For every team, in every sport, there is what is called the “window”. This is the time period which the team has to win a championship with its current crop of players, often before blowing the team up and starting over. Some teams can circumvent that window through personnel moves, coaching and exceptional star talent (the New England Patriots and San Antonio Spurs come to mind). However, most teams have a window that coincides with the prime of their star player. How good do you think the Golden State Warriors will be once the trio of Klay, Steph and Draymond all age out of their prime? Another factor to consider is the talent around your division. The window for the Dallas Cowboys is right now if they want to retain dominance in the NFC East. The other teams are either old (the Giants), young (the Eagles) or the Redskins (the…uh…Redskins).
So the question is have the Washington Nationals missed their window to win a championship? They have been a good team for a few years (after sucking really hard to get where they’re at, a formula that the Houston Astros copied to a “T”) but have never been able to get over the hump to even get to the World Series, much less win a title. Since 2012, when the Nationals really turned things around and started the winning culture we have grown accustomed to, the National league has been represented by the San Francisco Giants (twice), the St. Louis Cardinals, NY Mets and Chicago Cubs in the World Series, while the Nationals have been in the conversation for the playoffs, if not in the playoffs, every year. They have had an MVP, they have had a Cy Young winner; and yet the team hardware is severely lacking.
So let’s look at the factors previously mentioned that contribute to a team’s window. We’ll start with the prime of Washington’s stars. Max Scherzer, the aforementioned Cy Young winner from last year is all of 32 years old, and while that is not necessarily an age that is too troubling, Scherzer has been a workhorse, pitching nearly 200 innings every year since 2010. He’s bound to start breaking down soon, so one would expect that you have another two, maybe three years with Scherzer at the top of the Nationals rotation. Stephen Strasburg, the Nats’ other star pitcher is solid, but not spectacular after arriving with a lot of hype back in 2010. Bryce Harper, after a monster year in 2015 fell back to earth a bit last year, and while he’s only twenty-four years old, and certainly not expected to age out of his prime anytime soon, he may become too expensive for the Nationals to keep around once his next contract hits. Once he hits free agency (if he does) he will automatically be the best player on the market and will create a bidding war unlike any we have ever seen in Major League Baseball. The idea that Harper may be playing in the blue Yankee pinstripes makes my stomach turn, but only because it’s so damn plausible.
The other factor we discussed was the talent around your division when it comes to your window. There will always be a handful of good teams in the National League every year. The Giants are always a threat, the Cardinals are sneaky-good nearly every year and the Dodgers are always right there as well. The problem is that, for a time, that was all the Nationals had to contend with. To get to the World Series, the Nationals would probably have to play two out of those three teams, and there was a good chance, with Scherzer on the mound, they would have a solid opportunity at victory in a seven game series. Enter the NY Mets in 2015. The Mets were able to put together a stellar rotation and a decent lineup that should have them competitive for years to come. Now the NL East, and its automatic playoff spot, are not locks for the Nationals. Enter the Chicago Cubs in 2016. One more team to add to the logjam of good teams in the National League Pennant Race. The National League has in fact become such a glut of good teams at the top, that the Pittsburgh Pirates were (and I’m assuming still are) willing to trade the face of their franchise in Andrew McCutchen while he still has value, probably because they know they aren’t cracking the top anytime soon.
How much longer do the Nationals have to stay competitive before they have to blow it up, much like Pittsburgh is willing to do? Two, three years? Maybe only one if Harper leaves? Time will certainly tell, but their best bet at winning a title has undoubtedly passed them by.