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:
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.
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.