Most pundits picked the Washington Nationals to win the National League East if not the National League championship or World Series. The Nationals are loaded with young, high-upside talent that have already shown what they can do at the big league level. They won 98 games in 2012. It seemed as though they were set for a division title and a deep playoff run in 2013.
Instead the Nationals are 15 1/2 games behind the Braves coming into Saturday’s play with a record of 55-60. The Nationals are 13 1/2 games out in the wild card race. How did this happen, considering all their young talent and how dominant they were last season?
Washington won just 59 games in 2009, jumped to 69 wins in 2010, then to 80 wins in 2011 and jumped all the way to 98 wins in 2012. Even with a steady progression from a franchise, a jump in 18 wins is pretty extreme, too extreme to not be at least a bit of a fluke. I’m not saying the Nationals should have been a .500 team in 2012 but 98 wins? A decline in wins was expected, which explains part of the issue in 2013. What explains the rest?
Well, most of the Nationals key players have all played quite well this season. Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond, Jason Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano have all played up to expectations or a little better.
A big problem is the role players. These players haven’t just performed like role players, they’ve been downright awful. Denard Span, for example, a solid but not great player they acquired to be their leadoff man, has posted an OPS+ of 85 while accruing the second-most plate appearances on the team. The guys they were depending on to be solid fill-ins surrounding the stars and superstars and the bench guys haven’t provided much support. With Harper and Werth missing time, the lack of contribution from extra players was magnified.
All this happened to the Nationals while plenty went right for the Braves. Yes, the outfield has been a bit of a disappointment, Dan Uggla remains in decline and Hudson was rather mediocre before he went down with an injury, but Chris Johnson has been awesome, Evan Gattis has staked his claim to the title of best extra player in baseball, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran are pitching to their ceilings, and the bullpen hasn’t missed a beat without Venters and O’Flaherty.
The great baseball writer Thomas Boswell opined this past Wednesday, in the Washington Post, that the Nationals problems are due to a lack of fundamentally sound play. It’s hard to know if there is anything to that without watching the team everyday but even still, that is only a small portion of what can possibly make a difference. The bigger issues are the regression of a team that jumped from 80 wins to 98 wins, some injuries to some key players and extreme under-performance of pretty much every role player and bench player.
The bad news for Braves fans is that Washington still has a strong, young core of players and will likely make it a priority to fill in the gaps with quality players this offseason. Their ownership and management aren’t shy about the fact that they are trying to go for it all every season these days. We shouldn’t expect more seasons like 2013 for the next few seasons just because of a down year from the Nationals.