Wait ‘Til Next Year: Washington Nationals
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it’s only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait ‘Til Next Year series.
Current record: 84-74 (.532, second place in NL East)
Mathematically eliminated: Sept. 23
What went right in 2013:
Washington’s 84 wins so far this year are the second-most in Nationals/Expos franchise history since 1996. Not bad. Except that last year’s team won 98 games, the best record in the majors, and won its first division title since moving to D.C. before the 2005 season. Expectations were extremely high for the Nats this spring, especially for their young studs: 20-year-old outfielder Bryce Harper and 24-year-old pitcher Stephen Strasburg. But neither the team nor those players had the seasons so many envisioned.
Many other things did go right, though. Shortstop Ian Desmond proved that his breakout 2012 season was not a fluke. Catcher Wilson Ramos enjoyed a solid comeback from a 2012 season largely lost to a torn ACL. Right fielder Jayson Werth hit .331/.416/.564 (so far) over the final four months after returning from a hamstring injury. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman stayed healthy and, for the most part, replicated his 2012 season. Harper, who missed several weeks with a trip to the disabled list, improved on his Rookie of the Year campaign with an age-20 season that should have made more headlines. Anthony Rendon stayed healthy and established himself as a legitimate major league second baseman.
The top three men in the rotation, Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez, all had fine seasons comparable to their 2012 performances. Set-up man Tyler Clippard survived yet another heavy workload, surpassing 70 appearances for the fourth straight season and showing surprising effectiveness. The team’s other top relievers also had strong seasons.
And while it took most of the season for those positives to work together to produce a winning team, when things finally clicked, the Nationals went 30-14 (.682) from Aug. 9 through this writing. Unfortunately for them, that surge came too late to save their season.
What went wrong in 2013:
Washington’s biggest problem through the first four months of the 2013 season was that it couldn’t score enough runs to make a winner out of their above-average pitching staff. Through the end of July, the Nationals had scored 3.72 runs per game, a rate that would currently rank 29th in all of baseball, ahead of only the historically inept Marlins. Here are a few reasons why their lineup proved so punchless:
• Second baseman Danny Espinoza, having opted not to have surgery on his damaged left rotator cuff during the offseason, suffered a chipped bone in his right wrist after being hit by a pitch in mid-April. He hit .158/.193/.272 before finally being placed on the disabled list and replace by Rendon in early June.
• Kurt Suzuki, who impressed Nationals management as a late-season addition in 2012, opened 2013 as the team’s starting catcher, but he hit a mere .222/.283/.310 before Ramos finally got healthy and took the job back in early July.
• Werth didn’t hit well in April and missed most of May due to a hamstring strain.
• Adam LaRoche, the team’s home run, RBI and OPS+ leader in 2012, hit a combined .148/.212/.272 in April and July and homered just twice in June.
• After a monster April, Harper’s bat went cold in May as a slump was exacerbated by his attempt to play through injury. He spent all of June on the disabled list with bursitis in his left knee.
That’s five spots in the lineup, including three of the team’s best hitters, that failed to measure up early in the season. Behind that lot, Washington’s bench was brutal. To this point in the season, Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore, Roger Bernadina (who was released in August), and Chad Tracy (the top four Nats in plate appearances not mentioned above) have hit a combined .220/.258/.317 in 764 plate appearances.
Among the pitchers, righthander Dan Haren, acquired during the offseason, didn’t work out (9-14, 4.87 ERA, though he was far better after a brief DL stay in July to rest his throwing shoulder). Ross Detwiler missed the second half of the season due to a herniated disk. Drew Storen endured a BABIP over-correction (.253 the last two seasons, .328 this season).
Still, what kept the Nationals out of the playoffs this year was the poor performance and health of their lineup over the first four months. Indeed, with Werth, Harper, Ramos, Rendon and LaRoche all healthy and contributing, Washington has scored 5.1 runs per game since perking up in early August. The Nats weren’t eliminated from the playoffs until there was less than a week left in the regular season.
The Nationals should bounce back. They’re still an extremely talented team with much of that talent concentrated among their youngest players. Removed from the context of the team’s disappointing finish, the performances this season of Harper, Rendon (23), Strasburg, Ramos (25), Desmond (27), Zimmermann (27), Gonzalez (27) and Clippard (28) all support the notion that Washington has a gifted young core at key positions. Its only major free agent heading into the offseason is Haren.
The Nationals will need a new manager to replace the retiring should-be Hall of Famer Davey Johnson, who deserved a better swan song, but otherwise, they should be right back in the mix for a playoff spot in 2014. We might still, however, want to temper our enthusiasm just a tad.