After the first two articles in my Retired Numbers Series, I decided to continues on with a team common to both of them: the Washington Nationals.
As I said in the Orioles articles, I am an Orioles fan from when I lived in the D.C. area-that was obviously before the Nationals existed. I know the two teams are supposed to be rivals, and maybe it’s just because I haven’t lived in the area for a while, but I’m definitely sympathetic towards the Nats. They aren’t my favorite NL team-my two teams are the Orioles and Cardinals. But I do follow the Nationals somewhat, and I guess I care more about them than most other teams in the league. I don’t feel like there’s enough of a history between them yet to be full on rivals; maybe frenemies instead? They did just partner together in an effort to get their final vote candidates elected, so there is some cooperation. Besides, if Wikipedia has it, it must be a word, so I’m sticking with that one.
Anyway, onto the numbers.
Notes on the Numbers
Some quick notes on the stats: the two most prominent stats I used are similarly named. Both are called WAR, or Wins Above Replacement. They both try to account for every part of a player’s game, including, but not limited to: offense, defense, position, and playing time. So, it is a counting stat, like hits or home runs (with the small difference that bad seasons can actually decrease your WAR, if you are worse than a replacement player). WAR credits a player with how many wins they have provided to their team. They aren’t perfect, but for my purposes (a single number showing roughly how good a player has been), they work perfectly.
There are two major sites that provide WAR, Baseball-Reference (henceforth called bWAR) and Fangraphs (fWAR). The two are mostly the same, with the biggest difference coming from the different fielding stats the two use. Fangraphs has a fairly good summary of what makes up WAR and how it is calculated (for those wanting a more general summary, the introduction works just fine). Pitching is slightly different: Fangraphs’ WAR for pitchers only goes back to 1974, so for my purposes, I stuck to just bWAR for them.
The Already Retired Numbers
The Nationals’ retired numbers are rather tricky to consider. They had retired numbers from their time as the Expos, but only recently (before the 2011 season) began to consider them retired for Washington players as well. Their four retired numbers are 8, 10, 10, and 30 (no, that is not a typo). Gary Carter is number 8; he played from 1974 to 1992; in that span, he played with the Expos from 1974 to 1984 and in 1992. Overall, he has 53 bWAR and 56 fWAR with the Expos, and 66 bWAR and 73 fWAR for his whole career.
The first 10 retired belonged to Rusty Staub, who, despite playing from 1963 to 1985, only played with the Expos from 1969 to 1971, and again in 1979. Despite the short time, he still managed to rack up impressive numbers in Montreal; 18.3 of his 45 career bWAR and 20 of his 57 fWAR came as an Expo.
Andre Dawson started his career with the Expos in 1976. He stayed with them until 1986, and played until 1996 (as a bizarre side note, he is the only retired number that didn’t come back to the team in a one-year stint late in his career). He amassed 43.6 of his 57 bWAR and 46 of his 62 fWAR as an Expo.
Lastly, Hall of Fame snub Tim Raines represents number 30. He played from 1979 until 2002, and played for the Expos from his rookie season up until 1990, and then again in 2001. For his career, he had 65 bWAR and 71 fWAR. 46.5 of his bWAR and 51 of his fWAR came from his time in Montreal.
Compared to the League
There were eight main ways I compared teams’ retired number standards. The main divisions were through averages and medians, then with bWAR and fWAR, and lastly, with total career WAR and WAR with the team in question (so, for example, average fWAR with the team, or median career bWAR).
Unsurprisingly for an expansion team, the Nationals rank fairly solidly in the third quartile for all averages. They come out a little better through median ranking, hovering right around the middle. In fact, they actually are right in the middle of median career bWAR, one spot below the middle in median career fWAR, and one spot above the middle in median bWAR with team.
The Nationals’ four retired numbers ties them with one other team for twenty-first in the majors.
So Who’s Next?
This is a tricky question, as there are three main methods the Nationals can use. They can (and almost certainly will) honor players who played with the team since their move. The can honor players from their days as the Expos (and, as we will see, they aren’t out of these candidates yet). They can also honor players from the last two Senators teams, which they’ve already started to do in some ways. I think some combination is the most likely.
Let’s start with the former Expos. For the hitters, there are really only two good choices left. The more obvious one is still playing-Vladimir Guerrero came up through Montreal’s system, reached the majors in 1996, and played with the Expos through 2003. Guerrero has 36 fWAR with them, placing him fifth all-time, and 32.4 bWAR, placing him fourth. I would say it is very likely that Vlad will see his number retired (if not with the Nationals, then with the Angels, or possibly in Montreal by itself, since the Expos retired numbers are apparently displayed at the Canadiens’ arena). Should the Nationals choose to recognize number 27, I have no idea what their time table would be (would they do it immediately after he retires, or wait for him to reach the Hall of Fame, or something else entirely). If they are going to continue recognizing Expos though, I would say he is the only lock.*
*Although, seeing as he shares his number with current National Jordan Zimmermann, they might have to wait a bit to retire his number. That may hurt his case. On the plus side, they can be the first team with two numbers retired twice.
Tim Wallach is the only other player with over 30 of either WAR. It may say something about my lack of knowledge on Montreal’s team, but I had never heard of him until I wrote this article. Apparently, he was a third baseman who played with the Expos from 1980 until 1992 leads the franchise in plate appearances, hits, and total bases, among other things. Wallach has 31.3 bWAR with the Expos, fifth in franchise history, and 38 fWAR with the Expos, fourth in franchise history. He obviously doesn’t have the star power that Guerrero does, so I doubt that his case will carry over as well to Washington. Plus, he’s already been out of the game since 1996, and there obviously wasn’t enough of a push to get Montreal to retire his number when they were still there. A decade and a half out of the game, with your biggest ties to a city that doesn’t have a team anymore, is not a good recipe for a retired number.
The same issue surrounds their top pitchers. Steve Rogers is listed as the top Expos pitcher, with 45.8 bWAR (again, not that I’m using fWAR, but his 51.6 fWAR confirms that he was rather good). He is also similar to Wallach in career paths, in that both were basically Expos their entire career (Rogers literally, in that he played all 13 seasons in Montreal; Wallach, close enough, in that he played 13 of his 17 seasons there), both earn some longevity points (Rogers leads the franchise in wins, innings pitched, strikeouts...), and neither has acquired the lasting, national fame that Guerrero has (similar to Wallach, when confronted with the name Steve Rogers, my first thought was not the player, but Captain America*). He faces the same issues; his case hasn’t taken off in the twenty-six years that he’s been retired, and his franchise no longer plays in the city that fondly remembers him.
*Admittedly, this could present the Nationals with a cool tie-in reason to retire his number, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Dennis Martinez has the next highest bWAR total for a pitcher (29.6), but was not overwhelmingly an Expo. Eight of his twenty-three seasons came in Montreal; eleven came in Baltimore. He was overwhelmingly better as an Expo, and Baltimore may be close enough that they feel comfortable retiring his number. But really, I see Wallach and Rogers as more likely possibilities.
Larry Walker, Pedro Martinez, and Javier Vazquez all spent significant time as Expos, and all remained famous after leaving. But Walker and Martinez are clearly more associated with the Rockies and Red Sox, respectively, and none of the three was impressive enough that Washington might be overwhelmingly willing to retire their numbers in Montreal’s stead.
There is an off chance that the Nationals might retire the numbers of old Senators stars, like Walter Johnson, Goose Goslin, Sam Rice, Frank Howard, Joe Judge, and Joe Cronin. There is a Washington Hall of Stars at RFK and Nationals Park that serves to recognize players like these already, so it might not be too big a stretch to see them retiring them. On the down side, all of the Expos who I figured have been out of the game too long to have a shot STARTED after these guys retired (and died, in some cases). All of them but Howard played most of their careers with the Senators before players even wore numbers, meaning none of them are particularly associated with certain numbers.
Really, out of all of the Senators’ stars, only Walter Johnson’s has really held up, nationally (ironically, since he is the oldest of any of them). Johnson never actually had a number, but that hasn’t stopped some teams. And it might make it easier, as they won’t have to take away any current player’s uniform number for retirement purposes. This is really the most plausible scenario I can see, with regards to old Senators players. While the history fan in me thinks it would be cool for them to acknowledge the old Senators (or even Expos) players like this, the realist in me sees how unlikely it is.
Really, the current Nationals players are the only ones who will definitely see their numbers retied. And leading the way is Ryan Zimmerman. Yes, he only broke into the league in 2006, but he is still the front runner to get his number enshrined. He has 17.5 bWAR, which ranks him tenth among batters in franchise history. And even though he’s missed a good portion of the year to injury so far,* it’s very likely he’ll end the year sixth all-time, as the current sixth place Larry Walker isn’t that far ahead (at 19.3).
*Zimmerman was criminally underrated last year-he didn’t even make the all-star team, for crying out loud! So, this year, when third base all-star pickings are historically slim and he has a great chance to stand out...he gets hurt. That doesn’t seem fair.
He grades even better with fWAR; with 28 to date, he already stands sixth in Nationals/Expos history. Couple that with the fact that he’s fairly local (from Virginia Beach), he’s the team’s first superstar since arriving in Washington, and he’s with the team through at least 2013, and his candidacy seems even more likely than Guerrero’s.
Really, Zimmerman’s been the only strong choice so far. But the Nationals look to have a promising future. Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa, Drew Storen, and Jordan Zimmermann all have star potential. The team also has a highly-touted trio of recent draft picks in Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, and Anthony Rendon. I don’t really know how quick the Nationals will be to retire numbers, but I would bet at least one of those seven winds up with their number retired (although which one is the bigger question). If the team continues similarly to their policy in Montreal, seeing two or three of their numbers retired might not be out of the question, particularly if they lead the Nationals to success.
So, In Closing...
What the Nationals lack in certainties, they make up for in sheer bulk of possibilities.
Also, I’m rather at conflict. How do I rank players with less than a two seasons (or who aren’t even signed yet, in the most extreme case) as likely retired number candidates? In the end, I did it because one, they’re the group most likely to be honored; and two, I think some of them are likely candidates, I just don’t know which ones yet.
The players that I think are most likely to see the Washington Nationals retire their numbers as of right now, in order:
*Just using his college number, since he doesn’t have an actual number yet.