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Nats win the Series, but might rethink how they got there!

by J.W. Miller on 11/04/19

Yes, the World Series is over so let’s give a tip of the cap to the Washington Nationals in winning what was one of the strangest fall classics ever. Strange because home-field advantage was ushered to the curb as the visiting team, for the first time in the history of major team sports, won in each of the seven games. That’s like your grandmother hosting Christmas dinner only to watch the ungrateful savages ignore her oven-baked turkey, mashed potatoes and cornbread while they wolfed down Aunt Dorothy’s banana salad, Aunt Emily’s oyster casserole and Aunt Ann’s turkey sausage soufflé. Damned near unAmerican! 

But now that we just enjoyed another football bye week, we have plenty of time to look ahead to what formerly was called the Hot Stove League. That is where the executives of the 29 Major League Baseball teams that did not win the World Series try and decide what went wrong and how they are going to fix it. I understand the feeling. After every championship season, there is one genius and a bunch of idiots. 

I was never with a team that won the Super Bowl, so I’ve lived much of my professional life as an idiot. So I was wondering after the baseball idiots do their offseason reflections, will they follow the winning formula of the past two Series winners and stack up on stars? Or is there another way?

The star search was the path to glory for the last two World Series champs, according a Wall Street Journal story last week that labeled the Nats’ path to success as “the power of stars.” Leading up to this season, they had signed free agent Max Scherzer, who won the Cy Young award in Detroit and then followed with two more with the Nats. They extended former No. 1 overall draft pick Stephen Strasburg for $175 million and re-signed essential veteran Ryan Zimmerman for $100 million. 

They also tried to re-sign another of their own stars in Bryce Harper last off-season but dropped out of the bidding after he rejected their $300 million offer and signed with the Phillies. No problem, with half of that money they signed pitchers Anibál Sanchéz and Patrick Corbin, who pitched three shutout innings in relief of Scherzer in Game 7. In October, Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin and Sanchez accounted for 70% of the Nats’ innings and notched a collective 3.01 ERA. “To win a world championship, your stars have got to be stars,” said Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo. “And our stars were stars in these playoffs.”

The Red Sox took much the same path in winning the 2018 Series. They traded for pitcher Chris Sale and signed free agent pitchers David Price and Craig Kimbrel and slugger J.P. Martinez. During the season, they traded for pitcher Nathan Eovaldi who arguably was their best pitcher down the stretch, and eventual Series MVP Steve Pearce. GM Dave Dombrowski wrapped those veterans around home-grown products such as Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benitendi and Jackie Bradley, Jr., and the Sox won their fourth Series title since 2004.

But a strategy gaining traction is the one popularized by the Oakland A’s and adopted by the Tampa Bay Rays and Minnesota Twins: Develop your own stars and when their value soars trade them for prospects - more potential young stars. The underlying theme here is that it’s not always the best team that wins the World Series. It’s just as often the hottest team in the second half of the season.

The rumors around MLB is that one of the “power of stars” recent champions may soon be headed in the opposite strategic direction. When the Red Sox hired GM Dave Dombrowski in 2015, they gave him a blank check to build a championship club and he delivered. But now the Red Sox have the highest payroll in baseball, and owner John Henry wants to scale back with a process-oriented architect who can steer the franchise efficiently through the transition to the next championship. 

Last week Henry hired 36-year-old Chaim Bloom as president of baseball operations. Bloom’s last posting was Tampa where he helped build a team that finished 12 games ahead of the Red Sox and went to the playoffs. Oh, and their $60 million payroll ranked No. 25 of the 30 teams, $160 million behind the No. 1 Red Sox. Sounds like change is a’comin’.

This could be a good lesson for the Nationals’ brass. The Red Sox made nary a change to their 2018 championship roster and flopped. But that should have been no surprise. This was the 19th straight year that the winner of the World Series failed to repeat. Boston made it 10 of 19 who did not even made it back to the playoffs. 

You think somebody will slip that stat to the Nationals’ decision-makers. They already have seen Strasberg decline his four-year player option, and they declined Zimmerman's option. And they haven’t even sobered up from their parades, parties and other celebrations yet! 

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