Coming off a season in which they won 96 games and cruised to the NL East title, and buoyed by the signing of free-agent prize Max Scherzer, the Nationals were preseason favorites to not only repeat as division champs, but also to make it to the World Series. But instead of reaching the Fall Classic, they had a classic fall. While the rotation and bench get a thumbs-up for doing what they were supposed to do (for the most part), the management, bullpen, and starting lineup earn a thumbs-down for failing to hold up their end of the bargain.
Here are the gory details:
Despite Scherzer's second-half bout with homeritis, you have to applaud owner Ted Lerner and GM Mike Rizzo for landing Mr. No-No himself. Getting Yunel Escobar from the A’s was a stroke of genius, especially considering how injury-plagued the offense was, though the collateral (reliever Tyler Clippard) proved costlier than anyone could have imagined, given how mightily the bullpen struggled down the stretch. Acquiring closer Jonathan Papelbon at the trade deadline was supposed to solidify the back end of the pen. Instead, it played out like a clubhouse chemistry experiment gone wrong. Horribly wrong.
As for Matt Williams, what a difference a year makes. As a rookie in 2014, he could do no wrong, leading the Nats to a division title and earning National League Manager of the Year honors. In 2015, he could do no right, especially when it came to handling the bullpen (see: Papelbon suspension). Things got so bad that at the end of one September postgame press conference at Nationals Park, fans who were watching through a glass window in the adjacent VIP lounge showered Williams with boos.
If it weren’t for the historic season of MVP favorite Bryce Harper, the grade for this unit would be a whole lot lower. Escobar, who’s been among the National League leaders in batting average for most of the season, has been a bright spot, but his counterpart on the left side of the infield, free-agent-to-be Ian Desmond, has struggled mightily in his contract year.
As for the rest of the first-stringers, it’s hard to evaluate the so-called “everyday” group when you consider that the projected Opening Day lineup didn’t take the field until Aug. 25 and only played two games together all season. But if an integral part of being a productive starter is being an active starter -- which most baseball folks would probably agree on -- then the Nats go-to group grossly underperformed.
Of a possible 640 combined games through Sept. 30, the blue-chip quartet of Denard Span, Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, and Anthony Rendon had played in just 318. That’s less than half, and a major reason why the Nationals' lineup was less than whole this season.
Because of all the aforementioned injuries, the Nats leaned heavily on the likes of Danny Espinosa, Clint Robinson, and Michael A. Taylor, a trio of guys who were supposed to be role players. The good news is, they responded. In fact, they filled in so capably that when Werth, Zimmerman, and Rendon struggled after returning from the their respective DL stints in late July and the team went into a tailspin, folks in and around D.C. questioned whether the Nats wouldn’t have been better off letting the fill-ins continue to fill in.
Subbing for Span, the 24-year-old Taylor has played stellar defense (his 12.2 UZR ranks fourth among NL outfielders) and is hitting .320 with runners in scoring position. Espinosa, the team’s Swiss Army knife, has played five different positions and has a 1.9 WAR, fourth best on the team. Robinson, a 30-year-old first baseman who had just 13 big-league at-bats prior to this season, has played like a grizzled vet, slashing .268/.358/.416, while offering lineup protection for Harper in the process. Matt den Dekker, who has an .874 OPS in 17 starts, has been another pleasant surprise.
Outfielder Reed Johnson was injured for most of the season, infielder Dan Uggla wasn’t particularly effective, and backup catcher Jose Lobaton didn’t see the field much. Still, if it weren’t for the bench, the Nats' flameout would’ve started earlier and burned hotter than it did.
They were supposed to be the best rotation in baseball. As it turned out, they weren’t even the best rotation in their own division (thanks, Mets). Still, in a season filled with dysfunction and disappointment, the starting five was the least of Washington’s worries.
Did Scherzer’s first year in DC justify his $210 million contract? Probably not, given his struggles in the second half. But the 2013 Cy Young winner, who was lights-out during a first half that saw him throw the second no-hitter in Nats history, has still managed to put up ace-like numbers over the course of the season, including 259 strikeouts, second most in the NL.
Stephen Strasburg, who scuffled out of the gate and served two stints on the DL but has been absolutely dominant over the last two months, has been a mixed bag. Ditto for lefty Gio Gonzalez, who found success early by using his sinker to induce grounders, but has become increasingly dogged by the same-old pitch-count problems as the season wore on. Jordan Zimmermann, in what’s likely his final season as a National, has been his usual solid but unspectacular self.
Like most teams, the back of the rotation has been an issue (that’s why it’s the back end), especially down the stretch. Doug Fister, who in August was demoted to the bullpen after winning 16 games a year ago, has been a major disappointment. His replacement, Joe Ross, was brilliant but eventually hit the dreaded rookie wall. And Ross’ replacement, Tanner Roark, never really recovered from an identity crisis caused by being converted from starter to reliever then back to starter again.
Let’s start with the good: For the first three months of the season, Drew Storen was one of the best closers in the National League. Oh, and Casey Janssen was pretty darned solid in setup duty. Aside from that, the Nats' bullpen has pretty much been a train wreck. A dumpster fire. And it all started with the acquisition of Papelbon.
Actually, that’s not true. It started with the decision to trade Clippard, who during his seven years in Washington became one of the game’s most reliable relievers. Injuries to Craig Stammen and Aaron Barrett didn’t help either. But that was all just kindling.
The match? That’d be Papelbon. And he isn’t just any old match. He’s one of those strike–anywhere matches. And he did. Strike anywhere, that is. He struck Orioles' All-Star Manny Machado intentionally with a high heater that resulted in three-game suspension from MLB. He struck the throat of Harper in a reality show dugout incident that led to Washington suspending him for four games and removing his jersey from the team store.
But most damaging was the subtle way in which Papelbon struck Storen and Janssen. Prior to July 28, when the Nationals decided it would be prudent to acquire a closer they did not need (and who was known to be a clubhouse cancer) from a division rival, Storen had a 1.73 ERA in the closer’s role and Janssen a 2.95 as the setup man. After being demoted to eighth- and seventh-inning duty respectively following the Papelbon trade, Storen and Janssen (6.75 and 7.64 ERA) were never the same.
Things got so bad that, after allowing a game-winning homer to the Mets’ Yoenis Cespedes in early September, Storen slammed his locker in frustration and broke his thumb, effectively ending his season. Just like the Papelbon trade effectively ended the Nats’ season.