As of September 27, the Washington Nationals sit at 84-75 and out of the playoff race. Their season was effectively over this week when they were swept by the St. Louis Cardinals and knocked out of wild card contention. While not making the playoffs, 84 wins are second in team historyto last year’s total of 98. By most standards, 84 wins is a good season, but this year with high expectations, it just was not good enough.
The Nationals and manager Davey Johnson came into the 2013 with high expectations. As the Nationals came off of a 98 win season and a division series loss, Johnson proclaimed that this season was “World Series or bust.” The Nationals and the rest of the league made Johnson eat his words as the Nationals played most of the season with a target on their backs while looking up at the Atlanta Braves in the standings.
For the 2013 Nationals, nothing seemed to go right. Very quickly it was realized that general manager Mike Rizzo made a few mistakes in the offseason. Dan Haren, who Rizzo signed to replace fourth starter Edwin Jackson, had an awful first half. Haren was able to pick himself up in the second half, but the damage had already been done. Rizzo also elected to let left-handed relievers Michael Gonzalez, Tom Gorzelanny, and Sean Burnett all sign with other teams. The only lefty reliever in the Nationals bullpen at the beginning of the season was journeyman Zach Duke.This became an obvious weakness early on. Duke is known more as a long-reliever instead of a lefty specialist. The Nationals officially gave up on Duke on June 4 when they designated him for assignment. It was also very clear early in the season that the Nationals missed Michael Morse’s power. The team struggled in the early part of the year to score runs and it was obvious they missed Morse’s power and his role in the clubhouse.
In sports, if your best players do not play like your best players your team is going to struggle. Throughout most of the year, the Nationals best players did not play up expectations. Adam LaRoche, Denard Span, and Ryan Zimmerman all had bad stretches during the first half of the season. Interestingly enough, these three players all had very good Septembers. Span even had a 29 game hit streak that spanned August and September. The team was also plagued by injuries by Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper, and Ross Detwiler. The injury to Detwiler forced the Nationals to use Ross Ohlendorf, Tanner Roark, Taylor Jordan, and Nathan Karns as starters. To put things in perspective, the 2012 Nationals only used seven different starting pitchers while the 2013 squad used 10.
What appeared to be strengths in 2012 would turn out to be weaknesses in 2013. An inconsistent bullpen, an underperforming bench, and an offense that relied on home runs hampered the club. These problems slowly went away as the season went on, but the damage was already done. The team began to play better in late August, but the deficit was too much to overcome. The Nationals will need to rebound in 2014 in order to prove that this year was an anomaly and that 2012 was the real deal.
By Mac Cassells