Oct 7, 2015, 6:00 AM EDT
The 2015 season was a massive disappointment for the Nationals, who fell short of the playoffs and a World Series title they were expected to compete for. In attempt to make sense of what went wrong for them and how they can prevent it from happening again, we’ve put together a three-part series on the 2015 season. In this, our first installment, we look at why they underachieved…
WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE NATIONALS IN 2015?
The Nationals underachieved this season not because of one all-encompassing issue but because of several lesser issues that, when put together, derailed this ballclub.
The reason team officials and players cited most was injuries, and certainly those did play a significant role. The Nats opened the season without their No. 1, 2 or 3 hitters (Denard Span, Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth) and not one of them wound up appearing in more than 88 games. Ryan Zimmerman started the year healthy but didn’t finish healthy. Stephen Strasburg only made 23 starts, the first 10 of them not feeling 100 percent. Craig Stammen, Casey Janssen, Aaron Barrett and David Carpenter all missed considerable time with arm injuries.
That much lost manpower is going to be difficult for any team to overcome, though the Mets and Cardinals certainly proved you can still win big in spite of injuries.
It’s also easy to blame to the Nationals’ bullpen, which featured a mishmash of past-their-prime veterans and inexperienced newcomers. And Mike Rizzo’s response to fixing that obvious problem area (trading for Jonathan Papelbon) only created bigger problems.
But to me, the biggest reason for the Nationals’ disappointing season is the inability of what was supposed to be this team’s unquestioned strength — the vaunted starting rotation — to live up to its lofty expectations.
Take each starter’s season individually, and there’s not a whole lot to find fault with. Max Scherzer (2.77 ERA, 276 strikeouts, 34 walks) was ridiculously dominant for the most part. Jordan Zimmermann (3.66 ERA, 164 strikeouts, 39 walks) was solid. Gio Gonzalez (11-8, 3.79) was his usual self. Strasburg gave up fewer hits, walked fewer batters and struck out more batters per nine innings than he did in 2014.
But collectively, that group did not come close to its full potential. The rotation’s overall 3.70 ERA was worse than any of the previous three seasons, a full 66 points worse than the group’s MLB-best 3.04 mark in 2014. Starters gave up more home runs (104) than in any season since 2009. They pitched 36 fewer innings.
A great rotation could have masked a lot of this team’s other issues. It could have taken pressure off the injury-depleted lineup. It could have prevented Matt Williams from needing to call upon his beleaguered setup men to get out of tight spots in the sixth and seventh innings. It could have given the entire clubhouse reason to feel more confident in the likelihood of victory every night the players took the field.
That doesn’t mean the Nationals didn’t have problems beyond their rotation. Of course they did. There were far more flaws on the roster, on the coaching staff and in the front office than anybody reasonably expected when the season began.
But this team was built all along to win behind what was supposed to be an historically great rotation. That group was merely good, and so all of the Nationals’ other flaws ultimately came together to create major disappointment.
Any time a team with championship aspirations stumbles as hard as the Nationals did this season, there are always plenty of problems to point to. For the Nats, those factors included a shoddy bullpen, a starting rotation that was nowhere near what it was supposed to be, injuries to their lineup, poor coaching in key spots and a front office that underestimated clubhouse chemistry in a trade that could go down as a cautionary tale for years to come.
Those all have to be mentioned, but I would like to zero in on what I would call an absent sense of urgency, which in turn caused key mistakes at moments where the Nationals needed to persevere and make changes to save their season.
Just like in 2013, the Nationals made several adjustments this year that were either miscalculated or executed far too late. They were once again too patient with struggling veterans. And once again they did not press the right buttons with midseason moves both in terms of trades and promoting from within.
This time, they should have added an outfielder not just before the deadline, but weeks before it arrived. More outfield depth would have made things much easier for Matt Williams with Denard Span out and it would have allowed Jayson Werth some much-needed days off as he got back into the fold.
They should have added a reliever to complement Drew Storen, not supplant him. Instead, they traded for Jonathan Papelbon in a boom-or-bust deal that completely blew up in their faces.
The most troubling takeaway from this season to me, however, is how the team panicked once things went wrong. CBS Sports and The Washington Post recently published stories that were excellent reporting, but they highlighted some key big-picture concerns.
In 2013, the Nationals were a team that fell short of expectations, but they didn’t embarrass themselves while doing so. This time they went from a functional, model franchise to dysfunctional, all within a few short weeks.
Next time the going gets tough, will the backstabbing and anonymous shots across the clubhouse emerge again? Will players undermine their manager both publicly and privately if things don’t go their way? Winning can cure a lot of things, but the Nationals showed they are a team that is a few bad losses from turning on each other.
The Nationals now have looming questions about their ability to handle adversity. We’ve seen them come up short in big moments on the field, and now it’s possible they have trouble dealing with pressure off of it.
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
ON THE RADIO
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)...
MON: 12:45 p.m.
TUE: 2:30 p.m.
WED: 4:30 p.m.
THU: 2:30 p.m.
FRI: 5:30 p.m.
SAT: 10:30 a.m.
*All times Eastern. You can also listen to the station on 94.3 FM, 92.7 FM and online at ESPN980.com. Click here for past audio clips.
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