The “Little things” and the intangibles

That 2019 Washington Nationals team had an X-factor player in Gerardo Parra when they won the World Series. When he spoke, you listened, and the good teams need that type of player. It’s what I think is missing from teams that under-perform like the Mets and San Diego Padres. They might have Juan Soto like the 2019 Nats did — but they don’t have a Parra or an Ildemaro Vargas or an Alex Call. Players who would run through a doggone wall for you. Last night, Vargas took on the concrete facing of the box seats next to the visitor’s dugout to catch a foul ball in the first inning. Most players wouldn’t attempt that. Derek Jeter would have. Vargas did it for a team that lost 107 games last year. Talk about the little things. The intangibles. The X-factor.

Guys like Vargas and Call don’t have all of the talent of Soto. Those Nats’ role players have value in taking on walls and adding to the scrappy natitude of this team. They set a tone. This team was supposed to lose 102 games this year per the Vegas lines. Fangraphs believed per WAR that this Nats team should lose between 95-97 games. They are on pace for 73 wins and 89 losses. What?!? How?

The Nats won’t make the playoffs this year unless the Red Sea parts and there is some miracle of biblical proportions. You hear the whispers of the weekend’s success with two walk-offs, and they say — “but but but, well that was against the lowly Oakland A’s. Let’s see them do it against the Red Sox.” Boom, they beat the Red Sox last night behind a MacKenzie Gore gem, and two home runs from Stone Garrett, and a 3-run bomb from Keibert Ruiz, and a Web Gem from Vargas. The Nats have also beat the Dodgers and Braves this year. But they did that before they earned the moniker of “Scrappy Nats” from veteran sportscaster Bob Carpenter.

When this 2023 Nats team wins two more games, they will have surpassed their total win total from all of last year. Imagine that.

We are exactly two weeks from the final day of August when teams can expand rosters on September 1. After you part the Red Sea and climb the Gabal Katrîne, do you have enough to do something really daring like call up your №1 prospect? That is James Wood by FanGraphs evaluations. You can call up Wood — and as long as he has fewer than 130 at-bats he would retain his prospect status for next year. If you think there is a chance that Wood makes the 2024 Opening Day roster, you call him up. If you don’t, then you don’t call him up. This is a call that general manager Mike Rizzo has to make, and answer to.

True story: Ryan Zimmerman was called up on September 1 of 2005 just months after the draft of that year and at 20 years old. Nats’ ex-general manager Jim Bowden told his manager, Frank Robinson, to play the kid. As the story goes, Robinson refused.  The Nats’ first manager was not going to be told how to write his lineup card. Robinson was a Hall-of-Fame player. He believed in paying your dues.

“I’m telling you, Zimmerman was better than what Frank had,” Bowden said on his MLB Network Radio show years ago. “He’s the manager — and he didn’t play him.  Okay, well he finally played him and understood what I was saying. He was better than what he had, but he didn’t want to bring up a rookie that was drafted and put him in the show.”

You would think that manager Dave Martinez would play Wood if Rizzo called him up, and do it without hesitation. While this year is important in its own way, the future is what this rebuild is all about. Few thought the Nats were going to be “not terrible” this year.

Are the Nats a good team even though they have a losing record? Hard to say that, but they are beating all expectations if they finish on this current pace. Unless you think the Nats can go 28-13 and finish the season with a winning 82-80 record — it will be a losing record. The rest of this season is going to be about the learning process, evaluations, finishing strong and of course staying healthy.

“I don’t think anybody expected us to be any good.”

— outfielder Lane Thomas said

Here’s the thing, if the Nats finish strong this season, there will be higher expectations for next year, and some will expect this team to be good. Ownership should to give their general manager a larger budget to go out there and spend on better players. “Should” is the operative word. Ownership should. But will they? That is the $165 million question which was league average. Nats’ team payroll is $101 million which was 22nd highest on Opening Day, and that number includes Stephen Strasburg‘s sunk-cost salary of $35 million a year.

Everyone has their opinion on what will happen, but it seems, beyond calling up top prospects to the big leagues, it will take some big money spending on key free agent signings — and at the very least, getting a true ace to seed in front of Gore and Josiah Gray for the 2024 season. And yes, that will cost a ton of money.

This is what this offseason will be all about, but before we get there, let’s see how the final 41 games go and how the September roster looks. A lesson from the biggest spending teams that the Mets and Padres look like they will be playing golf with the Nats in early October, and Soto will be looking for answers on what went wrong with his current team. It’s never as easy as it looks. Winning relies on intangibles that cannot be found in the box scores. As Davey likes to say, “The little things.”

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