One of the common themes we see all across the sports landscape is when, at the end of every season, teams and analysts look for lessons to take from the most recent champion. I think we hear it the most with respect to the NFL, but it is certainly said about every league at one point or another. “It’s a copycat league.” If I had a nickel for every time I heard that I would have a totally unmanageable number of nickels.
For baseball, there is certainly some sort of overarching lesson that (rightly or not) has been taken from each champion. The Royals ushered in an era of bullpen-dominated playoff teams. The Astros and Cubs were the success stories teams needed to move forward with extreme tanking plans. The Red Sox in 2018 were seen this year with the Nationals with the aggressive managing in which starters are pushed to the brink with their postseason usage.
Obviously, this phenomenon is not exactly the most rational thought process in the world. In baseball in particular but really all around sports, for most seasons a champion is just one small break away from being eliminated at some point earlier, at which point an entirely different lesson would be learned by everyone due to a small break. But, of course, sports are rarely rational. It’s part of what makes it all beautiful.
Anyway, back to the 2019 Nationals. The 2020 Red Sox have one specific lesson that may best apply to them more than any other team in baseball. The Nationals coming into this past season had a lot of similarities with this Red Sox team. This Boston team doesn’t have a Bryce Harper that has left in free agency, but looking at things a little more broadly there is the same air of disappointment. For the Red Sox, it was just one year of disappointment. For the Nationals, it was nearly a decade of teams that were supposed to be World Series contenders that just never got over the hump. Even at the start of this past season things were looking bleak for the Nationals.
So, they found themselves in this disappointing spot both in the offseason and in May of this past year with two major soon-to-be free agents on their roster in Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon. And that is when we started to hear about how they just couldn’t possibly lose these guys for nothing. Sounds familiar, eh? It was said more about Strasburg than Rendon, but there were certainly calls to explore the trade market for both. Can’t lose ‘em for nothing!
At the start of the offseason I talked about the myth of losing Mookie Betts for nothing, and the Nationals winning the whole damn thing since then only furthers that point. That entire idea just totally discounts the idea that the next season counts too. As we are now in the thick of free agency, there is a solid chance Stephen Strasburg does indeed leave the Nationals and sign somewhere else. Ask any fan you can find in Washington if they feel like they just lost him for nothing. I’m gonna go ahead and guess they’ll say no.
This is obviously mostly about Betts for the Red Sox, who is obviously a free agent after the coming season and obviously caught up in trade speculation. It’s also about their general strategy in worrying more about payroll and resetting taxes than the season at hand. I stand by my assessment that this team is still a legitimate contender and the concern about them not really having a chance is entirely overblown. With the right supplementary moves this winter they have every chance to be right there next October. They are, of course, just over a year removed from being literally the best team the sport had seen in 20 years.
I will concede that, with our without Betts, the Red Sox’ odds of winning the whole thing are relatively low. That is the case for every team in baseball, because that is how the sport works. Before 2019 the highest World Series odds (per FanGraphs) was 19 percent and the Nationals odds were just over seven percent. The point is, if your odds aren’t zero by your own measures then you owe it to yourself, your players and your fans to make increasing that number by however much is possible your number one priority. If that’s not the plan, then what the hell are we even doing?
Ultimately, maybe other teams are taking other lessons away from the Nationals. For me personally, though, I look at how they approached the season and the one thing I take away is that they weren’t too worried about the winter ahead. They didn’t give in to that external pressure after the tough start screaming about losing players “for nothing.” They kept their stars and rode them all the way to a championship. Now, even if both Strasburg and Rendon head out the door, they weren’t lost for nothing. And all anyone in that front office has to do is look down at the ring on their fingers as a reminder of that fact.