7 Things We Learned About Washington Nationals This Past Season
With the Washington Nationals 2013 season over for good, it is time to look back at the season that was.
This examination will include a look at individual players as well as the team in general, while also keeping tabs on league-wide perception of this team.
Here now are seven things we learned about the Washington Nationals this past season.
Note: All statistics courtesy of MLB.com unless noted otherwise.
7. Nats' Managerial Opening Is Very Popular
This time four years ago, the Nationals had just finished the second of two consecutive 100-loss seasons, according to Baseball-Reference.com. Who would have thought that in such a short period of time, Washington would become a desirable destination for MLB managers, both veteran and novice alike?
Well, that is exactly what is happening. On Oct. 9, Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post wrote that "with their roster’s talent and their ownership’s willingness to spend, the Nationals will have no shortage of qualified candidates lining up to replace Davey Johnson as their next manager."
To that point, Kilgore mentioned in that same article how Dusty Baker, recently fired by the Cincinnati Reds, had contacted Nationals GM Mike Rizzo via his agent to express interest in the position. Baker had this to say in a phone conversation with Kilgore:
It’s early... A lot of stuff doesn’t really happen until the World Series is over. Right now, I’m in no hurry. I just let them know that I was interested.
...It’s a good team. It’s a very good team... I’m about winning. My son told me – he was crying the other day – he wanted to play for the Reds. Then he told me, ‘Dad, if you want to win, you want to go to the Nationals.’
I don’t have a whole bunch of years left, but I’ve got some good ones left. I want to take a team to the top.
Baker isn't the only candidate who has been inserted into the conversation before ever receiving an official interview from the team. Jayson Werth talked to Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post on Sept. 28 about Cal Ripken, Jr. (pictured), a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame as well as a player who has never even managed at the minor league level. Werth said of Ripken that “he would be my No. 1 choice."
Ripken responded to those comments during an appearance on the Rich Eisen Podcast on Oct. 1 (trancsript via Dan Steinberg of The Washington Post):
I have said that at some point I’d like to come back to baseball. And most recently, I said that I’m starting to get an itch to do that. But I’d have to look hard at any opportunity, and so far, I haven’t been asked to do anything. So it’s very flattering that people think of me that way, and I have thought about how cool it would be to manage.
And even Donny Mattingly got me thinking about this a little bit more... He said there’s nothing like being a player, and coaching is pretty good because you help other people do what it is that they do. But managing is the closest thing to being a player. And I’ve always thought that, anyway, internally. Now I’m starting to think about that a little bit more. So far I’ve got nothing new to report, but that’s been the consistency, that I’ve made those statements. And I am getting a feeling that maybe I’d like to get back in.
Baker and Ripken are in addition to the two primary candidates for the position, Nationals bench coach Randy Knorr and Arizona Diamondbacks third base coach Matt Williams, according to Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com on Sept. 30. And like Dusty Baker said, the World Series isn't even over yet. By the time it is, expect at least one more significant candidate to throw his hat in the ring.
6. Anthony Rendon Is a Natural at Second
Anthony Rendon (pictured) was considered the best of the Nationals' top 20 prospects for 2012. But that was as a third baseman, the position he played in college at Rice. It wasn't until Danny Espinosa began to struggle and after Rendon had been sent back down to the minors that Rendon was ever mentioned as a second baseman.
But that's exactly what position Rendon assumed when he returned to the Nationals on June 5, and he stayed there for the rest of the season. In 369 total chances over 714.1 innings in 82 games, Rendon committed nine errors for a .976 fielding percentage. He turned 50 double plays and had a range factor of 4.39.
Nationals manager Davey Johnson, a second baseman in his playing days, spoke to Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post on Sept. 21 about Rendon's ability at second base:
He was further along than I thought he was going to be... His footwork was really good around the bag. He’s still learning a little bit about positioning. He’s a good second baseman. I would classify him as a little above average. Good hands. He’s got a good future. He’s a big leaguer at second.
Pretty good for a third baseman.
5. Jayson Werth Earned His Salary
This season represented the third year in Jayson Werth's seven-year contract worth a total of $126 million, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts. And for the first time since he joined the Nationals in 2011, Werth earned his salary.
In 129 games, Werth (pictured) hit .318 in 462 at-bats with 24 doubles, 25 home runs, 82 RBI and 84 runs scored. Werth walked 60 times and struck out 101 times, with a .398 on-base percentage and a .532 slugging percentage.
Inspect the following table to see where the 34-year-old ranked on the Nationals, as well as in the National League, during the 2013 season:
|STAT||NUMBER||TEAM RANK||NL RANK|
On Aug. 21, Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post drew a preliminary conclusion about Werth's contract based on his 2013 campaign:
This season’s Nats have had many disappointments, but almost all are young players who might bounce back. Their least likely positive surprise this year has been Werth. He was the financial dark hole that would get only worse with time. How could the last four years of his contract ($83 million from 2014 to 2017) not be a weight on the team? With just five homers last season, how could he be worth even half that much at ages 35 through 38?
Werth may still become a burden. But that no longer seems certain.
4. Left-Handed Relievers Are Important
In 2012, the Nationals were tied for third in the NL with a reliever ERA of 3.23. They promptly lost Sean Burnett, Michael Gonzalez and Tom Gorzelanny to free agency, and retained Zach Duke (pictured) as the lone left-hander in the pen.
On Jan. 8, 2013, Nats GM Mike Rizzo spoke to Amanda Comak of The Washington Times about this very situation:
I think the right left-handed reliever would be great... But we have a very unique and special type of bullpen. Our right-handers get out left-handed hitters better than most left-handed specialists get them out, so it’s not something we feel we have to do.
This season, the Nats bullpen ranked 11th in the NL with a reliever ERA of 3.56. Washington's bullpen ERA got that low with the help of left-handers Ian Krol, Fernando Abad and Xavier Cedeno, none of whom were on the Nationals opening day roster. Among Nationals relievers, Cedeno ranked second in ERA while Abad and Krol ranked ninth and 10th respectively (minimum 5.0 innings pitched).
To avoid a repeat next season, Christopher Gamble of RantSports.com writes that "a lefty reliever might be the team’s highest priority and the free agent market should give GM Mike Rizzo plenty of options."
Just as long as Rizzo realizes that entering the season with one left-handed reliever is no longer one of his options.
3. Nats Needed to Beat Braves in Season Series
In 2012, the Nationals were 10-8 against the Atlanta Braves (pictured), according to ESPN.com. For the season, the Nats finished with a 98-64 record, 4.0 games ahead of the second-place Braves in the NL East standings.
In 2013, the Nats were 6-13 against the Brave, according to ESPN.com. At the end of the season, the Nationals were 86-76, 10.0 games behind the Braves in the NL East standings as Atlanta won the division.
Additionally, Washington finished 4.0 games behind the Cincinnati Reds for the second and final spot in the NL Wild Card standings.
Needless to say, the Nationals games against division rival Atlanta are of the utmost importance. If the 2013 Nats had equaled their win total against Atlanta from last season, they might still be playing baseball, instead of golf.
2. Mark DeRosa Was Sorely Missed
But even though he played in only 48 games and hit.188 in 85 at-bats, DeRosa was the most beloved player on the team.
He was part team comedian, part assistant coach and part father. He brought his humor, experience, a World Series ring and a caring nature to a Nationals team that last year had very little playoff experience. The day after Stephen Strasburg was shutdown early for the season, DeRosa noticed his upset and quiet teammate, sat next to him during the game and served as his sounding board.
There were many theories put forth regarding the Nationals' struggles in 2013, from a lackluster bullpen, to an underperforming bench to poor decisions made by manager Davey Johnson. But the absence of Mark DeRosa may have played a large part in the team's struggles, and it really began to show as the season entered crunch time.
1. Nats Were Mentally Weak
One trend became clear with the Washington Nationals as the season progressed: The team was mentally weak, and this lack of mental strength kept them out of the postseason.
If the Nats suffered a tough loss, it would take them a week or two before they snapped out of the resulting funk. By extension, in order for the team to get on a hot streak, they needed to already be on a hot streak.
This trend became most evident in the middle of August, when the Nats began to make a comeback in the standings. On Aug. 15, the Nats were looking to finish a three-game sweep of the San Francisco Giants and, more importantly, trying to reach the .500 mark. No comeback bid could be taken seriously until they at least reached that significant milestone.
In this fateful game, the Nats were leading 3-1 entering the top of the ninth as closer Rafael Soriano entered the game looking to earn the save and seal the big win in the process. Instead, Soriano surrendered a three-run homer as the Nats lost 4-3. The loss pushed the team back to two games under .500 on Aug. 15.
Then, starting the next day, the Nats lost two of three games to Atlanta before dropping the first game of a four-game set to the lowly Chicago Cubs. Washington won the remaining three games of that series and eventually returned to .500 on Aug. 23.
It took the Nationals eight additional calendar days to return to .500, something they would have done on Aug. 15 if they had just put away the pesky Giants. At the time, I tweeted a prediction about the Nationals' future based on the events of that week:
Sure enough, the Nationals were eliminated with six—count 'em, six—calendar days remaining in the regular season. That fateful week in August was pretty important after all. Too bad this team lacked the mental fortitude to weather that storm, and others during the season.
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