Should the Orioles and Nationals be going for it?

As we near the stretch run in major league baseball, teams on the fringe of the playoffs begin to load up in hopes of earning their way into the postseason. Two teams faced with a tougher dilemma than most are the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals.

Both franchises have been relegated to watching the playoffs from home for years. The Orioles haven’t made the playoffs since 1997 and have been in only twice (the other time in 1996) since winning the World Series in 1983. As a member of the AL East—the toughest division in sports—they have had little room to breathe in the past 15 years and finally have put themselves in a favorable position to make the playoffs in 2012 by way of the Wild Card.

For the Nationals, things are even more dire. Going back to their time in Montreal where they played as they Expos, the franchise has been desperate for any sort of hope. The team has made the playoffs once in its history (1981) since 1969. Now, as the Nationals, they sit atop the NL East and will look to become a mainstay in the playoffs thanks to their loaded development system.

With this in mind, we see that both franchises have been faced with decisions to make on the personnel front as they fight their own history by trying to make the postseason and capture a World Series title.

The Orioles have called up top position prospect Manny Machado in an effort to inject some talent into the lineup without giving up any resources. It was a heavily scrutinized move, as the belief is that Machado is nowhere near ready to fit into a major league lineup at this stage of his development. Thus far the move has paid off as Machado is making big contributions offensively, producing five extra-base hits (including three home runs) in 16 plate appearances.

Sure, small sample size, but the move was meant to raise the ability of the lineup and appears to be beneficial for the team though potentially harmful to his development.

The Nationals are faced with a different type of dilemma. Ace Stephen Strasburg was believed to be on a closely monitored workload to preserve his arm in 2012. Tommy John surgery ended his 2010 season and cut down on his appearances in 2011. It was believed that the Nationals would clamp down on Strasburg’s workload for health reasons, but now that the team is nearing a playoff berth, the Nats would be hard-pressed to go without Strasburg.

The question becomes whether the Nationals can afford to go on without him in a short playoff series and deep into the playoffs.

Regardless of how we as fans, analysts and observers want to view the wisdom behind these moves, the rationale is quite clear. No matter what the official documents say, managers, general managers and executives at-large operate on one-year deals in baseball. Produce and show progress or look for a new job. There isn’t much room for error. For franchises that are prone to failure, these moves make perfect sense. Frankly, they don’t know if or when they’ll be back.

Since 2002, 24 teams have made the playoffs&mdash, 10 in the American League and 14 in the National League. Despite the percentages at play here, both of our examples have found themselves outside of the playoffs for years.

While a handful teams sit on top of the league as playoff regulars—the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins, Anaheim Angels, St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves have all made the playoffs five or more times in this span—the flux among those who have not made it is very interesting.

Four teams have made only one playoff appearance in this time: the Cleveland Indians, Cincinnati Reds, New York Mets and then-Florida Marlins. Of the remaining 13 teams that have made the playoffs two to four times, eight have gone to the playoffs in consecutive years, and some had long waits before they returned. In the case of the Giants, for example, it was a seven-year lull from 2003 to 2010 after making the playoffs in consecutive seasons in 2002 and 2003.

What does this all mean? For the teams that have made the playoffs in the past 10 years, at least one has found itself on the outside looking in one year later. For the Orioles and Nationals, this is something they know all too well, and it must be avoided at all costs.

The O’s and Nats have reached a stage where they need to win, and win now. Quite simply, they don’t know when they’ll be back—assuming they are at all—and need every advantage they can get.

If it means calling up a blue-chip prospect in Machado and perhaps even Dylan Bundy for the Orioles or, in Washington’s case, sending Strasburg out to pitch in the postseason to earn a deep run—regardless of what the original plan was—they need to do it, just like three other teams that haven’t made the playoffs in this span—Kansas City, Seattle and Toronto—would if they had the chance.

Pittsburgh has loaded up for a second consecutive year to try to get the job done in the dichotomy that is the NL Central. The Pirates learned the difference between knocking on the door and breaking through a year ago. Baltimore and Washington ought to be striving not to learn the hard way.

It may not make long-term sense as we see it, but these are franchises that have been waiting on the long term for long enough. You just don’t know when you’ll get another chance.

References & Resources
Team histories come courtesy of Baseball Reference.

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Comments

  1. Mitch said...

    Very well stated. I just had this conversation with a coworker yesterday on the Nats and Strasburg. The idea that the Nats can shut him down and assume they’ll be a perennial playoff team just isn’t supported by history. And even making the playoffs means essentially nothing to most fans if you don’t win it all.

  2. starkweather said...

    I don’t think Dylan Bundy would really help the Orioles this year. The Strasburg thing is… tough, to say the least. I thought Jeff Passan’s article was a pretty good stab at trying to make sense of it. There is no reliable data to use as a guideline. The Nats might be right about the causes of arm fatigue but we also might never really know that, even if Strasburg goes on to win 8 CY trophies.

  3. Will H. said...

    I can’t believe I am seeing this on THT. This Nats team is different than your comps of futility. The have proven MLB talent and a good farm system. They have a GM that makes the right moves. They are young, cost-controlled, and cheap versus their peers. With wins butts are appearing in the seats so spending to get even better is likely. Their division looks much easier than in the past. Strasburg is controlled for years, so please tell me why in the hell—if you believe, errantly or not—that you are risking his health if you keep rolling him out there, would you choose to keep him going when you are all but a lock to make this postseason, have four good SP to handle that postseason, and have much more of a future as a team than any you mentioned above.

    He pitched what, 40 innings last year? And if he pitches through the World Series, how many multiples would that be? Look at Zimmermann, it is smart thinking to be careful.

    I’m just surprised to hear what I’ve heard from the sports talk bandwagoners who are only just tuning in on this site.

  4. Chris Lund said...

    Will,

    First, thanks for such well thought out reply. The reason I’m approaching the Nats so cautiously is because I think the brunt of what you’re citing presumes a lot.

    I don’t know that the Nats lineup, in its current incarnation, can maintain its performance without question next year. Can you expect Ian Desmond to put up this type of year again? Adam LaRoche? Roger Bernadina? Will Bryce Harper take a Mike Trout step forward or continue to middle? What about the pitching staff? Is this Gio Gonzalez year him figuring it out or a one-off? What if Zimmermann’s arm goes out again? Who fills out the back of the rotation? If we’re doing an honest appraisal of the talent in the organization from top to bottom of the minor leagues, it’s middle of the pack. The top end talent is there, but the depth is not.

    Plus, we’re also assuming that this is to be the expected performance going forward for the Phillies, Braves, etc. A lot can change in an offseason and these are teams that move aggressively.

    In terms of Strasburg specifically, I have no problem with them shutting him down once they clinch to play him in the playoffs, but they NEED to play him in the playoffs. If they are a lock as you are suggesting, they gain nothing by playing him the rest of the season, but the optics, if nothing else, are horrible if they sit him out for the postseason. Strasburg is noted for his competitive edge. If that is the case he couldn’t be happy about sitting out the playoffs. Does that come back to bite the Nats when he is eventually an FA? How do the vets in the clubhouse react to their horse on the sidelines? And realistically if they sit him down for the rest of the way and blows his arm out next year—which is less likely, but still possible—where are they now? What message does that send to FA targets? I don’t feel Zimmermann is a fair comparison in this situation because the Nats have already won more games this year than they did all season that year. This year is too important for them.

    To me these are a lot of questions that need to be answered over the course of the next 365 days. There are many things working in their favor, but stranger things have happened. I believe I have argued fairly that success is hard to come by in this league and certainly isn’t a guarantee, even for well managed teams. You need to take what you can get and the Nats will be doing a disservice to their team and players if they don’t play him.

  5. Chris Lund said...

    Starkweather – My Dylan Bundy scenario isn’t necessarily meant to account for him starting, but I think that the Orioles could viably consider him as a bullpen option the way Tampa has brought up David Price and Matt Moore in previous years. I think he could provide solid help in a max effort role but beyond that I can’t imagine him getting too much of a look.

  6. Hank G. said...

    It’s just amazing to me how people who have absolutely no personal or financial interest in Strasburg are so free with advice about how the Nationals should ignore their long-term plan and the medical advice they’ve received and keep throwing Strasburg out there.

    What are you going to write if the Nationals change what they have been saying all year and extend Strasburg’s season and he blows out his arm and the Nationals still lose? Oops?

  7. Chris Lund said...

    Hank – Thanks for commenting.

    Bad things can happen when you make the right decision. That’s life. I was under the impression that the long term plan was to win a World Series. To do that, they need Strasburg and it’s entirely possible they’ll never be as equipped to do this ever again.

    If they shut him down now and he blows out his arm next year despite the rest (which is entirely possible) what will people be saying then?

    Oops, should have played him in 2012?

    I don’t want the guy to get hurt, I love watching him pitch. But the fact that they would go this far with him and not pitch him in the playoffs is unbelievably foolish and indicates a massive bungling of this entire situation. What was the point of pitching him in April and May if you can’t have him for a playoff run?

  8. NatsFan said...

    I fully admit in my screen name that I’m biased in support of my favorite team. But this seems like an very shallow and poorly thought out analysis of a complicated situation.

    Your primary argument is that the Nats need to “go for it” because you can’t guarantee their success.  As evidence you cite teams that made the playoffs only once in recent years.  But after acknowledging that the majority return, you seem to dismiss out of hand the possibility that the Nationals might be a new member of this majority, and instead speak of them as a possible or even likely one-off team. 

    However, the 2012 Nationals are currently on pace to win 100 games.  They have a run differential of close to a full run per game.  How do those numbers compare to the teams in your sample?  My guess is that the 2012 Nationals don’t fit the usual “one off” teams and instead more closely resemble many of the squads of the playoff regulars.  In addition, your analysis fails to mention that it is now a lot easier to make a return trip to the playoffs thanks to the expansion of the wild card.  Shouldn’t that factor into the analysis as well?

    Finally, you characterize this as a “massive bungling” in the comments and ask “what was the point of pitching him in April and May if you can’t have him for a playoff run?”  The answer should be obvious.  They pitched him in April and May because they didn’t think they could make the playoffs without an almost full season of Strasburg starts.  The logic- which 99% of analysts would have agreed with at the time- was that they can certainly win the playoffs without him if they get there, given the almost random nature of MLB playoff system.  But they can’t make it there without his contributions over the entire season.  To question that decision now that they’re virtually a lock in late August seems like the worst kind of Monday Morning quarterbacking.  It’s easy to question with the benefit of hindsight, but NOBODY saw this coming.  At the time, devoting their resources simply to getting in was clearly the right decision.

  9. D Leaberry said...

    Stephen Strasburg will sit out the rest of the Nationals’ season in what is likely four more starts of six innings each.  GM Mike Rizzo is planning the Nats to become an annual contender for a generation like the Braves were when they had pitchers like Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine.  Talented pitchers like Alex Meyer and Lucas Giolito are coming up the minor league pike. 

    Risking Strasburg’s health for four or five post-season starts is not in the cards.  Expect to see John Lannan in the fall which is something to think about.  Lannan was the Nats’ ace in the lean years and several major league teams could use him.  Today, he pitches AAA in Syracuse.

  10. Natinals said...

    I don’t think you know much about the Nationals.  Check their record in the second half over the last few years for a start.  Strasburg shutdown will not destroy their playoff run this year.  With 2 wildcards, this team will be around longer (and do better) than recent Phillie teams.

  11. Toonces said...

    Gonzalez
    Zimmermann
    Jackson

    This rotation couldn’t win you a playoff series or two? The only arguable weak link has pitched in two WS already.

  12. Will H. said...

    There are as many or more improvements that could happen next year and I would go into them but maybe later. There is far too little understanding of this team’s true talent here to make extreme what-ifs all to one side. And there is no sensible way to manage innings so he would make it through October, but again, another involved analysis there. I would be happy to write a counter article, though, and do the topic justice.

  13. Hank G. said...

    Chris,

    That’s my point – I don’t think what you are advocating is the correct thing. Your argument seems to be that “pennant are forever”. Well, so are destroyed arms.

    Today on Fox’s game, Tim McCarver supported your position, that the Nationals should keep on pitching Strasburg, even quoting Tommy John to lend support. He didn’t change his mind even when told that the Nationals are relying on advice from the surgeon that performed Strasburg’s surgery, rather than the first beneficiary of the surgery. That’s almost prima facie evidence that you are on the wrong side of the argument.

    I know that in the not so distant past it was common practice to keep throwing pictchers out there, and if their arms went dead or were otherwise ruined, well, those were the breaks. I would hope that today we are a little more advanced and would applaud the Nationals’ efforts to protect Strasburg for the long term and rather than go for short term gain.

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