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Trying to make sense of a season that made little sense

Oct 5, 2015, 6:00 AM EDT

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NEW YORK — Take the Nationals’ just-completed season on several individual merits, and the unknowing observer might well have assumed this team had cruised into the playoffs.

Bryce Harper posting historic numbers that made him a potentially unanimous MVP choice? Max Scherzer throwing two no-hitters, plus a 16-strikeout 1-hitter, with a 276-to-34 strikeout-to-walk ratio that ranked among the best in history? Stephen Strasburg compiling a 1.90 ERA after the All-Star break? Drew Storen reaching August with a 1.64 ERA and 29 saves in 31 opportunities? And a lineup that ranked third in the NL in runs scored?

Sounds like a winner, right?

How, then, was all of that true of a ballclub that finished 83-79, seven games back in its division, 14 games back in the wild card race, one that now faces an offseason of significant change?

“We didn’t win games,” left fielder Jayson Werth said in an obvious statement that he then expanded upon. “You look at what the Mets did down the stretch. That’s how you win a division: Timely hitting, timely pitching, they matched up well, they won big games, they got big hits. We didn’t do that. So, regardless of injuries or anything else, I think that’s the story at the end of the day.”

The optimist will point to the injuries that plagued the Nationals all season. Their entire projected Opening Day lineup was together for only two days in late summer. It’s hard to win like that.

Yet, the Mets overcame plenty of injuries themselves. As did the Cardinals, who merely won 100 games to cruise into yet another postseason.

Glance at the stat sheet, and you’d think the Nationals were better than the Mets. Washington scored more runs than New York, hit more home runs, posted a better on-base percentage and slugging percentage, struck out more opposing batters while walking fewer and finished with nearly identical run differentials.

How’d one team win seven more games than the other?

“I think the Mets made a lot of great moves, there’s no doubt about it,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “They got the most impactful player at the deadline in [Yoenis] Cespedes, who is a great player. We thought the roster that we had, and the players that we had coming off the disabled list, was enough to get us through. Obviously, we were wrong in that assessment, just because the guys we did have come back weren’t in playoff-type of mode. They were more in spring training-type of mode. So we will look back on it and rethink and see if we can improve on that.”

Ah, the July 31 trade deadline. The moment the NL East race flipped upside-down. The Mets, who desperately needed offensive help, acquired Cespedes, Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson while also adding Tyler Clippard and Addison Reed to the back end of their bullpen. The Nationals, who had offensive shortcomings but had several key players returning from the DL, made only one move: The controversial trade for Jonathan Papelbon that bumped Drew Storen out of the closer’s role and ultimately played a key role in disrupting clubhouse chemistry and trust between players, the coaching staff and the front office.

The Nationals’ bullpen was an Achilles’ heel throughout the season, but especially late. Over the final two months following the trade deadline, that group posted a collective 3.73 ERA (not poor, but not great) while successfully converting only 9-of-20 save opportunities. The nine saves after July 31 were tied for the fewest in the majors; the 45 percent conversion rate was the sport’s worst.

Now, with Papelbon having been suspended for the season’s final week after attacking Harper in the dugout, with Storen likely needing a change of scenery after his string of eighth-inning meltdowns and with veterans Casey Janssen and Matt Thornton hitting free agency, the Nationals may need a complete bullpen makeover this winter.

“The good thing is, we have great depth in that position, not only at the big-league level but at a young, controllable age in the minor leagues,” Rizzo said. “The bullpen will certainly be a part of the discussion we have in the offseason to improve ourselves.”

The Nationals’ relief corps had its obvious issues all season, but perhaps some of those issues could have been masked had the club’s star-studded rotation simply lived up to expectations. The surprise signing of Scherzer to a $210 million contract in January created a unanimous opinion throughout the baseball world: The Nats’ rotation was the best in the game, perhaps the best in recent history.

That didn’t prove to be the case. Nationals starters owned a collective 3.72 ERA, eighth-best in the majors, only sixth-best in the NL, and down 68 points from the previous year’s group that led baseball.

How many games might have turned out differently had a Nationals starter merely been able to complete one more scoreless inning, keeping a slim lead intact and saving one of the members of the bullpen from needing to pitch on that given night?

“I think there were some hiccups along the way,” manager Matt Williams said, citing Strasburg’s first-half injuries that at one point left him with a 6.55 ERA. “As a whole, expectations are what they are. I would hope that they’re all excited for what’s to come for them. They’re very talented guys. I would expect that when they get back next spring, they’ll be ready.”

Though they’re set to lose two members of their Opening Day rotation — Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister — to free agency, the Nationals shouldn’t need to add any more starters this winter. A rotation of Scherzer, Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Joe Ross and Tanner Roark (with top prospect Lucas Giolito likely to debut at some point in 2016) might not be touted as the best rotation in baseball history, but it would still be expected to be quite good.

And though they’re set to lose two key lineup members — Ian Desmond and Denard Span — also to free agency, the Nationals have strong replacement candidates in-house already, with Michael Taylor in center field and some combination of Anthony Rendon, Yunel Escobar, Danny Espinosa and Trea Turner manning three infield spots.

With Werth and Ryan Zimmerman hoping to stay healthy throughout 2016, will that be enough offense? Not everyone is sure.

“The one thing we definitely need is another left-handed bat, and hopefully a huge right-handed bat to hit behind me or in front of me,” said Harper, who did at times suffer from a lack of protection this season. “If we can do that, that would definitely help us out and put us up to the top.”

Whatever changes are forthcoming — and that could include a change of managers as soon as Monday — the Nationals feel like they will remain well-positioned to challenge the Mets for division supremacy next year. Who wouldn’t feel good about a roster built around Harper, Rendon, Scherzer, Strasburg, Werth, Zimmerman, Ross and more?

Then again, who wouldn’t have felt good about that roster in 2015? The Nationals were built to win. Nobody disagreed with that at the season’s outset. Yet something along the way went awry, something that turned a season of so much promise into one of so much disappointment.

If only anyone knew for certain just what that was, and how to prevent it from happening again.

“It’s a bummer that we didn’t get there this year,” Harper said. “As a team, as an organization, we thought we had one of the best teams in all of baseball. I really believe if we come in next year with the mentality and the fire and passion we know how to play with, we’ll be one of the best teams to come in next year. We’ve just got to keep grinding and keep doing what we’re doing, have a great offseason and hopefully make a few acquisitions and see where we’re at.”

  1. Susan - Oct 5, 2015 at 6:20 AM

    My biggest hope is that the decision makers realize that the Nats fans were attracted to the Nats, in large part, because the Nats were a group of nice guys having fun.Some over achieved and others (Bryce) became superstars but when they were at their best they had fun! Several years ago, the first time they won their division, Mike Rizzo often said they were like a family. Do we still hear him say that? Yes, this is a huge business but at its heart is having FUN!

    • janebeard - Oct 5, 2015 at 8:53 AM

      ABSOLUTELY! I root for the player way more than the team. The players are what hooked me on the team. They said, and acted on the “make up and character matters” — got rid of Elijah, and Nyjer.

      This “family” stuff is BS — we know that now. I’m glad they don’t say it, because it’s not true. It hooked me. And I think it hooked some players. But stuff like the Soriano deal, and absolutely the Papelbon deal, say otherwise. And even (I know this will seem blasphemous) the Fister deal (we HAD terrific pitching, and a #5 who could have been #3 elsewhere)and the Scherzer deal (absolutely goodbye to homegrown Jordan, the best pitcher in our history, and to our homegrown Silver Slugger/webgem shortstop). Makes no sense, if “make up” matters as much as they said.

      I’m not stepping foot in that stadium nor spending another dollar there (and I’m a 10-year, full STH) until they get rid of Pap, at the least. They won’t care. But hey, it’s business.

      • moozystar - Oct 5, 2015 at 9:20 AM

        Concur Susan. Watching the players act as a team and having fun is where it is at. Over the years there have been some great characters that have come through our town (think Jamie Carroll and the Chief, Pudge and so many others.) I think that the leadership of the organization needs to go back and figure out what they want their corporate culture to be. Are they trying to be the Yankees (sign Max to a block buster deal when you already have an embarrassment of riches on the mound) or St Louis who year after year manages to find, train and promote core players and develop young talent. The front office needs to show that they care about more then just the stats. When you demote a guy like Storen (twice!) and let a guy like J Zimm walk in favor of another pitcher of similar price you undermine the loyalty and trust that turns a collection of good athletes into a cohesive team with a loyal fan base.
        I will always be thankful that we have a team in DC and I am a fan to the end but I really think this off season will be a telling of where we will go as an organization. I really hope they take the high road and filed a TEAM that we can be proud of regardless of the win loss record. The soap opera that played out this year was just no fun.

    • Candide - Oct 5, 2015 at 9:22 AM

      …figure out what they want their corporate culture to be. Are they trying to be the Yankees (sign Max to a block buster deal when you already have an embarrassment of riches on the mound) or St Louis who year after year manages to find, train and promote core players and develop young talent.

      Does it have to be an either/or? Why can’t they do both?

      • moozystar - Oct 5, 2015 at 10:37 AM

        Fair point, however as a practical matter one usually has to win out over the other when difficult decisions need to be made. A pattern has been developing in recent years (IMHO) where the organization values something (or someone) that they can go out and purchase more then they value maintaining something that they already have.

        I have a lot of respect for ownership, the front office, and the organization in general. I do not pretend to understand all the goes into these decisions I’m just observing and projecting my wishes for a true homegrown team. I may be better off just tending to my garden and leaving affairs of state to kings but sometimes the temptation gets the best of me. All is as it should be, eh?

  2. nats1924 - Oct 5, 2015 at 6:31 AM

    Rizzo action items in the offseason:

    1) fire Williams
    2) Figure out closer situation
    3) Trade Yunel (depsite that I like Yunel, his value is just too high and he’s easy to move)

    Go Nats’ 2016.

    PS- Would Rizzo toy the idea of moving BHarp? Nats could get a mammoth return given his contract situation & w/out a tv deal there’s no way we resign him..

    • ArVAFan - Oct 5, 2015 at 7:09 AM

      Given the Lerner’s attachment to Harper, I don’t see that as possible.

      But I agree that Escobar might be a “sell high” situation.

      • JamesFan - Oct 5, 2015 at 10:29 AM

        Harper is a cornerstone and the price to keep him will be astronomical. I think the Lerners will pay the tab, but keeping him will also affect the ability to keep Stras, Rendon, Turner and others in the future.

    • rmoore446 - Oct 5, 2015 at 7:20 AM

      Trade Harper now? No way. What return would be worth it trading such a star?

  3. JayB - Oct 5, 2015 at 7:15 AM

    Ouch…well said Bryce….need a big LH and RH bat to hit around him…..Bryce is correct…just a huge slap at Zimm and Werth…which in my view is needed…those two can not be counted on to play more than 75 games…this is something I and others pointed out last off season to deaf Rizzo ears….Bryce seems to know it .

    • ehay2k - Oct 5, 2015 at 7:35 AM

      Lol JayB, not sure how you read Bryce’s statement about acquisitions as a direct slap at Werth and Zimm. Talk about showing one’s interpretative bias!

      • npb99 - Oct 5, 2015 at 9:29 AM

        It’s at least an indirect “slap” at how unreliable those two are. Yes, they have their hot streaks but also cold ones and injuries.

      • dcphanatic - Oct 5, 2015 at 9:15 PM

        Totally agree with Jay, it was a slap and a deserved one. worth was monumentally irresponsible for not getting his shoulder surgery done right after the 2014 season ended. He waited till November to get it done blowing his spring training in the process. He never caught up and when he had his wrist injury there was no way he could contribute. I am giving up on Zimmerman. He simply cannot get healthy. And Rendon is another puzzling case. He simply does not recover from simple injuries. To this day I don’t understand what was the problem with his knee. And it was one problem after another. Yes it was a slap in the fat face of those fellows. Worth will never again play 100 games in the National League. And MAT strikes out half of the time. I am delighted that Ian Desmond will take his poor defense and 200 strikeouts to the Yankees. I hope to never see him again. I think he is a selfish and overrated player. And he had the unmitigated gall of walking away from 107 million dollars. The gall!

    • Joe Seamhead - Oct 5, 2015 at 10:42 AM

      Yeah, JayB, but your big, and constant, suggestion was to get Chase Utley.

  4. rmoore446 - Oct 5, 2015 at 7:25 AM

    And please let Janssen take his jittery act somewhere else. We do need folks with more consistent pop to protect Harper and score some more runs and fuel big innings.

  5. edshelton2013 - Oct 5, 2015 at 7:25 AM

    Harper’s quote is very telling: “We need another left-handed bat and a huge right-handed bat to hit either in front of or behind me”.
    Who is he suggesting be replaced? Werth? Zimmerman? Are they tradeable or do they become bench players?

  6. JayB - Oct 5, 2015 at 7:29 AM

    I think if Rizzo went to them both and said you are not going to be playing everyday in fact my plan is to have you both come off the bench and get about 250 ABs a year…they would approve trades. Nats would have to kick in a huge amount of money to trade them…..I would keep them but on the bench and as backups.

  7. NatsLady - Oct 5, 2015 at 7:30 AM

    One thing you see from the Nats (and Tigers) vs the Cubs and Astros is that youth plays. IF (big IF) you can have good coaches and managers to work them through inexperience, you need to find the Difos, the Trea Turners, Joe Rosses… and let them go after it with strong legs and enthusiasm. Trade for youth (which also helps payroll).

    Rizzo needs to plan for Werth starting no more than 70% of games (and perhaps finishing only 50%) and Zimmerman starting no more than 50%. I’m sorry, but that’s the way I see it. Zim has injuries that will linger (foot and shoulder) plus he’s going to get the oblique and hamstrings that don’t heal quickly not that he’s over thirty. He also needs to plan for at least one other regular position player to be out for an extended period of time (Rendon or Ramos, perhaps).

    Harper is right about needing another lefty bat, maybe even two. He would have a big righty bat if Rendon comes through. I’m not sure I would spend a lot of dollars and prospects on a big right-handed bat, even if one is out there. Cespedes has not won me over–too streaky and apparently not a team player.

    • JamesFan - Oct 5, 2015 at 10:36 AM

      I agree. Zim and Werth are declining assets and the Nats should immediately begin the process of replacing them. Plantar fac….is a chronic problem and will never go away. I would re-sign Span, if he can pass a physical, to a one year deal and keep Taylor to back up Werth and Span.

      The Nats also need to start building up catchers in the minors.

  8. NatsLady - Oct 5, 2015 at 7:36 AM

    Mark makes good points about the rotation, but I believe we need another mid-rotation experienced starter. You need to have seven or eight, not five or six, so you need a Fister-type (when he was good) or one of the relievers (Treinen? Martin?) to play the John Lannan role in Syracuse.

    Also, thanks to Mark for his good reporting and for this site. Even with some negative commenters who wear me down, I’ll keep up my interest and posting here!

    • Doc - Oct 5, 2015 at 8:12 AM

      Well said NL—especially about the negative commenters. Even when the glass is half-full, it’s still half-full.

      We’re on this site to criticize, bloviate, and hopefully reinforce good stuff frequently—as long as we don’t take it too personally. When we take it too seriously it says more about us than the game of baseball.

  9. JayB - Oct 5, 2015 at 7:48 AM

    NLady….it is not the posters it is the team performance that wears you down..MW’s performance alone is responsible for most of the negative comments because it was just so clear he was a big problem and Rizzo ignoring it caused things to go down from there…When the win things are great when they do not choke and under perform

    • sjm308 - Oct 5, 2015 at 8:03 AM

      I haven’t posted here in months but still read. So now I see that JayB can look into someone elses mind and tell them what does and doesn’t wear them down even though the previous post made it clear it was negative commenters doing the wearing down. Priceless. JayB is still never wrong.

      Will continue to read Mark who is terrific and skim to see what NatsLady thinks and JayB just for a laugh.

      Go Nats!

      • akiterp - Oct 5, 2015 at 9:16 AM

        +1,000,000

      • Joe Seamhead - Oct 5, 2015 at 10:57 AM

        I miss your voice of reason on here, 308.

  10. rabbit433 - Oct 5, 2015 at 8:00 AM

    Hey, we may not have won the division, but I am so optimistic looking forward to next season!!!! Having Turner, Ross, and Taylor out there from the beginning of the season puts a big smile on my face! Zimmerman will be back, Harper will be back, Rendon, SS, MS!! Ok, I’ll say it for Harper…….where’s the rings!!!!!!!!!

  11. Another_Sam - Oct 5, 2015 at 8:20 AM

    Everyone looks at the bullpen, but yesterday was another day at the office for that lineup. TWO hits!!! Pitiful. I realize that a lot of regulars were out but still – two hits is not a major league winning lineup. I know I’m in the minority but I think tweak the pen – Pap outta here and add one or two – and focus on getting some offense. A great bullpen won’t make any difference to a very low scoring team. We saw that in the stretches where the bullpen was hitting (no pun) on all cylinders and the lineup was helping struggling pitchers get well.

    Some stat guru tell me if this crew led the majors in games with < 5 hits.

    • bc4314 - Oct 5, 2015 at 9:14 AM

      The team scored the 3rd most runs in the National League this year. Not sure the disappointing season can be blamed on the offense.

  12. NatsLady - Oct 5, 2015 at 8:28 AM

    Harper said he didn’t want to make the last out at Citi Field (he didn’t). Another day he said he wanted to win a game for Desi’s kids (he did). Makes you wonder how much is under his own control. Not everything, obviously, because he wanted the 100th RBI and the batting title. Still, it makes you wonder–when he puts his mind to it, can he do pretty much whatever he wants to with a bat?

    • Terps02 - Oct 5, 2015 at 8:45 AM

      Is Stammen expected to come back healthy to start the season?

    • Candide - Oct 5, 2015 at 9:26 AM

      Still, it makes you wonder–when he puts his mind to it, can he do pretty much whatever he wants to with a bat?

      He’s only 22. So not yet.

      Not yet.

      • ArVAFan - Oct 5, 2015 at 9:31 AM

        But it sure is fun to watch him try!

  13. jd - Oct 5, 2015 at 9:59 AM

    Bryce Harper is a generational talent. I don’t think I’m saying anything profound here. He does need to mature a littler more before he can reach his full potential from a leadership point of view. He needs to tone down his tweeting, he needs to be careful with his reactions to the press (he needs to understand that on many occasions he is being set up because as they say the bigger you are the bigger the target on your back.

    We all know the type of person Jonathan Paplebon is and shame on Rizzo for bringing him to the Nats despite what everybody knew but Bryce ignited the match when he called Paplebon out in public for throwing at Machado and that’s exactly what brought about the ugly dugout incident.

    Paplebon needs to be off this team at the earliest possible time (today sounds pretty good to me). The Nats won’t get anyone to take on any significant amount of his salary and they won’t get any prospect worth anything back. Most teams flat out don’t want him and the ones that might be interested know that that they can get him for next to nothing. Just call it an expensive mistake and move on.

    Upon reflection I think that the Nats need to make qualifying offers to JZim, Span and Fister. I don’t think it’s a terrible tragedy if Span and Fister accept, I think Fister will bounce back next year and may provide a nice bridge to Giolito and a buffer in case Ross struggles. Frankly I don’t think any of these guys accepts the QO. I wouldn’t offer Desi one because he might just accept and I really think it’s time to move on from him.

    • npb99 - Oct 5, 2015 at 10:25 AM

      Yes, Harper called out Papelbon, but considering how often Harper has been thrown at, is it surprising that he dislikes this part of baseball?

      • ArVAFan - Oct 5, 2015 at 10:50 AM

        Not surprising at all. He’s seen what’s happened to Werth, Morse, and others, plus another hit on the spine (or one to the face) could end his career. He wants to stay on the field and play. Of the games he didn’t play, how many of them this year were HBP injuries? I’m sure someone has that statistic handy.

      • janebeard - Oct 5, 2015 at 11:01 AM

        I’m GLAD Harper called out Pap! He WOULD be the target. And Pap did it, thinking he’d be a hero.Certain he’d be a hero. And then, when he choked Harper, he still said he thought here’d be no punishment from the club. I cant believe this still makes me as mad as it does, but it does. #DFAPap

    • texnat1 - Oct 5, 2015 at 10:39 AM

      I think Fister and Span should accept them. Not sure what goes through the mind of ballplayers who have agents whispering sweet nothings in their ears, so I won’t say “will” accept. But it would be silly for either of them to turn down a raise after the seasons they have had at their ages.

      I’m ok with Span b/c I don’t mind if he comes back. But Fister? I would only QO him if I’m confident he is pitching well again. So that needs to be based on an evaluation of how he has been throwing behind the scenes.

  14. jd - Oct 5, 2015 at 10:09 AM

    Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth are owed $38 million and if you add Paplebon’s $11 million to that and you also suggest making RZim and Werth bench players you should keep in mind that teams are not normally in the habit of dismissing $50 million the way fans do. I think the Nats have a bit of salary flexibility because of JZim, Fister, Span and Desi potentially off the books and they very well may make a play for a left handed outfielder such as Heyward and maybe a catcher such as Weiters but I think that Werth and Zim will still be counted on as regulars in 2016.

    • JamesFan - Oct 5, 2015 at 10:43 AM

      If Rizzo thinks that Werth and Zim will be “regulars” hereafter, he’s not as smart as I think. The one consistent for the Nats over the last few years is that these two will miss huge chunks of the season. Zim’s foot problem will not go away. It’s lifelong. If not his foot, it’s something else. Werth’s wrist (the same one) has been broken three times. At his age, how long can that hold up. The Nats need promising young hitters on the bench to back them up next year. Maybe they can find someone on the international market or in trades for up and coming rookies. It’s an issue.

  15. texnat1 - Oct 5, 2015 at 10:40 AM

    Ryan Z needs to be assigned a yoga coach and work on flexibility and fitness every day of the off season.

  16. NatsNut - Oct 5, 2015 at 10:55 AM

    I said this on an earlier post, but wanted to repeat. I have a feeling that the training crew and training program might be part of the offseason overhaul.

    Also, I forgot where I read this, but I saw a reference to Zim planning a program to get leaner and emphasize flexibility in the offseason.

    • janebeard - Oct 5, 2015 at 11:02 AM

      I read the same thing, NatsNut. I’m glad, and I hope it works.

  17. TimDz - Oct 5, 2015 at 11:10 AM

    Just finished reading Boswell’s third article in the Post….If all that was written is true, there is NO way that Rizzo can keep MW…

    • NatsNut - Oct 5, 2015 at 12:00 PM

      Wasn’t Boswell, it was Svrluga. But you’re right. He’s gone.

  18. Joe Seamhead - Oct 5, 2015 at 11:11 AM

    I have a pretty neat positive to share with you all. Some time ago my daughter made a contribution to the Dream Foundation with a promise from the club that my two grandsons would get a Max Scherzer autograph. She had pretty much given up on ever seeing it when low and behold a letter from the club along with two baseball cards came in the mail Saturday morning, each inscribed to each boy by name, signed by Max, and authenticated by MLB. Very cool stuff for my 9 and 11 year old, die hard, Nats fan grandsons!

    • Joe Seamhead - Oct 5, 2015 at 11:12 AM

      And to make the whole thing even cooler? Max went out and pitched his second no hitter the same day the cards arrived!

      • NatsNut - Oct 5, 2015 at 12:01 PM

        Great story, Seamhead!

    • Another_Sam - Oct 5, 2015 at 12:32 PM

      Very nice story, man.

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