The Washington Nationals aren’t going to make the playoffs. The hole they’ve dug for themselves is too great. They won’t win the N.L. East and they won’t qualify for the gimmicky play-in Wild Card either. Nor do they deserve to. They are playing at a 78-win pace, and with the offense the way it has played all season, that’s about right.
It’s a far cry from where most folks expected this team to be this season.
The biggest problems have all been documented.
1) Denard Span hasn’t been the player Mike Rizzo thought he was trading for when he sent one of the Nats top pitching prospects to Minnesota in exchange for the light-hitting center fielder. Span has been as advertised in the field, but for most of the season at the plate he’s been a 4-3 groundout waiting to happen.
2) Adam LaRoche has failed to back up his career season in the first year of a two-year $24 million deal. In 2012, LaRoche was sixth in the N.L. voting for MVP with 33 homers and 100 RBIs. This season, he’ll be lucky to break 20 and 60, while reaching base at a paltry .315 clip.
3) Key members of the bullpen have been injured or just simply bad. The Nats started the season with Drew Storen, Henry Rodriguez and Zach Duke, and Ryan Mattheus broke his hand punching his locker. The first three are all gone, with Fernando Abad, Ian Krol, Xavier Cedeno and now Tanner Roark taking their place.
4) The back end of the rotation has been invisible. Dan Haren was brought in (at $13 million) to be a stabilizing force and has instead been the weakest link with an ERA over five all season, “leading” the N.L. in homers allowed. Ross Detwiler has regressed from his breakout 2012, with two stints on the disabled list — and now out for the remainder of the season — with just two wins to his credit.
5) The top of the rotation has been merely good. Jordan Zimmermann had a stellar first half, but seems to be wearing down in the middle-to-late part of the season. Stephen Strasburg has been the victim of some really poor run support, but he’s not the same dominant starter since before his surgery. Gio Gonzalez has been good, but a far cry from his Cy Young caliber season in ’12.
6) The team gave far, far too many plate appearances to Danny Espinosa when he was (and still is) clearly injured. Espinosa “hit” .158/.193/.272 in 44 games before being placed on the D.L. with a broken right wrist he tried to play though, all the while needing surgery on his left shoulder. His poor health decisions, going back to when he originally injured the shoulder during last season’s pennant run, could end up costing the better part of three seasons instead of one — if not jeopardizing his entire career.
7) Ryan Zimmerman isn’t right. He’s not right at the plate (12 homers in 416 plate appearances) and he’s far from right in the field, where his throwing motion with time resembles more of a shot put throw instead of that of a Major League third baseman. He’s still playing too shallow to either cover for his throwing or the disturbing lack of range all of the sudden. He used to be one of the best in the game. Now, his fielding is a liability.
8) Bryce Harper can’t hit lefties. Tom Boswell just discovered the fact today, but we’ve been saying it in this space all season. If Harper were a “normal” second season player, he’d be platooning right now. Overall, his .271/.365/.526 line looks awesome for a 20-year old big leaguer. But in 93 plate appearances against left-handed pitching, Harper’s hitting .175/.272/.288. If he’s going to ascend to the lofty heights he’s expected to, he’s gotta figure that out. Oh, and he needs knee surgery to remove that pesky inflamed bursa that ruptured when he collided with the Dodger Stadium wall in the spring.
9) The bench… how do you put this politely… stinks on ice. Steve Lombardozzi is the bench valedictorian, hitting .249/.259/.315. He’s followed by newcomer Scott Hairston (.182/.250/.273), Roger Bernadina (.181/.247/.275) and brought up in the rear by Chad Tracy, who has produced a Matt Stairs-like .176/.208/.294 season.
10) Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not the “little things” that are doing the Nats in. They are above only the quad-A Marlins in runs per game and on base percentage. That’s the root of baseball — getting on base. The more runners a team gets on base, the more runs they score. We know this — over 120 years of professional baseball stats don’t lie. The Nats aren’t very good at it collectively. If you can’t get on base, you can’t score. The “little things” (sacrificing, hit-and-run, stealing bases) only lead to giving yet more precious outs away on the bases.
Herein lies the kicker — Almost the entirety of the roster is locked in for next year as well.
There are no quick fixes for this roster next season. Every single starting position player is under contract. The top of the rotation is set. They have another season of the prickly Rafael Soriano in the clubhouse. Drew Storen and Danny Espinosa will finish the meaningful part of this season in the minors, but they’ll be back too. How will they fit back into the team dynamic? Jayson Werth and LaRoche will be another year older.
And all the while, Ian Desmond, Tyler Clippard and Zimmermann — three players living up to their expectations this season — are all due long-term contracts or will face free agency.
The biggest departure for next season is the field manager, Davey Johnson. His “World Series or Bust” swan song has turned into a sad lame-duck walk, maybe saddest in baseball history. Where will Rizzo turn to guide his club next season? In-house candidate Randy Knorr is very well thought of here and elsewhere around the league, but can Rizzo turn to a first-time MLB manager after such a season of disappointment, one where many pundits believe the inmates were allowed to run the asylum?
Rizzo’s options to pull off a splashy move in the off-season are limited. He’ll have to buy a starting pitcher or two, depending on whether they stick with oft-injured Detwiler or trust Taylor Jordan to start the season. Either way, they need more MLB depth at starter, that much is certain. Would Rizzo move Harper back to center and bring in a power-hitting corner outfielder, relegating Span to defensive replacement and fourth outfielder? Will they cut the cord with LaRoche and move Zimmerman over to first, his inevitable resting place?
Or will Rizzo stand pat, trusting his original decisions and allow the work ethic, dedication and urgency to win to catch up with the perceived talent level?
So what will it be? Is this team the 98-win juggernaut of 2012, or is the 78-win pace of 2013 closer to the reality? Rizzo will have little time to think about what direction he wants to go, but at least he won’t have to worry about the pursuit of the playoffs clouding his judgment for very much longer.