LAST WEEK the Nationals signed the top free agent on the market, righthanded starter Max Scherzer, to a seven-year, $210 million contract. The deal, which features $105 million in deferred money—an MLB record—validates Scherzer's decision to choose free agency over the $144 million the Tigers offered him during the 2013--14 season.
For the Nationals the signing may seem like an exercise in lily-gilding. Already projected as the top team in baseball, Washington now has six above-average starting pitchers to go with a strong everyday lineup that features young studs such as third baseman Anthony Rendon and leftfielder Bryce Harper. Before Scherzer had even signed his deal, there was speculation that the team would follow up by trading one of its now extraneous starters, impending free agent Jordan Zimmermann or former top pick Stephen Strasburg, to bolster its future and pare the payroll. But Nationals GM Mike Rizzo shot that idea down, telling MLB.com, "We love the team we have." He should stick to that.
The Nationals have a chance to provide something that hasn't been seen in years: a great baseball team to follow all summer. Regular-season greatness is out of fashion these days, with the expanded postseason lowering the bar for entry and division titles reduced to what they are in the NBA, NFL and NHL: little more than a means to a better playoff seeding. The new model for MLB teams? Be just good enough to squeak into the postseason, then see what happens in October. Last season, neither Series team won 90 games, but fans of the Giants (88 wins) and the Royals (89 wins) wouldn't trade their years for those of the Angels (98 wins), Orioles (96 wins) or Nationals (96 wins).
Moreover, 2014 was the third consecutive season in which no team won 100 games, the first time that's happened across three full seasons since both leagues went to a 162-game schedule in 1962. There have been only three 100-win teams in the last nine years: the '08 Angels, the '09 Yankees and the '11 Phillies. Only one of those teams won even a single playoff series. The modern game encourages teams to roll the dice on an 85-win team. It's economical, but it makes for dull summers waiting for the only real intrigue of the season, a surge by one of the .540 teams to capture the fifth playoff spot or the warmed-over chase for home field advantage in the Division Series.
The Nationals can take a stand for greatness. Put Scherzer, Zimmermann, Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister on the mound, make 15-game winner Tanner Roark a reliever again and try to be the story of the summer. It's been too long since baseball had a team that made fans wake up every day and ask, "Did they win?" Since the 2001 Mariners won 116 games, only the '04 Cardinals have won 105. The Nationals can challenge that, simply by putting their current team on the field: the best baseball team we've seen in a decade.
It's not as if being a great regular-season team will hurt them in the postseason, either. The '08 Angels and the '11 Phillies may have flamed out in October, but those '09 Yankees, who went 103--59 after a huge off-season shopping spree, won the World Series without facing an elimination game. They were by far the best team in baseball from April through September, and then they were the best team in baseball in October. That's what the Nationals can shoot for.
It has been too long since baseball had a team that made fans wake up and ask, "Did they win?"
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED