Oct 5, 2015, 6:00 AM EDT
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.”
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
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As ESPN-980 AM's Nats Insider, Mark makes daily appearances on the station's various shows. Here's the 2015 schedule (subject to change)...
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