The Digging and Filling of Holes

Zack Greinke wasn’t coming to Washington, D.C. unless Boston’s lineup and Philly’s rotation agreed to come with him. That simple, seemingly indisputable fact renders all the digital ink spilled on the subject moot. And yet…

It’s one thing to be spurned by Cliff Lee and told that the Phillies, Yankees or Rangers are closer to contention. None but the most over-eggnoged Nats fan would argue that point. It’s quite another to lose the respectability derby to the Milwaukee Brewers. Taking nothing away from our beer-besotted brethren, the 2010 Brew Crew finished 77-85, 14 games behind the Reds in the NL Central and equally far removed from the Wild Card. They were one game better than Houston and two up on the Cubs. Milwaukee was a whopping 8 games better than the 2010 Washington Nationals. And yet…

The Nats are losers. This is true both from a purely statistical, technical point-of-view (412-599 since relocating before the 2005 season) and in the more intangible sense of having been a ward of the league with a grating carnival barker of a GM who presided over decisions ranging from questionable to side-show worthy. (Come see “Smiley Gonzalez“, The Incredible Aging Boy!) At the same time the front office made the reasonable, but also bottom line-friendly, decision to focus on rebuilding the tattered Expo-Nats farm system at the expense of the big league club. Middling success in that effort has not come without a cost, as Harper notes here.

The side-effects of losing can be subtle. It can be getting Jason Marquis when you’d rather have had Jon Garland, or Adam Kennedy in lieu of Orlando Hudson. Sometimes losing doesn’t even seem that bad, like when missing out on 7 years of Mark Teixeira forces you to “settle” for 2 years of Adam Dunn. But losing always has consequences. Every loss digs a hole, and it gets deeper year-by-year.

Filling the hole means paying superstar money to attract a merely very good outfielder, while hoping to replace a very good first baseman with an adequate, more reasonably priced fill-in. It means that even if you wanted to mortgage your farm system to bring in an ace, you can’t. Zack Greinke knows as well as anyone in baseball what a rebuilding project looks like, from the inside out. When he looked at Washington, he didn’t like what he saw.

Maybe the Nationals dodged a bullet. But it wasn’t by choice. Unless Mike Rizzo is actually incompetent, or secretly in the employ of another NL East club, he wasn’t actively trying to make the team worse by trading 4 or 5 young players to Kansas City. Clearly he thought Greinke would make the Nats better, perhaps even competitive. Clearly Zack disagreed, as had Cliff Lee, Mark Teixeira and who knows who else before him. As a Nats fan that’s disappointing but not unexpected.

The fact that it’s not unexpected is the problem, and it’s one that the team doesn’t seem to have an answer for. The Phillies get Cliff Lee, the Brewers get Zack Greinke, the Nats get Chien-Ming Wang. On the verge of the new year, that’s a perfect an encapsulation of the state of the franchise. Happy Holidays, Nats fans!

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