We Know What’s Wrong With The Nats, But How Can It Be Fixed?

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The Nationals were expected to dominate. Instead, the team that won 98 games in 2012 and seemingly improved over the winter is under .500, out of contention and facing a large number of changes this off-season. It’s not hard to diagnose what went wrong and here’s a brief synopsis:

  • Injuries

The Nationals lost Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos and Ross Detwiler for extended periods.

  • Underperformance

Dan Haren was signed to shore up the back of the rotation and has been awful. Drew Storen is out of his element as a set-up man and wound up back in the minors. Denard Span has been a disappointment. And Danny Espinosa’s numbers (.158/.193/.272 split with a .465 OPS and 3 homers) are worse than those of Cubs’ pitcher Travis Wood (.267/.298/.489 split with a .787 OPS and 3 homers).

  • Bad approach/bad luck

The Nats are seventh in the National League in home runs and next-to-last in the league in runs scored. They’re twelfth in the league in walks and fourteenth in on-base percentage. In 2013, they’re thirteenth in the league with a BAbip of .282; in 2012, they were fourth at .308.

  • Poor defense

The Nats’ catchers have caught 13 percent of the runners trying to steal on them. Anthony Rendon is a third baseman playing second. Ryan Zimmerman is in a defensive funk that’s gone of for the better part of two years.

  • Dysfunction

Manager Davey Johnson has openly clashed with general manager Mike Rizzo. Tyler Clippard ripped the organization for their demotion of his friend Storen. The players appear to have thought they’d have a cakewalk to the playoffs given the hype and star power.

In short, the Nats have gone from an embarrassment of riches to a plain embarrassment. With 2013 essentially over and 2012 long gone in the rearview mirror, what do the Nats have to do to get back to where they were supposed to be? What should they do?

With Rizzo having received a promotion and contract extension, it’s his baby. The luck/design argument is irrelevant. The Nationals happened to be the worst team in baseball two years in a row when once-a-generation talents were sitting there waiting to be picked first overall in Harper and Stephen Strasburg. That’s no one’s fault and to no one’s credit. It just is. Rizzo put a solid team together, but there’s been a semblance of overkill with the signings of Haren and Rafael Soriano. Haren’s performance in 2013 is indicative that his decline that began last season with the Angels was not an aberration. Soriano has pitched well, but he was not really a necessity for the Nats. He was available, they didn’t trust Storen and preferred Clippard as the set-up man. In retrospect, both were mistakes.

The question of who the manager will be going forward is vital. Johnson bears a large portion of the responsibility for this team’s underachievement. As great as his record is and as much as the media loves him for his personality and candor, Johnson’s style was a significant reason the 1980s Mets failed to live up to their talent level. He doesn’t care about defense, he trusts his players far too much in preaching aggressiveness, and the festering anger over the 2012 Strasburg shutdown—that I’m sure Johnson thinks cost his team a World Series—has manifested itself in open warfare between the manager and GM. If Johnson weren’t retiring at season’s end, Rizzo likely would’ve fired him a month ago along with hitting coach Rick Eckstein, or Johnson would simply have quit.

Johnson’s positives (he wins a lot of regular season games) don’t eliminate his negatives (he’s insubordinate and his teams are fundamentally weak). Thirty years ago, Johnson was seen as a computer geek manager. Nowadays, he’s considered a dinosaur. In reality, Johnson is and always has been a gambler and an arrogant one at that. His attitude is that the team he’s managing needs him more than he needs it. He doesn’t want people telling him what to do and he’s never taken well to front office meddling. The Strasburg shutdown and firing of his hitting coach are two instances in which Johnson would like to tell the front office to take a hike and let him run the team his way. Rizzo had problems with Johnson and his predecessor Jim Riggleman. With the next hire, he’d better get someone younger and on the same page. That doesn’t mean he should hire a yes man, but someone who he can work with sans this lingering tension and open disagreements.

With the personnel, a lesson can be learned from the Big Red Machine Reds from 1971. In 1970, GM Bob Howsam and manager Sparky Anderson had built a monster. The Reds won 102 games and lost the World Series to the Orioles. Widely expected to repeat as NL champs, they fell to 79-83 in 1971. With cold-blooded analysis, Howsam realized that the Reds were missing the elements of leadership, speed, intensity and defense, Howsam traded 39-homer man Lee May and starting second baseman Tommy Helms with Jimmy Stewart to the Astros for Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, Jack Billingham, Ed Armbrister and Denis Menke. The clubhouse was transformed and they were suddenly a faster team with Gold Glovers at second base and in center field. In fact, it was that decried move that spurred their run to greatness.

Rizzo needs to look at the team’s deficiencies in the same way that Howsam did and act decisively. If that means getting a defensively oriented catcher, trading Ian Desmond, Clippard and some other names that are supposedly part of the team’s “core,” then they have to explore it. If a team underachieves from what they were supposed to be, there’s nothing wrong with dropping a bomb in the clubhouse. In fact, it’s necessary in order to get back on track. With their youth and talent, the Nats can get back to where they were with the right managerial choice and a gutty trade or two.

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2011 Feels More 1975 Than 1986 And The Rangers Will Win

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Post-game note: Naturally, hours after I wrote this the Cardinals beat the Rangers to win the World Series. Even with that, the following is an interesting bit on the 1975 and 1986 World Series along with proof that even the most brilliant of us can be wrong; or the most idiotic can be right. Where I fall in there is yet to be determined. Probably both.

Two of the most dramatic game sixes in World Series history happened in 1975 and 1986.

Last night, 2011 joined those two great series in memorable worthiness.

Carlton Fisk‘s “body english” dance down the first base line as he willed his long drive off of Reds righty Pat Darcy off the foul pole just above the Green Monster in Fenway Park has become one of the enduring images and stories in the history of baseball.

But there was an even more dramatic and important moment earlier in that game as pinch hitter Bernie Carbo homered with two outs and two on in the bottom of the eighth inning to tie the score.

In 1986, the Mets dramatic comeback from two runs down with two outs and nobody on in the bottom of the tenth inning against the Red Sox culminated with Mookie Wilson‘s ground ball dribbling through Bill Buckner‘s legs as Ray Knight scored the winning run.

In 1975, the Reds came back the next night and beat the Red Sox 4-3. After leading 3-0 into the sixth inning, Tony Perez hit a two-run homer off a super-slow curveball from Red Sox lefty Bill Lee to make it 3-2; Pete Rose singled to tie the score in the seventh; and the Reds took the lead in the ninth on Joe Morgan‘s bloop hit to center field.  Carl Yastrzemski flew out to Cesar Geronimo in center field as the Reds finally whacked the albatross of unmet expectations off their backs; Reds pitcher Will McEnaney repeatedly leaped into the air, spinning his arms in joy as the ball descended into Geronimo’s glove and celebrated in Fenway Park.

1986’s game 7 saw the Red Sox jump out to a 3-0, second inning lead as well on back-to-back homers by Dwight Evans and Rich Gedman. Sid Fernandez relieved Ron Darling for the Mets and electrified the crowd, striking out four in 2 1/3 innings without allowing a hit. The game was quieted down sufficiently with Fernandez’s performance to set the stage for a comeback; the Mets rallied in the bottom of the sixth to tie the score. Knight homered off of Calvin Schiraldi to lead off the bottom of the seventh; the Mets scored two more runs to extend the lead to 6-3; the Red Sox scored twice in the top of the eighth; Darryl Strawberry hit a two-run shot in the bottom of the inning to make it 8-5. Jesse Orosco struck out Marty Barrett to end the series, then flung his glove into space in a memory that will forever be entrenched in the minds of Mets fans.

There are similarities to both series for both teams playing their game 7 tonight.

The Cardinals win in game 6 was more reminiscent of the Red Sox win in 1975 than that of the Mets in 1986; last night’s game had so many twists, turns and comebacks that the only way it could end was on a walk-off homer.

But as dramatic as the Fisk homer was, people tend to forget that the Reds finally validated their place in history the next night.

After having lost in the World Series in 1970 and 1972; being bounced in the playoffs by the supposedly inferior Mets in 1973, the joke was that the Big Red Machine was equipped with a choke.

The Rangers are in a similar position as those Reds. They blew a game and championship they thought they’d already won a year after losing in the World Series; they thought they’d still be celebrating and now need to come back, play another game and win to prove that their back-to-back American League championships aren’t worthless; that the well-rounded team they’ve constructed isn’t going to go down as a disappointment that falls apart in the big moments.

Before those championships, the Reds stars—Rose, Morgan, Perez and Johnny Bench—hadn’t won anything in a team sense.

The Rangers stars—Adrian Beltre, Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz—are looking for similar validation.

These Rangers rely on a decent starting rotation and ultra-deep bullpen always on call; so did those Sparky Anderson-managed Reds.

There was a sense of foreboding hovering around the 1986 Red Sox from such a devastating defeat and constant reminder of how something always seemed to go wrong to ruin whatever chance they had at finally breaking The Curse. They were destined to lose and they did.

As resilient as the 2011 Cardinals have been, they haven’t played particularly well this series—in fact, they’ve been horribly outplayed. The should’ve lost last night.

The Rangers are starting Matt Harrison tonight with C.J. Wilson on call in the bullpen set to play the Sid Fernandez-role if Harrison gets into trouble. There’s a decided on-paper disadvantage on the mound with Chris Carpenter pitching for the Cardinals.

But that won’t matter.

With that gut-wrenching loss behind them and their ability to overcome drama, on field and off, the Rangers are tougher than they’re given credit for; I don’t get the sense that the Cardinals are a team of destiny like the 1986 Mets.

And that’s why the Rangers are going to win tonight and make game 6 a dramatic and exciting footnote rather than a turning point to an unexpected championship.

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