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A lost season: Nats eliminated from playoff contention

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A lost season: Nats eliminated from playoff contention

For weeks, the Nationals knew this day would come. They knew their inevitable fate of being eliminated from the playoff race was going to happen, one way or another.

There were nights when it seemed like it was already over, then the window would open and a glimmer of light would shine through. There were many opportunities over the last few weeks to put pressure on the first place New York Mets. But each time the game of baseball reminded them that preseason expectations, no matter how valid in their reasoning, mean nothing when it's all said and done.

The Nationals season breathed its last breath on Saturday night. The fact they walked off the Phillies an hour later in the drizzling rain on South Capitol St. became an ironic afterthought. It was all over and it ended way earlier than anyone had planned.

"I never thought we'd end up here," Jayson Werth said. "Obviously, we've underachieved. We haven't played well. We've done a lot of things that got us here. But I would've never guessed that. I would've never thought we'd be sitting here having this conversation with seven or eight games left. Would've bet the other way."

Both the Mets and Nationals celebrated on Saturday night. The Mets had a champagne shower in the visitors clubhouse in Cincinnati. The Nats rushed the field in Washington to pour chocolate sauce and other liquids on Bryce Harper, who hit a walk-off double to seal the victory.

But the Nationals will have plenty to think about once the dust settles on this day. Chances to win a World Series do not come around often and with the way this roster was constructed - many players were retained who are set for free agency this winter - this was as good an opportunity as many members of the Nationals will ever get.

That fact is not lost on the Nationals, who know the team could be a much different group on Opening Day 2016.

"I think I said that in February that this could be the last run of this core group of guys. It's got a chance to be drastically different next year, so that's tough," Werth said. "This is my fifth year here. Played with these guys, get to know these guys, go to work with these guys every year. You're basically family."

"We had the pieces in place to have a special season. It didn't happen," Casey Janssen said. "It's kind of a season with a lot of what ifs. I think on a personal level, I underachieved a little bit. I think a lot of people would have a similar statement. We dealt with a lot of injuries, but the bottom line is we didn't get it done."

"Sometimes this game isn't fair," Stephen Strasburg said. "Every single one of these guys competed all year. We dealt with some adversity, but we battled through it. That's all you can do. It just didn't work out this year."

The reasons for why the Nationals will not be playing in the postseason are numerous. They had an inordinate amount of injuries in the first half of the season. Then, they got healthy and it took time for players like Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon to get their timing back at the plate. The indispensable Denard Span appeared in only 61 games before being lost for the year.

There were mistakes made by their manager Matt Williams that are well-documented. His use of the bullpen came into question on many nights and some could argue his steadfast approach of not looking at the big picture, not seeing bad losses for what they were, held him and his team back from learning from their missteps.

The rotation was nowhere near what it was supposed to be. The Nationals had the best starters ERA in 2014 and then signed former Cy Young-winner Max Scherzer. It was predicted to be a historically dominant group. But Strasburg was held back by injuries in the early months, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez were inconsistent, and Doug Fister had the worst season of his career. Even Scherzer failed on several occasions when they needed him.

The bullpen was the team's weakest link for much of the season. They couldn't overcome the departure of Tyler Clippard and the early loss of Craig Stammen. After trading for closer Jonathan Papelbon, Drew Storen - who had pitched at an All-Star level in the first half - became their biggest liability.

Young, promising arms came up only to show their inexperience. Guys like Aaron Barrett and Blake Treinen did not progress like the front office projected they would.

Janssen was signed to be the team's setup man, to bring a veteran presence to the back of the Nats' bullpen. He did not have the season he was supposed to have, either, and knows things could have been different if the bullpen was better as a collective group.

"I think any good team, it starts on the mound. It starts with starting pitching. And if the starters are working deep into games it gives the bullpen a little rest every once in a while. [After the All-Star break], we were in a lot of tight games. We were using a lot of guys every night. We started to struggle as a group and we couldn't stop the bad snowball. It just happened to be at a time in our season when were counted on greatly. At the end of the day, as a team you can look at everything, but I think for us as a bullpen we probably circle that time of the season where had we performed better we definitely wouldn't have been eliminated today. It might have changed things."

The Nationals have eight games remaining on their schedule, eight meaningless games that include three at the New York Mets before they call it a year. Williams, for one, is not ready to reflect on what went wrong until the season is actually over.

"We got games to play. Can’t do that. We gotta to win tomorrow. I mean we’re here. We have to play games. We’ve got some remaining. We want to play well in those games. After the fact, we’ll have a chance to look back at it," he said.

Williams was asked if he addressed his team after the game, knowing their season was essentially over. He hadn't.

"I haven’t spoken to them yet. You’re going to have to ask them what they feel. I can tell you this, we’re trying to win and the game that we’re playing is most important."

Many Nats players were indeed asked how they felt and Harper, for one, has already come to terms with what will ultimately be looked at as a lost season.

"It’s just baseball. It’s just a game you play. There’s a lot of things in life that are bigger than just baseball. We’ll all come back in tomorrow and play this game," he said. "I think, the next couple days – the next week or so – a lot of these guys won’t be in this clubhouse anymore. So, we’re gonna try to enjoy this as a team and just really have some fun and play hard and see where we’re at."

All that is left to play for is pride and statistics. Then, on the night of Oct. 4 in New York, an offseason that could bring momentous change to the organization will finally begin.

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Here's how the Nationals outfield could sustain the loss of Bryce Harper

Here's how the Nationals outfield could sustain the loss of Bryce Harper

If the Nationals can’t re-sign Bryce Harper, don't expect them to go searching for a high-priced free agent like Michael Brantley to replace him. 

(A note: This is still an if! We haven't closed the door on Harper staying in DC.) 

The Nationals already have a promising in-house solution if Harper walks: Victor Robles.

Robles is currently rated as the fourth-best prospect in baseball, according to MLBpipeline.com. Robles has played 34 games for the Nationals over the last two season including 21 in 2018.  His slash line this September was .288/.348/.525 with three doubles, three home runs, a triple, and 10 RBI.

Of course there's upsides to known quantities like Brantley - even if he comes with injury concerns: He hit .309 last year with 17 home runs and 76 RBI last season. In 2014, he finished third in American League MVP voting. He had a slash line of .307/.385/.506 with 45 doubles, 20 home runs, and 97 RBI. The following season, Brantley led the Majors with 45 doubles. 

If you can’t stand batters that strike out, Brantley is the guy for you.

In 613 plate appearances in 2018, Brantley struck out just 60 times. His 9.5 strikeouts per 100 at bats was tied for second-best in the MLB. By comparison, Harper’s strikeout ratio in 2018 was 24.3%. As a team, the Nationals finished tied for sixth in fewest strikeouts per game (7.96). Additionally, Brantley led qualified hitters in contact rate (90.9 percent) and swinging-strike rate (4.0 percent) in 2018. 

But even with all that, there's some question marks here if the Nats opt to swap Harper for a slightly lower-priced free agent: Brantley is a left fielder.

Over his career, Brantley has spent some time in center field but has not played there since 2015. What would the Nationals outfield alignment look like if they signed Brantley? 

Of the 112 games Juan Soto started with the Nationals this past season, all 112 were in left field. Adam Eaton’s strongest defensive position is right field. The likely answer would be move Soto to right field (where he played in the minors), Eaton to center, and keep Brantley in left field. Eaton was the Nationals’ Opening Day centerfielder in 2017.

So while a team like the Phillies may be looking to spend the money on an outfielder like Brantley, if Harper doesn't return, don't expect the Nationals to enter the market. 

At least not while their prospects look so promising.

MORE ON MICHAEL BRANTLEY

 

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Explaining my National League ROY ballot

Explaining my National League ROY ballot

This was tight. Really tight. A category for the Braves’ Ronald Acuna Jr. A category for the Nationals’ Juan Soto.

Sorting through 16 categories showed Acuna and Soto should have split the National League Rookie of the Year award. It also showed me a narrow advantage for Soto, which is why I voted him first, Acuna second and Dodgers starter Walker Buehler third. Once the votes from other members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America were added, Acuna won, Soto was second and Buehler was third. It wasn’t close. It should have been.

First, a thought about the general process here: Writers take this seriously. Once assignments for the awards are distributed, we start to talk about them in the Nationals Park press box. Even non-voters hop in on the conversation. Sympathies are relayed to those who have an extremely tight choice, as I did this season and last when I voted for MVP (I’m big in Cincinnati thanks to my Joey Votto selection).

I outline specific categories, talk to opposing players and managers and watch as much as possible in order to come to a conclusion. The only thing easy about voting for ROY this season was the chance to see the leading candidates often since one played here and the other is in the division.

I used 16 categories to largely determine my vote. They were as follows: OPS, OPS+, Baseball Reference WAR, Fangraphs WAR, Baseball Prospectus WARP, OBP, WRC+, SB, HR, late-and-close OPS, 2 outs RISP OPS, BB:K ratio, WPA, “Clutch”, WOBA, and an overall defensive mark.

There’s no perfect formula here. But, when looking through those, Soto took nine, Acuna six and one, Fangraphs WAR, was even. That, coupled with Soto doing this in his age-19 season as the league’s youngest player (Acuna was just 20, so, like everything else the leader’s advantage here is slight), and talking to others in the league, prompted me to vote for Soto.

Again, the gaps were minute. Baseball Reference’s WAR formula favored Acuna. Fangraphs had them even. Baseball Prospectus put Soto clearly ahead. Soto was significantly better in late-and-close situations. Acuna was better with two outs and runners in scoring position.

If Soto had a distinct lead anywhere, it was via command of the strike zone, which is currently his premier talent. His walk and strikeout rates were both superior to Acuna. When asked about Soto, opponents and teammates alike brought it up.

However, Acuna is the better defender and baserunner. Points back to his favor.

Soto was intentionally walked 10 times signifying what opponents thought of dealing with him. Acuna was intentionally walked just twice (though his spot in the order has some influence there).

This ping-ponging of qualifications could go on.

What the National League East has is two of the best players in baseball. Not just young players at this stunningly low age, but two of the best. Soto was fourth in on-base percentage and seventh in OPS in the National League when adjusted to be among the qualified leaders (an explanation from Baseball Reference: In order to rank the player, the necessary number of hitless at bats were added to the player's season total.). Acuna was eighth in slugging under the same adjustment.

The 2019 All-Star Game is in Cleveland. Expect both to be there and this to be just the beginning of them being measured against each other.

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