By Matt Citak
Heading into the 2018 MLB season, the Washington Nationals had extremely lofty goals.
Washington dominated the National League East last season, essentially clinching the division title about halfway through the year. They would go on to take the division crown by an astounding 20 games, but fell to the Chicago Cubs, 3-2, in the NLDS.
With the same core of players returning this season, albeit with new manager Dave Martinez now leading the club, the Nationals were expecting to, at the very least, repeat as NL East champions. Especially considering the youth of the rosters of the other teams in the division, Washington did not expect much competition within the division this year, and had their eyes set on a World Series run.
But in a surprising turn of events, the Nationals did something this week that, at the beginning of the season, seemed like the last thing in the world the club would do.
They waved the white flag.
General manager Mike Rizzo shocked baseball fans around the country when it was announced Tuesday that Washington had completed two August waiver trades.
The first one sent three-time All-Star second baseman Daniel Murphy to the Cubs, while the second deal shipped first baseman Matt Adams to the St. Louis Cardinals.
While Murphy did miss a significant chunk of the season due to micro-fracture surgery on his knee during the offseason, he’s looked solid since making his return to the lineup. The 33-year-old is hitting .300 with six HR and 29 RBI in 56 games this year, and enough can’t be said about the veteran leadership Murphy brings to the clubhouse.
Meanwhile, Adams returns to the club in which he spent his first 5.5 seasons with, bringing his left-handed power bat to St. Louis.
Now, what makes these moves surprising aren’t the moves themselves. The Nationals are 7.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves for the NL East lead with only 36 games remaining. While a comeback isn’t out of the question, it certainly would not be an easy feat for the struggling club to accomplish.
The somewhat shocking part of these deals was the timing of them.
Despite being around the same position in the standings only three weeks ago, Rizzo decided against selling off some of their valuable trade assets in order to begin building for next season and beyond. In fact, Washington was actually a game under .500 entering play on the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, as opposed to their 63-63 record today, yet decided to roll the dice and go for it this year.
Dealing Murphy and Adams, not to mention some of their more valuable free agents-to-be such as Bryce Harper and Gio Gonzalez, at the trade deadline would have netted the Nationals a lot more than the small haul they received Tuesday from the Cubs and Cardinals (one meh prospect and cash).
Although there is obviously a lot of work to be done in order for the Nationals to get themselves firmly back in the playoff race, it is by no means out of the question. Entering play on August 22, Washington finds itself just six games out of the NL Wild Card with all of their remaining games against either NL East opponents or other clubs vying for one of the two Wild Card spots.
With so many talented players up and down its roster, it’s hard to comprehend what exactly Rizzo and the Nationals were thinking Tuesday. Their actions indicate a club giving up on its season, but don’t tell that to Bryce Harper or Ryan Zimmerman.
“We’re only 7½ games back,” Harper said Tuesday. “So we’re going to play it ’til the end and see what happens.”
“By no means are we done,” the veteran Zimmerman told reporters.
It’ll be interesting to see how the final few weeks of the season turn out for the Nationals and the rest of the National League. Washington is one of five teams that are within 6.5 games of the second Wild Card spot, and with 35+ games remaining, you never know what could happen.
Sometimes you just need to light a fire under a good team to get them going. Rizzo certainly lit that fire Tuesday. Now it remains to be seen whether the remaining Nationals can prove their GM wrong and fight their way back into the playoff picture.
Matt Citak is a contributor for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter.