marlins. They’re now 7 1/2 games behind first-place Atlanta, 6 1/2 games behind second-place Philadelphia entering a three-game series that seemed like their last chance to make up significant ground but now will lose some significance.
“Granted, this weekend was a bit disappointing,” said Martinez, whose club lost in 10 innings Saturday night and then was drubbed 12-1 in a lifeless finale. “I think that game on Sunday said a lot. It was ugly. Like I said, we’ve got to move forward. We’ve got six weeks to make things right. I want the boys to come out here for six weeks and play with a lot of energy and let’s try to do what we’re supposed to do.”
Murphy, meeting with reporters shortly after his trade was announced, admitted he was shocked and thanked the Nationals for being the only club to make him a three-year contract offer when he was a free agent after a breakthrough 2015 postseason for the Mets.
“I’m going to be honest with you, I didn’t think I was going to get claimed,” the 33-year-old said. “I thought I would slide right through. But yeah, it was a surprise to me. And my thoughts are, it was really bittersweet. Sat at this podium probably 2 1/2 years ago. The Washington Nationals were the only offer I had. And so they took a chance on me three years ago, and I feel very disappointed in myself that it kind of came to this point. No ill will whatsoever. It was just unfortunate that this was an option.”
Murphy also went out of his way to praise Martinez, the rookie manager “who I fully believe is the right man for the job here in D.C.”
Whether this is the final admission the 2018 season will not include October baseball or not, Rizzo was adamant in reiterating a point he has made throughout the last year: He does not believe the Nationals’ window of opportunity for winning a championship is closing.
Though they could lose Harper, Murphy, Adams, Gio Gonzalez, Ryan Madson, Matt Wieters, Jeremy Hellickson and others to free agency, the Nationals insist they will still contend with a core built around Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, Juan Soto, Zimmerman, Sean Doolittle, Tanner Roark and top prospect Victor Robles, in addition to the money they’ll have to spend this winter after losing high-priced free agents.
“We keep hearing about this window that is closing that I could never understand with the talent base that we have, with the youth that is being infused into this ballclub, with the veteran presence that we have,” Rizzo said. “We like the team we have in 2018. We like the future rosters that we have in place beyond that, and we think we’re going to be a competitive ballclub for a long time.”