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The decline (and fall?) of the Washington Nationals

Back on April 4, we ran this file of predictions for the 2015 season. All 15 of us participants picked the Washington Nationals to win the NL East. Hey, we weren't the only ones. All 45 Baseball Prospectus writers also picked the Nationals. Over at FanGraphs, all 38 writers went with the Nationals. At CBSSports.com, the Nationals went 5-for-5. At FoxSports.com, 11 of its 12 analysts picked the Nationals.

So congratulations to Jon Paul Morosi for not picking the Nationals. Except he went with the Marlins.

Add it up and 114 out of 115 experts picked the Nationals as division champs, although there may have been some double-dipping there from contributors who write for multiple sites.

Anyway, you get the idea: Everyone expected the Nationals to win the division. Heck, the Nationals expected to win the division. Back in early May, Nationals left fielder Jayson Werth told MLB Network, "We know who we are. We know our identity. We are the team to beat in the National League. Everybody knows it. We know it. It's just how it is."

There's a very good chance that everyone will be wrong. Certainly, everybody forgot to tell the New York Mets they were playing for second place.

The Nationals did snap a six-game losing streak with Tuesday's 15-6 pounding of the Rockies at Coors Field -- saving manager Matt Williams' job for now? -- but the Mets also won, keeping the Nationals 4 1/2 games out of first place. Still, what the heck has gone wrong?

The obvious answer is injuries. Anthony Rendon, fifth in last year's MVP voting, has missed 79 games. Werth, who received down-ballot MVP votes in 2013 and 2014, has missed 71 games. Denard Span, who led the NL in hits in 2014, has missed 59 games. Ryan Zimmerman has missed 41 games. Stephen Strasburg has had a couple of stints on the DL and has missed around eight starts.

But the answer isn't just that simple. With the exception of Span, that group hasn't played well when they were on the field. Rendon has one home run in 39 games. Werth is hitting .190/.268/.280 and entering Tuesday was tied with Angel Pagan for the worst WAR among position players at -2.0. Zimmerman is hitting .224 and struggling to get his OBP over .300. Strasburg has a 4.62 ERA while averaging fewer than five innings per start. On top of that, Wilson Ramos and Ian Desmond have been terrible, with OBPs under .300. Doug Fister has been hammered. The bullpen lacks depth.

As Dave Cameron pointed out at FanGraphs on Monday, the eight-player core of Rendon, Werth, Zimmerman, Desmond, Ramos, Strasburg, Fister and Gio Gonzalez was worth a combined 28.3 WAR last season but just 0.4 WAR this season.

I guess the question: Could we have seen this coming, or at least anticipated the possibility of this happening? At the minimum, we obviously overestimated the floor for this club, assuming that the league's best rotation -- which added Max Scherzer in the offseason -- would again dominate, and that the lineup, especially with a likely better year from Bryce Harper, would certainly be good enough after finishing third in the NL in runs in 2014. What we missed is that Rendon, Zimmerman and Werth have all been injury-prone in their careers; that Fister, although posting a 2.41 ERA in 2014, had seen his strikeout rate plummet; that the bullpen looked shaky after Drew Storen, especially with the offseason trade of setup guy Tyler Clippard.

Still, the Nationals were the easy -- and correct choice -- to win the division, in part because there was no obvious second-best team in the division. They had won 96 games in 2014, 86 in 2013, 98 in 2012. The team wasn't old, with Werth the only regular older than 32, and depth in the rotation to withstand a couple of injuries.

In fact, despite all the early injuries, the Nationals were 48-39 at the All-Star break. That's when Williams failed to align the rotation to make sure that Scherzer would start against the second-place Mets, their second series coming out of the break. Scherzer had started on Sunday before the break, so he could have started on Friday against the Dodgers on regular rest and then against the Mets on Wednesday in the finale of that series. When they faced the Mets the next week, Scherzer again didn't start. The Mets swept that series, which left the teams tied.

A manager is never completely to blame for a team's struggles, but Joe Sheehan pointed out why Williams is hardly an asset from the dugout:

A few days later, the Nationals arrived in New York to play the Mets, holding a three-game lead and seemingly having taken control of the NL East. Finally. On the night of July 31, despite the front office having gone through all of this trouble to improve the manager's bullpen options, and despite getting just 14 outs from his starter, Matt Williams used neither Storen nor Papelbon in a 12-inning, 2-1 loss to the Mets. The game ended when Williams allowed rookie lefty Felipe Rivero, generally not used for more than two innings, to start a third against the right-handed Wilmer Flores. Flores hit a walkoff homer that didn't get much press coverage.

Storen had pitched the two previous nights (coming into a 7-2 game in the first of them), but had thrown just nine and 10 pitches in the two outings. Storen had yet to be used on three straight days in 2015, and this seems to have played into Williams' thinking. However, if your best reliever can't pitch on three straight days -- itself an absurd restriction -- even after light duty, then you can't use him to get work in a 7-2 game. Not using Jonathan Papelbon -- who also pitched the night before, throwing nine pitches in his first work in six days -- seems to have been standard "saving the closer on the road" nonsense. In a tied game against the team chasing his squad, Williams chose to not use his two best relievers.

Even after getting swept, the Nationals seemed unwilling to acknowledge that they were now in a fight for the division crown. Two days after that series, Werth told reporters, "I think it's a matter of time really. We're a great second-half team. ... Half our team has been hurt all year. That's the reality of it. When we all get back, we're right there, in first place. We're a game out now. But I think going forward we can get all back healthy and get rolling and it's our division to lose."

OK, he didn't exactly guarantee a division title in that quote, but the whole "it's a matter of time" doesn't come with any feeling of urgency. It's August. You just got your butt kicked. Sure, you want confidence. But maybe you always want a little urgency. Since that quote, that Nationals have gone 4-9, got shut out three times (granted, in games started by Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner) and fallen 4.5 games behind the Mets.

Sheehan predicted the Nationals will still win the East. Cameron wrote, "The Mets could still collapse. The Nationals underachievers could all catch fire and the team could surge back into the division lead. There’s still the core of a good team here, and with a little bit of positive regression from some of their still-talented players, the Nationals should could still make a run at a 90 win finish."

So, yes, maybe everyone will be right in the end. Maybe Tuesday's thrashing of the Rockies will turn things around. But the division is now the Mets' to lose. If the Mets don't collapse, the 2015 Nationals will go down as one of the biggest disappointments in recent history.