The Washington Nationals are finally throwing in the towel.
After what is without question the most disappointing season in baseball so far, the two-time defending NL East champions have finally acknowledged that the playoffs are beyond them in 2018. Several top players were put on revocable trade waivers this week, and two have been shunted off to contenders.
All the team's assets were on the table, including Bryce Harper, who was reportedly claimed by the Los Angeles Dodgers before being pulled off waivers.
The season has been given up as lost, but this mini-fire sale is not the precursor to a rebuild—at least not yet. General manager Mike Rizzo likely has a specific plan in mind here. The question is whether or not he can pull it off.
Bump in the road
The Nats were expected to win the NL East at a canter this year after winning each of the last two years. But the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies have each arrived a year (or more) ahead of schedule, and the Nationals never got out of first gear. At publishing time, they stand a game under .500, 7.5 games behind the Braves in the East and 6.5 behind a three-way tie for the second NL Wild Card spot. It would take a miracle the likes of the '69 Mets or '07 Phillies for them to get back into things now.
Now, Rizzo has recouped what he can from saleable assets. Infielder Daniel Murphy has gone to the Chicago Cubs for High-A prospect Andruw Monasterio and a player to be named later (or cash considerations). First baseman Matt Adams is heading back to the St. Louis Cardinals, the team that drafted him, for cash.
Harper, as mentioned before, was placed on waivers and claimed by the Dodgers, only to be pulled back. That's not an unusual thing—almost every team places high-profile assets on trade waivers in August to gauge what their market might be like the next year if they should choose to market them. That said, Harper's impending free agency means that's not an option, and Rizzo could have been trying to do what the New York Yankees did in 2016 when they traded Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs only to re-sign him that winter in free agency.
These moves bear a lot of similarities to what Brian Cashman did for the Yankees in 2016. The difference here is that Cashman's Yanks were solidly out of playoff contention well before the non-waiver deadline in July, and could move their players freely. Rizzo, likely buoyed by a good start after the All-Star break, stayed relatively pat on July 31, only offloading reliever Brandon Kintzler and not making any real acquisitions. Now faced with reality, Rizzo has to do what he can within the restrictions of the waiver system to recoup what he can.
This can't all be laid at the feet of Rizzo. There are reports he had multiple deals lined up at the deadline only for his initiative to be vetoed by ownership. Owner Mark Lerner certainly seemed to take some responsibility for Tuesday's moves in an open letter to fans.
What's clear now is that Rizzo has hatched his plan. The question is whether it will work. With only middling prospects and cash coming back, these moves aren't the absolute best that can be, but the Nats will still have a highly competitive roster next season with the likes of Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, teen sensation Juan Soto, and the all-powerful one-two punch of Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg in the rotation. Murphy's place could be taken in two seasons by third-ranked prospect Luis Garcia. If top outfield prospect Victor Robles recovers from the gruesome elbow injury he suffered at Triple-A Syracuse in April, they could even withstand the loss of Harper in free agency and still be a legitimate playoff contender in 2019.
But whether this all works is a question for the future. Now, the Nationals will finish the season as a highly talented spoiler, while the places fall into place for next year and the question of Harper's fate looms in the distance. If this works, the Nats will maintain their status as perennial contenders. If not, Rizzo will likely have to pay the price.