Braves fans living in or around the Disco of Columbia have an added hobby. If things aren’t going well for the Chop Squad, we can always take solace in watching the soap opera that is the 2015 Washington Nationals.
I’ve been to opening day for the Nats almost every year, and my running joke with my Nats buddy is that I want to get there early to see them hand out the WS rings. The local media, and then eventually the ESPN and SI gang, have awarded the Nationals the WS crown in spring training each year since the 2013 season. Why? No idea.
Nonetheless, 2015 was the no-doubt-about-it year. Nats were going to beat all comers after the addition of the top FA prize of Max Scherzer. I read in more than one place that the Nats rotation of Scherzer, Zimmerman, Strasburg, Fister, and Gonzalez might very well be the GREATEST STARTING ROTATION IN THE HISTORY OF BASEBALL. 100 wins, they said. Bryce Harper actually said, in a preseason interview, on the record, “Where’s my ring?”
Well, the baseball gods hear that crap every time, and they love, love, love to punish hubris. The result? The Nats are a bare 2 games ahead, sporting the fifth best record in the NL, in a tight division race with the punchless Mets. They’re not dead yet, but they’re on pace to win a paltry 87 games. What happened?
- 1. Injuries
Oldest story in the book, but the Nats seem to have been particularly snakebit. They’ve lost their 1, 3, 4, and 5 hitters (Span, Rendon, Werth, R-Zim) for a couple of months each. Strasburg has been on the DL three times this year.
Are the injuries really to blame? Meh. The losses of Span and Rendon have been significant blows. Both are really underrated contributors. The loss of Werth and Zim? Not so much. Both were hitting about .210 when they were DLed. No doubt their injuries were partially to blame, but only partially. Zimmerman’s yearly OPS since 2009: .889, .898, .798, .824, .809, .724, .611. He’s also playing first, where his lack of production is especially hard to swallow. Over 200 PA, his current .611 OPS makes him the worst hitting first baseman in MLB. By a lot.
Werth’s injury was to his wrist (Zimmerman’s is plantar fasciitis), so it’s easier to lay the blame for his pathetic .581 OPS on health issues. But he simply looked lost at the plate for weeks before he got DLed. I don’t expect him to be a real boost factor when he returns.
The return of Span and Rendon — who came back over the weekend, like Freddie — will improve the Nats. Not sure about the other two guys. Clint Robinson is probably a better option for the Nats at first than the current version of RZim.
Both Strasburg and Fister have also lost multiple starts due to injury (see below).
- 2. Pitching
The Nats’ pitching staff turned out to be, not only not the best staff in the history of baseball, but not the best staff in the NL this year, and not even the best staff in the division, for crying out loud. They are tied seventh in the NL for QS. Starters’ WAR is tied for 4th in the league, tied for 7th in MLB. Scherzer is the real deal. No bones about it. He’s got electric, Cy Young stuff, and almost threw a perfect game immediately after a one-hitter. He’s a stud. Is he worth $30 million a year? Nobody is, to me, but he’s every bit as good as advertised.
What about the rest of the BEST. STAFF. EVER? Bonus baby Stephen Strasburg, the flamethrowing pitcher who got the largest signing bonus in the history of the draft, has the misfortune to be either 1) made of spun sugar or 2) the most overpaid hypochondriac on the planet; or 3) some combination of 1 and 2. He has gone on the DL for ankle, shoulder, neck, and oblique injuries. That’s this year. I expect him to go down again for toenail fungus. He’s sporting a 5.16 ERA and a 1.49 WHIP. Fragile body? Fragile head? Probably both. But anyone who counted on him to be a 200-inning ace had obviously not been paying attention for the past three years.
Jordan Zimmerman has pitched below his usual topnotch stuff, but not badly. Gio Gonzalez is another head case. He’ll pitch a one-hitter if you spot him five runs in the first. If it’s a tight game, or if there’s an error behind him, or a seeing-eye grounder gets through, he will usually blow up. Fister, who might have been their best starter last year, has just fallen off the map. He’s a control pitcher who throws low to high 80s, and both his velocity and control are down this year. He might be playing through injury — looks like it.
- 3. Bad roster
The Nats simply have a badly constructed roster. They’ve got a lot of money tied up in aging, declining players, and they have to run those guys out there if they’re healthy in order not to look foolish. And that means that they can’t spend any money on the bench or bullpen.
Ian Desmond may very well be the worst starting SS in the NL. He never could field the position; now he can’t hit either. Defense wins games, and he’s now got 21 errors in the books. I’d say hometown scoring has excused another 12-18, easy. (Desmond passed up a sizeable extension offer from the Nats last year — he’ll never see that kind of money offered again). If you are going to construct your team as pitching-first, you have to have guys who can catch the ball. You in particular have to have a shortstop who can catch the ball. Desmond has easily cost the Nats 4-5 wins this year, just in the games I’ve seen, with his fielding. And that may be conservative.
The Werth signing and RZimmerman extension have come home to roost. Zimmerman was the face of the franchise for the past 9 years, but the extension (through 2019) was foolhardy. It’s a perfect storm: his fielding decline required the move from third to first, and now he can’t hit enough to justify his playing there.
Werth has been hot and cold for the Nats: his OPS seasons as a Nat have ranged from .718 to .931. But where he has been ice cold is when it counts: the playoffs. (career playoff BA as a Nat? .157.) Last year in the NLDS he went 1-17 with six strikeouts. And literally snuck out of the clubhouse rather than face the media music after the series was over. I guess you don’t get much clubhouse leadership for $21 million a year these days.
The top-heavy payroll means that there’s little free cash left over for the bench or bullpen. The bench stinks. Jose Lobaton is an above-average second catcher. But Dan Uggla has been on the 25-man all season, and spring training rumors of his return to adequacy have proven to be overblown. (OPS .589.) Uggla’s taking up a roster spot is just inexplicable from a manager’s perspective. Having a terrible hitter on your bench who can only play second base (and not well) is a huge albatross in games — it’s only slightly better than playing with 24 players. OF/1B Tyler Moore is hitting a Gomes-like .216, yet getting 8-15 PA a week. Their highly touted CF prospect Michael Taylor has struggled at the plate (.654 OPS). Career AAAA player Matt den Dekker (OPS .606) is now getting starts. Clint Robinson is the lone bright spot, but he’s earned a place in the lineup, so he doesn’t really count as bench anymore.
The bullpen has been little better. The closer, Drew Storen, is good, but it’s getting to him that is the issue. They had to deal their excellent setup guy over the winter, Tyler Clippard, when his arbitration number got too ridiculous. ($8 million for a setup guy is a lot, no doubt.) They’ve used 17 different relievers this year, 18 if you count an outing by first baseman Clint Robinson in a blowout (1 IP, 1 H, 1 K, 0 ER). Their bullpen rivals ours in terms of bad (bullpen WARs: WSN, minus 0.4. ATL, minus 1.2. For 10th and 13th in the NL, respectively.)
While it’s hard to fault the offseason Scherzer signing when he’s so very good, I’m going to. It was baffling, smacking of assembling a Rotisserie team. The Nats 2014 starting staff was the best in the NL statistically. Why go out and get the best starting pitcher available, especially at such a price? Why not fill a few smaller holes instead? Trade Desmond, get a real SS. Get a good fourth outfielder. Get a lefthanded masher to spell Zimmerman at 1b. Get a good setup guy to replace Clippard, etc. All of that could have been accomplished for less than half of what Scherzer cost.
I know — hindsight shows that the Nats starting pitching wasn’t that ironclad. Scherzer is now super valuable as one of the few bright spots in the rotation. But that’s hindsight. And in fact the lack of bench options and the disastrous bullpen have cost as many games or more than Scherzer has won (he’s 10-8, with a 2.33 ERA and a .195 BAA? Somebody owes somebody an apology.)
- 4. Stupid is as stupid does.
The Nats have played wondrously idiotically at times. From Yunel Escobar, as the tying run, attempting to steal third in the eighth inning with two outs, to the numerous mental fielding miscues (Harper overthrowing the cutoff man, or sometimes overthrowing everybody), to bad baserunning (Harper again, 4 SB, 4 CS), the Nats have looked like bush leaguers in many games. For example, the Nats are dead last in the NL in assists, with a predominately groundball staff. You can’t get to that lofty pinnacle without a lot of throwing to the wrong base, butchering routine plays, bobbling balls, failing to complete double plays, etc.
The saga of Danny Espinosa’s switchhitting is another delightful tale of stupid. After a lifetime of pretending to be a switchhitter, and failing miserably (BA LH: .219; RH .271), the Nats announced last winter that they had finally convinced him to stop this farce and hit RH only. (Since 75% of his ABs came against righties, his abysmal lefthanding hitting dragged his averages well below replacement value.) Given his good glove, this meant that he might become an adequate second baseman.
Except that the “I’ll stop switchhitting” contract had a farcical loophole. Danny didn’t have to stop switchhitting “if he felt uncomfortable” hitting righty against a righty. You guessed it. The Very First AB of the season against a RHP, in the very first game, Danny “felt uncomfortable” and batted lefty. And he’s never ever stopped switchhitting.
Sorry, Matt Williams, but I’m looking at you.
- 5. Bright spots
Well, as you know, Harper has been having a monster year, finally fulfilling the hype. He’s likely to fade a bit over the season as he wears down, but he’s currently at a 1.133 OPS and likely to win the NL MVP at age 22 (Goldschmidt is the only real competition). Yunel Escobar has been a godsend to them. He’s hitting over .315 and playing solid third base. He’s been batting cleanup. Danny Espinosa has been solid in the field, even though he continues to pretend to switch-hit. And Clint Robinson, a 30 year old rookie, has been a solid replacement for Zimmerman. Without these guys, the Nats are probably trailing the Mets for the division.
The three-peating Nats are in a real dogfight to win what is likely the weakest division in baseball. The Mets should be in it all year based on their starting pitching. And the wild card is not coming out of the East — they need to win the division to get in.
They’re not dead yet, and the Mets’ threat could prove to fade. But even if the Nats do make the playoffs, I don’t like their chances. Both the Dodgers and Cardinals, and probably even the Pirates, are scarier than these Nationals, especially in a short rotation. The Cubs and Giants look pretty competitive to me as well. And these Nats seem to fold in pressure games.
It’s quite a bit of fun around here watching the fans trying to figure out what happened to Bryce Harper’s ring. We shall see. Stay tuned.