The Nationals made quick work of the Cardinals in the NLCS, sweeping them emphatically to break through to the World Series after years of playoff disappointments.
Much has been made, here and in D.C., about the Nationals doing this in the first season after Bryce Harper left them for the Phillies. It quite obviously has nothing to do with Harper's absence ... other than the fact that it opened the door for Washington to replace him with Patrick Corbin. In their first year with their new teams, Corbin equaled or out-produced Harper.
Can any lessons be learned from the 2019 Nats?
Paid the right pitchers
They zigged when so many other organizations have zagged away from paying premium prices for aces. Pitchers are fragile and so many of the nine-figure contracts for them do not pan out.
The Nationals, though, correctly identified three pitchers worth the money. Max Scherzer will go down as one of the four best pitchers of his era, along with Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw and Jacob deGrom. Stephen Strasburg saved his best work for 2019, leading the NL with 209 innings after averaging 145 the previous four seasons. Strasburg was especially dominant late in the season and in the NL playoffs, pitching so well that it seems like a no-brainer now for him to opt-out this winter of the final three years and $75 million on his contract.
And then there's Corbin, who struck out 12 and won Game 4 against the Cardinals after appearing as both a starter and reliever in the Nationals' preceding playoff series. Corbin was fantastic this season, going 14-7 with a 3.25 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 238 K's in 202 innings. He signed that six-year, $140 million contract in the offseason. If Washington gets four years close to this from Corbin, that deal is a win.
A key difference between this Nationals playoff run and previous ones was the presence of that third ace in Corbin, and the commitment from Dave Martinez to ride his aces. Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin all started and appeared in relief.
The perfect mid-rotation piece
It helped that Aníbal Sanchez was also awesome when he pitched. Two years in a row, an NL East team has signed Sanchez and two years in a row, he's produced like a No. 2 or 3 starter — 3.39 ERA in 303 innings for the Braves and Nats since 2018. Think about how much farther along the Phillies would be if, say, Jake Arrieta's ERA the last two seasons was closer to 3.39 than 4.26. A useful veteran in Sanchez has been right under their nose.
The Nationals didn't only hit on their big-ticket items like Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin. They also hit on the right mid-tier veterans like Sanchez and doubles-machine Howie Kendrick, the NLCS MVP who has hit .322 in 2½ seasons as a National since being traded by the Phillies at the 2017 deadline.
If you paid attention, you could tell
It was not a trendy pick to go with the Nationals over the Dodgers when the NLDS began, especially in this area where so many fans (rightfully) have enjoyed basking in the Nats' postseason failures.
But something looked and felt different about this year's Nationals team, particularly in September when they were steamrolling opponents after playing months of playoff-type games just to get back in the race. By the end, they had the best and healthiest roster they'd had all season. Daniel Hudson finally gave them a second option to close games or set up for Sean Doolittle. That missing high-leverage option cost Washington game after game in April and May.
Rendon had a career year. Juan Soto solidified himself as an elite hitter you never want to face in a pressure situation. All three of the aces were healthy at the end of the season, which is meaningful because it so rarely happens these days. Scherzer missed seven starts in July and August and didn't go deep into games when he returned, but in the playoffs, he's been the dominant Scherzer. The two teams with the best and healthiest horses — Washington and Houston — are the two teams in the best position right now to win it all.
Learning how to win BS
Teams don't "learn how to win" until they do. Look at the 2015 Royals. Look at the 2008 Phillies. Those were young cores that had been together for several seasons without breaking through. The Phillies were not viewed as the World Series favorite at any point in the '08 season, nor were the Royals in '15.
"Learning how to win" can really just mean pulling out an extra game in October and riding the momentum the way the Nats have. If ace lefty reliever Josh Hader was able to pick up the final outs needed by the Brewers in the wild-card game, the narrative about the Nats would have continued. Instead, it has changed dramatically in the span of two weeks.
Big free agents
The Nationals are going to be a problem for years to come, especially if they can retain superstar free-agent-to-be Anthony Rendon. If Washington loses both Rendon and Strasburg, the NL East opens up. If they retain both, they'll remain likely to win 90-plus games for at least the next three seasons. If they retain one and not the other, the gap between the Nationals, Braves and Phillies will shrink a bit but Washington will still have the most top-end talent.
The Phillies will likely be looking up at the Nats and Braves again next season unless they can add some talent. Adding some talent does not only mean potentially signing a superstar like Rendon or Gerrit Cole. It also means finding the right bench pieces or extra men like Kendrick. It means finally identifying a Sanchez for the rotation rather than a starting pitcher you send out and cross your fingers will get outs. It means having the foresight at the trade deadline to acquire a mid-tier reliever like Hudson who you can ride through high-leverage innings when he's hot.
Matt Klentak didn't inherit the same type of core but he hasn't successfully made those moves as Phillies GM. Mike Rizzo has. The Nationals have drafted better than the Phillies, made better international signings, made better free-agent signings and better trades. That's why they're headed to the World Series while the Phillies are searching for a new manager.
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