(Photo by Associated Press)
David Schoenfield over at the ESPN SweetSpot blog has an interesting take on the Nationals’ clinching of a playoff berth yesterday. Schoenfield points out how the Nats were aided at several junctures by the Mariners — events that are painfully familiar to Mariners fans.
The biggest, of course, occurred at the end of the 2008 season when the Mariners, sitting with 101 losses, won their last three games against Oakland to hand the “Stephen Strasburg Sweepstakes” to the Nationals. I wrote about that just prior to the 2009 draft, when the Mariners, picking second, wound up with Dustin Ackley. I talked to Jim Riggleman, the Mariners’ manager at the time, who then went on to be the bench and manager of…wait for it…the Washington Nationals (until quitting in a huff last season after a win over the Mariners, one of the more surreal games I’ve ever covered). Here’s what Riggleman told me in expressing no regrets over the sweep of Oakland:
“There were a lot of things to play for,” he said. “We had such a bad September, just to win a couple of games felt good. We weren’t really thinking in terms of the No. 1 pick. The feeling was if we’re picking one through five, we’re going to get an exceptional athlete. Although it does appear Strasburg kind of separates from the whole group more than in most years.”
Riggleman added, “I don’t remember at that time if I was even aware of this phenom in San Diego. I just know you do have thoughts, ‘We’re either going to pick first or second.’ I don’t know if I had a name attached to it at that time.”
Strasburg, after a lost season due to Tommy John, looks like he’s going to be be everything people thought he was coming out of San Diego State as the most touted prospect maybe in history. But he won’t be pitching in the playoffs, having been shut down by the Nationals. Ackley, so far, has been a big disappointment, but I don’t think anyone is ready to write him off. And I still have a problem with faulting a team for winning games. It was just a fluke thing. It wasn’t like they suddenly took the ’27 Yankees out of hiding. Riggleman threw out the same lousy lineup that had sputtered all season, and just happened to come out on top.
If you want to play the “what if” game from that draft, a better place to look would be at the No. 25 spot in the first round, where the Angels took an outfielder from New Jersey named Mike Trout — the draft spot being compensation from the Yankees for having signed Mark Teixeira. The previous year, in 2008, the Mariners had chosen a reliever named Josh Fields in the first round, with the No. 20 pick. It was a pick from the Bill Bavasi regime, but the Mariners didn’t sign Fields until February of 2009, after Jack Zduriencik had replaced Bavasi as general manager. Had they opted to not sign Fields — who is now in the Red Sox organization and still hasn’t made it past Triple-A — the Mariners would have had a compensatory pick in the 2009 first round, just ahead of the Angels. Whether or not they would have taken Trout we’ll never know, but I’ve been led to believe that scouting director Tom McNamara definitely was on to him and liked him a lot. The Mariners took Nick Franklin at No. 27 (compensation from the Phillies for signing Raul Ibanez),and we don’t know whether they would jumped at Franklin in the Fields’ spot. But just imagine how the balance of power in the AL West would be changed if the Mariners, and not the Angels, got Trout.
OK, snap out of it. The next transaction cited by Schoenfield was the 2005 draft, one of the most talent-laden in history — except for the part where the Mariners, picking No. 3, took Jeff Clement, the catcher from USC. The Nationals followed by selecting third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who has become a cornerstone of their team and a perennial All-Star. There’s absolutely no need to re-hash that debacle by Seattle — earlier this year, I ranked it the worst move of the Bavasi regime. But I will say this: Even if the Mariners had taken Zimmerman, the Nationals would still have had at their disposal Troy Tulowitzki, Ryan Braun, Andrew McCutchen, Jay Bruce and Jacoby Ellsbury. So I think they would have survived.
Finally, as you might have guess, there was the ill-fated trade of Mike Morse to the Nationals for Ryan Langerhans on June 28, 2009. Langerhans didn’t make much of an impact on the Mariners, while Morse has become a key part of their offensive attack. Here’s Morse looking back at his Mariners’ days.
Many teams have been the beneficiary of Mariners’ miscalculations in recent years, but as Schoenfield points out, the Nationals are high on the list.