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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Mike Morse a Useful Bat and Not a Huge Difference-Maker

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The Nationals are listening to offers on outfielder/first baseman Mike Morse after re-signing first baseman Adam LaRoche to a 2-year, $24 million contract. With the presence of Denard Span, Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper in the outfield and the retention of LaRoche, there’s nowhere for Morse to play. He’s stated that he’d be uncomfortable as a designated hitter, but given that he is under contract for one more year at $6.75 million and is a free agent after 2013, he doesn’t have any say in the matter. He’s a below-average defensive player, but he’s not an outright liability in the outfield or at first base.

The Nationals are counting on several variables to repeat their 2012 division-winning performance and 98 wins. Dan Haren is replacing Edwin Jackson in the starting rotation and while Jackson was a guaranteed 190-200 innings, Haren’s back injury limited him to 176 in 2012 and he’s not a certainty to return to durability and form in 2013. On a one year contract, he’s worth the risk at $13 million in comparison to the 4-year, $52 million deal Jackson got from the Cubs. Stephen Strasburg’s limits are gone, so they can count on him for 30 more innings than the 159 he was allowed to throw in 2012. With Haren and Strasburg’s newfound freedom, that should counteract the loss of Jackson.

They’ve lost their two lefties out of the bullpen Tom Gorzelanny and Sean Burnett. Unless they replace them from the outside or get another starting pitcher in order to place Ross Detwiler in the bullpen where he belongs, these departures are going to hurt the Nationals.

They’re said to be seeking lefty bullpen help in exchange for Morse or young starting pitching. Teams in need of Morse’s bat include the Braves, Mets, Rays, Phillies, Orioles, Yankees, Mariners, and Indians. If the Nats think they’re getting at top-tier starting pitching prospect for Morse, they’re deluding themselves.

Morse has tremendous power, but his walks dropped significantly in 2012 in spite of his pitches-per-at-bat percentage remaining static for what it’s been for his career. That could be explained by several things. The Nationals’ batting order, with LaRoche having a very good power year and batting behind Morse, might have led to pitchers challenging Morse a bit more. He could have altered his approach and gotten too aggressive with pitches that he shouldn’t have—that was the case on 2-0 counts and it was a detriment to his production. Or the league might have, to a certain extent, figured out that he’s not an elite slugger and a power fastball up in the zone can get by him with breaking stuff in the dirt leading to strikeouts.

He has legitimate 25-30 homer pop, but not overwhelming value.

What I would try to do if I were the Nationals is to seek something a bit more out of the box than what’s been mentioned as a return in a Morse trade. The likeliest combination of return for Morse would be, for example, from the Mariners Charlie Furbush and Hector Noesi. That’s not a bad deal for either side.

From the Yankees, I wouldn’t ask for young pitching they don’t have, but I would ask for another pending free agent after 2013, one who’s fallen out of favor with the club from his days as a big time prospect: Joba Chamberlain. I’d also ask for Clay Rapada. This would bolster the Nationals bullpen with a situational lefty and possibly give them a shutdown seventh, eighth and ninth innings with Chamberlain, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen with three pitchers who can interchangeably close.

They won’t get a ton for Morse, but they’ll get useful pieces. The team that gets Morse will get a power bat who hits righties and lefties equally as well and won’t be affected by ballpark factors because he’s big enough and strong enough to hit the ball out of any park. He’s not a major difference-maker, but he’s a chip they can trade to fill immediate needs.

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Washington Nationals vs St. Louis Cardinals—NLDS Preview and Predictions

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Washington Nationals (98-64; 1st place, NL East) vs St. Louis Cardinals (88-74; 2nd place, NL Central; Won Wild Card Game over Braves)

Keys for the Nats: Don’t be overconfident; get good starting pitching; let the game come to them.

The Nationals have taken the tone of being very impressed with themselves. This stems from their large number of young players who’ve never been in the post-season, nor have they been on clubs that were as dominant as the Nats were in 2012. Manager Davey Johnson has always been somewhat egotistical to say the least. He’s been able to back it up in regular seasons past, but in the playoffs, his clubs have been disappointing considering talent levels.

Gio Gonzalez won 21 games in the regular season and shed the “wild” and “inconsistent” labels he brought with him from the Athletics. He strikes out a lot of hitters, allowed only 9 homers in 199 innings, and had a great innings pitched/hits ratio of 199/149—the entire tone of the series will be set by Gonzalez’s performance. With Stephen Strasburg having been shut down, game 2 falls to Jordan Zimmerman, game 3 to Edwin Jackson, game 4 to Ross Detwiler.

The Nationals will be excited to be in the post-season and with the number of first-timers and young players, there could be an aspect of trying to get it all done at once from the likes of Bryce Harper, Danny Espinosa, and Michael Morse.

Keys for the Cardinals: Take advantage of the Nats’ inexperience; catch the ball; don’t put manager Mike Matheny in a position where his strategic gaffes can cost them.

The Cardinals have plenty of playoff and World Series history behind them from the top of the roster to the bottom. They got by the Braves in the Wild Card play in game with Kyle Lohse starting and now have the battle-tested Adam Wainwright ready for game 1 and Chris Carpenter for game 3. The Cardinals have been here before as heavy underdogs and they’re feisty in their own right so the Nats won’t be able to bully them as Johnson’s teams have been known to do.

The Cardinals defense is not great and they don’t want to give extra outs or miss catchable balls to give the Nats baserunners for the bashers to knock in.

Matheny has no managerial experience and that is a factor when going against one as experienced as Johnson. The more times he’s in a position to make a mistake, the more likely he is to make one.

What will happen:

Gonzalez truly surprised me this season with his Cy Young Award-caliber season, but a game 1 playoff start is a whole new level for him. I still don’t trust his command and if his adrenaline is exploding the Cardinals will take advantage of walks followed by a fat, get-me-over fastball.

Fear and not knowing what to expect will not be a factor for Wainwright or Carpenter. Cardinals’ closer Jason Motte has gotten the big outs in the playoffs and World Series. Nats’ closer Tyler Clippard hasn’t.

The Cardinals are one of the few teams in baseball that have the offense to get into a shootout with the Nationals and win it. Carlos Beltran, David Freese, Matt Holliday, and especially Yadier Molina have—for the most part—relished the playoff spotlight. The Nats’ only key players with post-season experience are the veterans Jayson Werth, Jackson, and Adam LaRoche. It’s not necessarily a key component to winning. It helps more to have good starting pitching and a solid bullpen with an experienced closer. The Nats have the potential in the starting rotation, but I’d like their chances exponentially better if they were pitching Strasburg in the playoffs. They’re not. He’s doing the equivalent of taking violin lessons while his friends are outside playing ball.

Davey Johnson’s teams have a history of regular season dominance, lots of yapping, and a playoff flameout. The Cardinals starting pitching is deeper and more experienced and the offense can score with the Nationals. Those factors will get them through the first round.

PREDICTION: CARDINALS IN FOUR

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Believe It Or Don’t—The Good

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Let’s take a look at some teams that—based on preseason expectations—are overachieving, how they’re doing it and whether or not it will last.

  • Baltimore Orioles

What they’re doing.

The Orioles are 27-14 and in first place in the tough American League East.

How they’re doing it.

Led by Adam Jones’s 14, the Orioles have the most home runs in the American League. The starting pitching was expected to be led by youngsters Jake Arrieta and Tommy Hunter—they’ve been okay. Two ridiculed acquisitions Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen have been excellent. The bullpen and manager Buck Showalter’s manipulation of it has been the key.

Believe it or don’t?

The Orioles have gotten off to good starts before and wilted in the summer heat. They can hit and hit for power; their defense is bad. But if Arrieta, Hunter and Brian Matusz pick up for Hammel and Chen when they come down to earth and the bullpen is serviceable, they can surprise and finish in the vicinity of .500.

They’re on the right track, but 13 games over .500 is a stretch.

Don’t believe it.

  • Oakland Athletics

What they’re doing.

The A’s are 20-21 after being widely expected to lose 90-100 games following a strange off-season in which they cleaned house of young arms Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey, but signed Yoenis Cespedes and Bartolo Colon.

How they’re doing it.

Slumps and scheduling have greatly assisted the A’s. They caught the Royals, Angels, Orioles, Tigers and Red Sox during lulls.

The starting pitching with youngsters (Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone) and foundlings (Colon, Brandon McCarthy) have been serviceable-to-good. Manager Bob Melvin knows how to run his bullpen.

I was stunned when I looked at the numbers and saw that Josh Reddick has 10 homers.

The Moneyball “stolen bases are a waste” Athletics are leading the American League in stolen bases.

Believe it or don’t?

They’ve lost two straight to the Giants and are heading to Anaheim to play the Angels and New York to play the Yankees. The Manny Ramirez sideshow is coming and no one knows if he can still hit enough to justify his presence. Cespedes’s hand injury saved him from being sent to the minors.

Don’t believe it.

  • Washington Nationals

What they’re doing.

The Nationals are 23-17 and in second place in the National League East.

How they’re doing it.

The Nationals’ starting pitching has been ridiculously good. Gio Gonzalez has been masterful; Stephen Strasburg is unhittable when he’s on (and hard to hit when he’s slightly off); Edwin Jackson, Jordan Zimmerman and Ross Detwiler have been good as well.

The bullpen has been without closer Drew Storen all season, but Henry Rodriguez is filling in capably. Manager Davey Johnson is adept at handling his bullpen.

Injuries have hindered what should’ve been a strong lineup. Mike Morse, Wilson Ramos and Jayson Werth are out. Ramos is gone for the season with knee surgery; Werth broke his wrist and won’t be back until the late summer. 19-year-old Bryce Harper is adapting to the majors and showing exquisite talent and baseball intelligence amid growing pains.

Believe it or don’t?

This is a talented team whose run-scoring ability has been hampered by injuries. They’re 5th in the National League in home runs, but 14th in runs—that will get better once Morse gets back and Harper’s hitting consistently. The loss of Ramos is a big blow. The starting pitching won’t keep up this pace.

Believe it.

  • New York Mets

What they’re doing.

The Mets are 21-19 in an NL East that might be the most talented division in baseball.

How they’re doing it.

The Mets are 4th in the NL in on base percentage. David Wright has been an MVP candidate for the entire first two months; Johan Santana’s been excellent. That they’re managing to stay above .500 with Ike Davis batting .160 is a minor miracle. Everyone—especially the youngsters Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Lucas Duda—is contributing.

The starting pitching is short-handed and the bullpen has been, at best, inconsistent.

Believe it or don’t?

Unless Davis starts hitting when Wright cools down; unless the rest of the starting rotation and bullpen pick up for Santana when he slows down, they can’t maintain this pace especially when the Phillies get their bats back.

Don’t believe it.

  • Los Angeles Dodgers

What they’re doing.

The Dodgers are 27-13 and in first place by six games in the NL West.

How they’re doing it.

Matt Kemp was laying the foundation for a run at the triple crown and the MVP before he strained a hamstring. Andre Ethier is having an All-Star comeback season. Their starting pitching has been a wonder; the defense has been good. The entire organization breathed a sigh of relief when the reign of owner Frank McCourt came to an end. They’ve been reinvigorated by the enthusiastic presence of Magic Johnson as the ownership front man and the competent organizational skills of Stan Kasten.

Believe it or don’t.

Believe it within reason. They’ll be aggressive at the trading deadline to improve and are in for the long haul, but Chris Capuano and A.J. Ellis aren’t going to be as good as they’ve been so far. They’re going to need a bat and probably a starting pitcher. Ned Colletti will get what he feels the team needs to win.

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