Nationals enter a pivotal offseason, perhaps their last with superstar Bryce Harper
The clock is ticking, and the alarm is about to go off before Harper becomes a free agent after 2018
One of these years, the Washington Nationals are going to win a postseason series. Alas, 2017 will not be that year -- not after the Nationals were officially eliminated with their loss to the Chicago Cubs in Game 5 of the National League Division Series.
The problem with the Nationals is that they're at an odd point in their existence. If it feels like this team has been waiting to launch deep into October for the last half-decade, that's because … well, they have. The Nationals dropped that unforgettable LDS to the St. Louis Cardinals in 2012 (five years to the day). Since then, the Nationals have won multiple postseason games just once -- and that was last year, before they bowed out against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
There's no denying the Nationals have been a wildly successful regular-season team. They haven't had a losing season since 2011 (they won 80 that year), and they've won 95 or more games four times in the last six seasons. But this is no longer a team waiting on their burgeoning young stars to coalesce into something special before making a run at a title. Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann are long, long gone -- as Nationals, and perhaps as productive ballplayers. Jayson Werth's contract is about to expire. Heck, Bryce Harper is a year away from free agency himself. The clock isn't just ticking -- the alarm is about to go off.
The next 12 months, then, are going to prove to be pivotal. Not just in how the Nationals handle Harper, but in how they handle every decision. Do they bring back manager Dusty Baker, or will Mike Rizzo try a different skipper? Will they be players in the free-agent and trade markets, or do they go forth with mostly the same roster in place, hoping that a healthy Adam Eaton makes the difference? What about Harper, anyway -- is there any chance whatsoever at retaining him?
We don't know the answers to those questions. We do know the Nationals also have to contend with the expiring contracts of Gio Gonzalez, Daniel Murphy, and Ryan Madson after next season -- and that they'll be paying Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg roughly $70 million combined in 2019. In other words, this is a team built to win now -- but one that will remain expensive later.
The upshot is we know the Nationals will be good in 2018. We know they have an outstanding core in place. We know there's the potential for internal improvement through development of pieces like Trea Turner and Victor Robles. We just don't know if they'll be able to get over the hump once they get to the postseason. Here's hoping -- it would be a shame if the Harper era in D.C. ends without so much as an appearance in the League Championship Series.
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