The most instructive moment of yesterday’s 4-3 Opening Day win over Atlanta came in the top of the 10th inning, when Ryan Zimmerman hit a routine groundball to the shortstop position, which was then fielded by the shifted second basemen for the Braves, Gordon Beckham. As a frequent viewer of Nats-Braves games over the past few seasons, I instinctively assumed the play would result in an out the moment the ball was hit. The overwhelming majority of baseballs hit to the shortstop position against the Braves lately have resulted in outs, thanks to defensive wizard Andrelton Simmons, who often made the difficult plays routine and the routine plays automatic Yesterday, however, Beckham fielded the ball and threw it so wide of the Braves’ first baseman, Zimmerman was able to move into scoring position with the game tied 3-3. Daniel Murphy subsequently drove in the go-ahead run, and the Nationals won 4-3.
It was a free run—the kind of run often allowed by bad baseball teams. And it was given up by Gordon Beckham, the kind of quad-A journeyman employed by bad baseball teams whose priority isn’t winning but rebuilding. Simmons was traded this past offseason after the Braves deemed him a luxury they no longer needed. In return for Simmons, the Braves landed, among other players, consensus top-50 pitching prospect Sean Newcomb, who is still a year away from the Majors. Shortstop Dansby Swanson, the first overall pick in the 2015 draft and also a consensus Top-50 prospect, is also in the Braves minor league system. Someday he’ll take Simmons’ old position at shortstop, but right now he’s simply not ready and he’s definitely not needed. The Braves aren’t trying to win this season. They’re aiming for 2017 when their new stadium opens in Cobb County and their top farm system (as rated by ESPN’s Keith Law) begins to contribute at the major league level. When the Braves eventually have players like Newcomb and Swanson, they may be a tough team. But right now they’re stuffed with players like Beckham, who are essentially placeholders—they don’t require a long term financial commitment and they keep the team from wasting top prospects’ valuable pre-arbitration MLB service time.
It’s noteworthy this game was saved by Jonathan Papelbon, since he was jettisoned by another rebuilding NL East team currently not trying to compete—the Phillies. Philadelphia, like Atlanta, has a consensus top-10 system that might eventually make life difficult for Nationals. Right now, however, their roster has too many Gordon Beckhams. The real cavalry has yet to arrive.
The Nationals went 26-12 against the Braves and the Phillies last season. This is noteworthy because they were only 57-67 against the rest of baseball. Now, it’s not usual for playoff contenders to run up huge victory margins over bad teams in their division, but the Nats are uniquely positioned to have two potentially formidable rivals down at the same time. The Phillies sit on one of baseball’s biggest TV contracts, but haven’t yet flexed that financial muscle. The Braves’ new stadium in 2017 also promises new revenue the team has yet to utilize.
Tom Boswell wrote a preseason column a few weeks ago predicting 2018 as “the year” for the current Washington Nationals. In 2018, Boswell argued, Bryce Harper will be in the final year of Nats’ team control and top Nats prospects Trea Turner and Lucas Giolito will be hitting their primes. Well. Max Scherzer and Ryan Zimmerman will have left their primes. And most importantly, the Nats current top prospects will presumably be squaring off against the products of the Braves’ and Phillies’ more abundant farm systems.
Yogi Berra said it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future. The Braves’ current wave of prospects may fizzle. Same for the Phillies. Same for Giolito and Turner. Present day reminds us, however, the Nats best window to win might be right now. An Opening Day win, assisted by a journeyman placeholder on a team more concerned about the first pick of the 2017 draft than a pennant race, tells us it’s best not to wait for 2018.