Quarantine has got us thinking: What are some interesting “What Ifs” in D.C. sports history? Sure, there’s the obvious ones — Robert Griffin’s leg, Stephen Strasburg’s shutdown. But let’s explore the forgotten/lesser-known what-ifs. First up: What if the Nats never recovered from their 19-31 start this time last year?
Let’s hop in a time machine and travel back exactly one year.
Washington Nationals fans know what’s going on at this time of year in 2019: The Nationals are about to emerge from a horrid 19-31 start to the season, get on the right track, pump plenty of “Baby Shark” through the stadium speakers and eventually make history.
Let’s say we were able to do something small, butterfly-effect style, to change that now-historic turnaround. The Nationals lose 31 of their first 50 games and then … keep on losing.
How different of a world would we be living in today?
For the purposes of this thought exercise, we won’t say the Nationals totally tanked and finished with the worst record in baseball, but rather that they missed the playoffs by a pretty distant margin. As a result, not only would the franchise still be chasing its first World Series title, but the present-day roster would almost certainly look quite different.
First, it’s safe to say that Dave Martinez wouldn’t have seen a third season as manager in Washington after a disastrous sophomore year — because the Nationals wouldn’t just have been bad, they would have been a stomach-turning disappointment, given the high payroll and higher expectations. “You couldn’t lead a team with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin leading the starting rotation plus Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto at the plate?” folks would say.
It would be the second straight season the Nationals, once a perennial National League favorite, missed the playoffs. Every columnist in town was calling for Martinez’ job in May 2019. He wouldn’t survive.
Then what about general manager Mike Rizzo? Not only would the front office look bad for not sticking with manager Dusty Baker following the 2017 season, but wouldn’t fans rip the tape off their Bryce Harper jerseys and wonder if things would have been different had Washington paid its superstar in free agency?
Speaking of Harper, suppose the Nationals’ season is going down the tube. They’re in fourth place in the NL East as the calendar turns to July (the Marlins, predictably, are still bad). The front office thinks back to the chance it had to trade Bryce Harper at the 2018 deadline, the missed opportunity to rustle up a handful of top prospects in exchange for half a season of a pending free agent.
Given the Nationals’ position as sellers here, there’s no way they would make the same mistake with Anthony Rendon.
Other Major League clubs would see Rendon for what he’s worth — his potential as a fringe MVP candidate at a difficult position like third base — and line up their bids. The Nationals would at least have to listen, right? This could mean Rendon would end up somewhere new and sign an extension there after the 2019 season, rather than sign with the Angels, where he is now.
More likely, closer Sean Doolittle probably would have been dealt. There were trade rumors involving Doolittle in real life, until Washington stabilized and started winning in June and July, that is. Everyone would be pointing to the bullpen as the reason for Washington’s collapsed expectations, and while Doolittle might be an unfair scapegoat for that, he’d get the Nationals a decent return in a trade.
How about trading Max Scherzer?
Maybe pump the brakes on that one. This was an actual question some posed after the Nationals’ awful start, and maybe there is a modicum of possibility the Nationals would have listened to offers, but some players have to be untouchable.
Moving away from the Nationals’ roster for a moment, what might the world look like if they hadn’t made the playoffs? It’s fair to say that the New York Mets, who owned the NL’s sixth-best record in 2019, would make the wild card game in Washington’s place. But they’re less important — what this really means is that without the Nationals there to stymie them, the Los Angeles Dodgers would almost definitely advance to the 2019 World Series to face the Houston Astros, in a rematch of 2017’s series.
From here, we can imagine one of two alternate realities. In one, the Dodgers finally get over the hump and win their first World Series title in 31 years. (Would Rendon have joined them as a midseason acquisition and gone along for the ride?) This also might mean the Dodgers don’t feel the need to trade for Red Sox star Mookie Betts in the winter of 2020.
In the other alternate reality, the Astros win their second World Series in three years … which only makes the upcoming fallout from their electronic sign-stealing scandal heavier, bringing the entire sport’s integrity into question. The fresher Houston’s most recent championship, the larger the reaction would have been.
After the season, the Nationals would not only need to find a new manager, they’d need to reassess the roster. It’s fair to guess they would still aggressively pursue some bullpen upgrades like Will Harris, the former Astro who signed with Washington in free agency.
But would they have retained Howie Kendrick, for instance, if not for Kendrick’s heroic postseason hits? Would Ryan Zimmerman have decided to retire if he felt that elusive championship was too far out of the team’s reach?
In other ways, though, things wouldn’t change, particularly as it pertains to the Nationals’ young core for the future — Soto, Victor Robles and Carter Kieboom were destined to be on the 2020 big-league roster one way or another.
Thankfully for Nationals fans, who just celebrated the team’s “virtual” World Series ring design unveiling Sunday, this is entirely hypothetical. May 24 last year was a turning point; May 24 this year was a cause for another celebration.