Nationals

Quick Links

What went wrong for the Nationals in 2015?

jaysonwerth042515.png

What went wrong for the Nationals in 2015?

The 2015 season was a massive disappointment for the Nationals, who fell short of the playoffs and a World Series title they were expected to compete for. In attempt to make sense of what went wrong for them and how they can prevent it from happening again, we've put together a three-part series on the 2015 season. In this, our first installment, we look at why they underachieved...

WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE NATIONALS IN 2015?

Mark Zuckerman:

The Nationals underachieved this season not because of one all-encompassing issue but because of several lesser issues that, when put together, derailed this ballclub.

The reason team officials and players cited most was injuries, and certainly those did play a significant role. The Nats opened the season without their No. 1, 2 or 3 hitters (Denard Span, Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth) and not one of them wound up appearing in more than 88 games. Ryan Zimmerman started the year healthy but didn't finish healthy. Stephen Strasburg only made 23 starts, the first 10 of them not feeling 100 percent. Craig Stammen, Casey Janssen, Aaron Barrett and David Carpenter all missed considerable time with arm injuries.

That much lost manpower is going to be difficult for any team to overcome, though the Mets and Cardinals certainly proved you can still win big in spite of injuries.

It's also easy to blame to the Nationals' bullpen, which featured a mishmash of past-their-prime veterans and inexperienced newcomers. And Mike Rizzo's response to fixing that obvious problem area (trading for Jonathan Papelbon) only created bigger problems.

But to me, the biggest reason for the Nationals' disappointing season is the inability of what was supposed to be this team's unquestioned strength — the vaunted starting rotation — to live up to its lofty expectations.

Take each starter's season individually, and there's not a whole lot to find fault with. Max Scherzer (2.77 ERA, 276 strikeouts, 34 walks) was ridiculously dominant for the most part. Jordan Zimmermann (3.66 ERA, 164 strikeouts, 39 walks) was solid. Gio Gonzalez (11-8, 3.79) was his usual self. Strasburg gave up fewer hits, walked fewer batters and struck out more batters per nine innings than he did in 2014.

But collectively, that group did not come close to its full potential. The rotation's overall 3.70 ERA was worse than any of the previous three seasons, a full 66 points worse than the group's MLB-best 3.04 mark in 2014. Starters gave up more home runs (104) than in any season since 2009. They pitched 36 fewer innings.

A great rotation could have masked a lot of this team's other issues. It could have taken pressure off the injury-depleted lineup. It could have prevented Matt Williams from needing to call upon his beleaguered setup men to get out of tight spots in the sixth and seventh innings. It could have given the entire clubhouse reason to feel more confident in the likelihood of victory every night the players took the field.

That doesn't mean the Nationals didn't have problems beyond their rotation. Of course they did. There were far more flaws on the roster, on the coaching staff and in the front office than anybody reasonably expected when the season began.

But this team was built all along to win behind what was supposed to be an historically great rotation. That group was merely good, and so all of the Nationals' other flaws ultimately came together to create major disappointment.

Chase Hughes: 

Any time a team with championship aspirations stumbles as hard as the Nationals did this season, there are always plenty of problems to point to. For the Nats, those factors included a shoddy bullpen, a starting rotation that was nowhere near what it was supposed to be, injuries to their lineup, poor coaching in key spots and a front office that underestimated clubhouse chemistry in a trade that could go down as a cautionary tale for years to come.

Those all have to be mentioned, but I would like to zero in on what I would call an absent sense of urgency, which in turn caused key mistakes at moments where the Nationals needed to persevere and make changes to save their season.

Just like in 2013, the Nationals made several adjustments this year that were either miscalculated or executed far too late. They were once again too patient with struggling veterans. And once again they did not press the right buttons with midseason moves both in terms of trades and promoting from within.

This time, they should have added an outfielder not just before the deadline, but weeks before it arrived. More outfield depth would have made things much easier for Matt Williams with Denard Span out and it would have allowed Jayson Werth some much-needed days off as he got back into the fold.

They should have added a reliever to complement Drew Storen, not supplant him. Instead, they traded for Jonathan Papelbon in a boom-or-bust deal that completely blew up in their faces.

The most troubling takeaway from this season to me, however, is how the team panicked once things went wrong. CBS Sports and The Washington Post recently published stories that were excellent reporting, but they highlighted some key big-picture concerns.

In 2013, the Nationals were a team that fell short of expectations, but they didn’t embarrass themselves while doing so. This time they went from a functional, model franchise to dysfunctional, all within a few short weeks.

Next time the going gets tough, will the backstabbing and anonymous shots across the clubhouse emerge again? Will players undermine their manager both publicly and privately if things don’t go their way? Winning can cure a lot of things, but the Nationals showed they are a team that is a few bad losses from turning on each other.

The Nationals now have looming questions about their ability to handle adversity. We’ve seen them come up short in big moments on the field, and now it's possible they have trouble dealing with pressure off of it.

Quick Links

2018 Nationals Position Review: The Nats have a clear need at catcher​​​​​​​

_wieters.jpg
USA Today Sports Images

2018 Nationals Position Review: The Nats have a clear need at catcher​​​​​​​

One of the Nationals' biggest offseason needs is clearly at the catcher position, where they have no obvious starter under contract and no top prospect waiting in the wings.

Matt Wieters, Spencer Kieboom and Pedro Severino all saw time in the starting lineup in 2018, but all three failed to contribute in anything more than a few flashes. Severino started strong but was ineffective at the plate after the spring ended. Wieters finished the season strong but missed two months with an injury. Kieboom was good but never great.

Before we look ahead at the future of the position and whether the Nats will address their need with a trade or through free agency, let's look back at the 2018 season that was for Nationals backstops.

2018 Nationals Position Review: Catchers

Matt Wieters

Age: 32
2018 salary: $10.5 million
2018 stats: .251/.315/.410, 76 G, 271 PA, 235 AB, 56 H, 24 R, 8 HR, 30 RBI, 8 2B, 0 3B, 30 BB, 45 SO, 86 OPS+, bWAR 0.6

Wieters was always a short-term fix for the Nationals catcher, but this year he didn't exactly provide the production needed to even serve that purpose. His numbers were a bit better than 2017, his first year in Washington, but Wieters battled injuries, missing two months from mid-May to mid-July with a hamstring strain. 

To Wieters' credit, he finished the season strong. From July 23 to his final game on Sept. 29, Wieters carried a .353 on-base percentage with a .763 OPS. His defense was a mixed bag, but he did rank 10th in MLB in caught stealing percentage (min. 40 GP).

Wieters is expected to be gone this winter and where he goes next will be interesting. He can probably still get another starting catcher job, but not for a good team. Meanwhile, the Nats will go out hoping to find someone much better and younger than Wieters to move forward with.

Spencer Kieboom

Age: 27
2018 salary: Pre-Arb Eligible
2018 stats: .232/.322/.320, 52 G, 143 PA, 125 AB, 29 H, 16 R, 2 HR, 13 RBI, 5 2B, 0 3B, 16 BB, 28 SO, 71 OPS+, bWAR 0.4

Kieboom got the call in May when Wieters went down and got his first extended stint in the majors. He made his debut in 2016, but had just one plate appearance before going back down and then staying in the minors for all of 2017.

Kieboom did a serviceable job considering the circumstances. His caught stealing percentage was fourth in the majors. And offensively, he had some moments. He had seven multi-hit games and had a few stretches where he drew walks in bunches. 

The question for Kieboom is whether he did enough to keep a roster spot next season. He's under team control until 2024, but clearly, the team will seek upgrades at his position. 

Pedro Severino

Age: 25
2018 salary: Pre-Arb Eligible
2018 stats: .168/.254/.247, 70 G, 213 PA, 190 AB, 32 H, 14 R, 2 HR, 15 RBI, 9 2B, 0 3B, 1 SB, 18 BB, 47 SO, 34 OPS+, bWAR -1.1

Severino had played for the Nats in brief stints each of the past three seasons, but like Kieboom he got his first real run in the major leagues this season. He began the year as the backup catcher but was optioned down when Wieters returned in July because Kieboom essentially took his job. Severino then returned in September when rosters expanded.

Severino continued to show flashes this season with his defense and speed on the basepaths relative to his position. But he just didn't get it done at the plate. He couldn't hit for average or power and he doesn't get on-base consistently enough.

Since Kieboom passed him on the depth chart, and given the Nats are likely to add talent at catcher, it's unlikely Severino will enter next season as anything more than Triple-A depth.

MORE NATIONALS NEWS:

Quick Links

What went right in Dave Martinez’s first season with the Nationals?

martinez_nats_celebrate.jpg
USA Today Sports Images

What went right in Dave Martinez’s first season with the Nationals?

After spending a decade as a Major League bench coach and managerial interviews with seven other ballclubs over the course of six years, Dave Martinez was hired to manage the Washington Nationals in 2018. The team had averaged 93 wins over the previous four years, winning 95-plus in three of the four seasons, but in 2018 they won just 82, barely reaching an above-.500 record in the first season under Martinez’s tutelage.

Based on the managerial turnover, Martinez drew the ire of many Nats fans. After all, if the Nats were going to move on from the proven success of Dusty Baker, shouldn’t the next manager be even better?

While the frustration surrounding a disappointing season was entirely understandable, Martinez shouldn’t be given as much of the blame as he has. We’ll have a piece coming later in the offseason about some of the things that went wrong in his debut season, so for the folks out there who want to point out his flaws, don’t worry. Your time will come, and we’re not saying he should be absolved of all blame this year.

This post, however, will highlight some of the successes Martinez had this season, and why he may very well still have a bright future ahead of him in Washington.

There are a few key reasons why I maintained all season long that Dusty Baker wouldn’t have had much more success than Martinez in 2018. First off, the litany of injuries the Nats dealt with were pretty astounding, and while they didn’t have any one major obvious injury, the sheer volume added up to cost the team a lot of games from proven veterans.

Those injuries led to probably the single biggest bright spot from the 2018 season: the emergence of 19-year old wunderkind Juan Soto.

It’s difficult to evaluate what Martinez’s patterns will be going forward in regards to young players vs proven veterans, but Dusty Baker had a well-earned reputation for favoring high-floor vets over high-ceiling rookies. It’s a fine philosophy to have, but it likely would have kept Soto in the minor leagues in 2018, robbing Nats fans of maybe the most entertaining part of their summer.

Martinez showed trust in Soto early, recognizing his preternatural ability to get on base and show in-game power, and Soto ended up with the 4th-highest Wins Above Replacement on the teams, to go along with the highest wRC+. Allowing Soto to grow and prove himself in high-pressure situations was maybe Martinez’s shrewdest move all season long. 

Now, instead of another highly-rated prospect who may or may not pan out, the Nats find themselves in the enviable position of being able to let Bryce Harper walk if he asks for too much money while knowing they have a capable replacement already on the roster. After one of the single greatest teenage seasons for a hitter in Major League history, the Nats now have one of the most valuable assets in the game in Soto.

Obviously, most of the credit for Soto’s incredible rookie season goes to Soto himself, but it’s partially thanks to Martinez as well that he got the opportunity.

The actual, strategic role of a baseball manager is relatively limited. Yes, setting the lineup each day matters to a degree, and National League managers of course have more moves to worry about over the course of the game. Still, in a game without the X’s and O’s of football, basketball, and hockey, the most obvious strategy managers employ is in bullpen manipulation.

The Nats had a bounceback season with their bullpen in 2018, and Martinez certainly played a role in that. It wasn’t the elite bullpen season of years past, but as a unit the bullpen shave nearly half a run off their collective ERA compared to 2017, and they moved up from 23rd in baseball to 15th.

In this current era of bullpening and shortened starts, a strong bullpen has literally never been more important, and at the very least, Martinez proved himself capable of running one. In fact, given how the team’s remarkable injury misfortune extended to Sean Doolittle and the bullpen as well, it makes the manager’s performance even more impressive.

Individually, you can see the success as well, most prominently with the aforementioned Doolittle, who had a career year with a 1.60 ERA and a 36.8 strikeout rate. There were disappointments too, as there are in every bullpen every season, but it was still a good year for the group compared to last season.

Ultimately, the role of the manager in baseball is pretty overrated. Coaching schemes matter in football, X’s and O’s are critical in basketball and hockey, and substitutions matter in soccer. With baseball, the most important hat the manager wears is really a glorified babysitter.

I don’t use that phrase to diminish either the manager or the players he oversees, but rather to really emphasize that a manager’s most important job is handling personalities, not strategy decisions. This can be especially crucial on a team with as many big names and stars as the Nationals have on the roster.

It’s obviously not an area in which fans can truly evaluate a manager, since 98% of these actions take place behind closed doors. One way we can gauge how a manager is handling the team off the field is in their comments about him. A lot of times, a player’s positive thoughts on their manager falls into the “well, what else is he going to say?” category, but they can still be informative, especially when the praise is unprompted.

Even players no longer with the team, who have no obvious incentive to defend Dave Martinez, have gone out of their way to endorse him for the job.

The tweet is a quote from Daniel Murphy on the day he’d been traded away to the Cubs. Murphy, a player who has made it to the World Series under a heralded manager, in addition to playing for Baker and Martinez, knows what it takes to succeed in the role, and he clarified without being asked that Martinez would succeed.

In April, then-Nationals starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez and Martinez got into a dust-up over Gonzalez being pulled from a start when he felt he had more left in the tank. Tempers flared, and clearly neither side was happy with the other.

The next day, the two “had an animated conversation” at Gonzalez’ locker, according to The Washington Post. Afterwards, the pitcher had some thoughts on Martinez.

“It’s beautiful that our skipper speaks to us. It makes a huge difference knowing what’s going on. That was a situation that if people keep to themselves, it’d be a different story. Communication. That’s all we want. Once we have communication, everything is nice and calm and everything plays out the way it should play out.”

Having learned under the master Joe Maddon, Martinez is already developing a reputation as a superb communicator, a highly valued skill in a winning clubhouse. Even the team’s biggest star, and impending free agent, has nothing but kind words for his skipper.

In the video, Harper says, “He’s one of the best managers I’ve ever played for. His door is open every single day. He’s got a heart that — I haven’t really played for a manager like this guy. I look forward to hopefully playing with him for the next 10, 12 years. He’s one of the best, so hopefully, we’ll see what happens.”

Harper has doubled down on those sentiments multiple times. After his epic Home Run Derby performance at Nats Park earlier this summer, he brought up Martinez again.

“I’ve got one of the best managers in all of baseball. I’m very happy to have him at our helm. He’s a guy I’d run through a fricking brick wall for, and I was trying to do that for him tonight.”

If a first-year manager can get his most famous player to run through a brick wall for him three months into the job, that’s a pretty good sign for the connections he makes and relationships he builds.

It’s entirely possible, if not likely, that the Nats made a mistake in letting go of Dusty Baker last offseason, but that doesn’t make Martinez a bad hire. Rather, his willingness to rely on unproven talent in this era of baseball, improvements at managing a bullpen, undeniable communication skills and abilities earning the trust of the players all point to a bright future in Washington with Martinez at the helm.

It wasn’t a perfect debut debut season, but he still managed to get a few things right.

MORE NATIONALS NEWS: