Nitpickin at the Nats

Of the 30 major league baseball teams only one team can win the World Series. That is an honor any player would celebrate. On the other end of the spectrum is an honor most teams would choose to avoid. That is being the most disappointing team in baseball. That dubious honor belongs to the Washington Nationals.

They were supposed to easily win the National League east. They had trouble fighting their way past .500. The Phillies and the Braves shot past them and appear to have younger and more talented teams for the future. The Nationals traded most of their youth to stay in the playoff race. The saving grace is the Nationals have an opportunity to pass the fading Phillies before the year is out. If they can fight their way out of that .500 bag.

Below are some of the issues myworld believes went south for the Nationals season.

1) Ryan Zimmerman’s belief that spring training is a waste of time and over rated. He spent most of his time in the minor league camp, making only a couple appearances in major league spring training games. Don’t know if he was trying to hide an injury but appearances matter. If Zimmerman had gotten off to a strong start all would have been forgiven. As we said earlier appearances, which are defined by results, matter. He could not find his way above .200 until two days before he got injured and by the time he returned in late July the Nationals fate had been sealed. His bat has gotten better since his return from injury, but it was not enough to escape .500. He has also become a part time player, starting in only four or five games a week.

2) The microfracture knee surgery for Daniel Murphy was treated very lightly. The Nationals indicated he would only miss the first couple weeks of the season. Myworld has not been witness to any micro fracture knee surgery having a recovery time of less than six to nine months. April turned to May and Daniel Murphy was still not back. After Howie Kendrick’s injury the only real option for the Nationals at second base was Wilmer Difo. He is best used in a utility role, not as a regular starter for a playoff contending club. When Daniel Murphy finally returned in June his defensive mobility was extremely limited.

3) Managing on the cheap. The Lerners are not known for spending a lot of money hiring managers. Don’t know if they run their business the same way when they hire CEOs. They hired Davey Martinez to manage the club with a three year contract that comes out to a little less than $1 million a year. Quite a bargain for managers these days. Davey learned that managing is a little more difficult than being a bench coach. Instead of making recommendations that do not have to be followed you have to actually make decisions. His use of the bullpen early in the season was not good. Ryan Madson was overused, got lit up and may have lost his confidence as the season progressed. Last year the bullpen was a strength after the acquisition of Madson and Sean Doolittle. This year it was a weakness, even though the actors remained the same.

4) The trade for Adam Eaton and sacrificing the depth of the starting pitching. Perhaps Mike Rizzo did not like Reynaldo Lopez, Lucas Giolito or Dane Dunning when he traded all three for Eaton. At the time Eaton was going to be the centerfielder, but most defensive metrics measured him as a suspect defensive outfielder. He did not get much of a chance to play for the Nationals in 2017 after getting injured early in the year and not returning. He got injured again early in the 2018 season, missing a good portion of the early games. The injury seem to linger and even upon his return Eaton does not run like an outfielder with healthy legs. The trade of the three outfielders to get Eaton sacrificed much of the depth the Nationals had in their starting pitching in the minor leagues. When injuries hit them this year they did not have a sixth or seventh starter to replace those injured starting pitchers. It is possible that Lopez or Giolito would not have been the answer. They are struggling with the White Sox now that they have been given an opportunity to pitch in the major leagues. Pitching for the Nationals they may have been given more development time in AAA to be effective in the major leagues. Another minor league starter the Nationals traded was Jesus Luzardo, for Doolittle and Madson. Blake Treinen was also included in that deal. Luzardo was pitching so well in the minor leagues he was being discussed as the minor league pitcher of the year.

5) The collapse of Michael Taylor. Myworld does not know what kind of effect the departure of Dusty Baker had on the confidence of Michael Taylor. He seemed to have a break out season in 2017 addressing the Nationals centerfield needs. When 2018 began it was Eaton in left, Taylor in center and Bryce Harper in right. Eaton got hurt to begin the season and Taylor failed to hit. Juan Soto became a saving grace in left when the Nationals had no choice but to call him up. Meanwhile, the Nationals centerfield position has been a black hole defensively. Bryce Harper and Adam Eaton can not play the position like Michael Taylor. The early returns on Victor Robles indicates he still needs some improvement on route running before he becomes an elite centerfield like Taylor defensively. So the disappearance of Taylor has put a black hole in center field when it comes to defense.

6) The Nationals failed to address their weakness at catcher. Despite Wilson Ramos inability to catch balls on throws home he is still the best catcher the Nationals have had. When they let him go as a free agent after the 2016 season and signed Matt Wieters they were hoping for a wash. What they lost offensively they could get back defensively. Wieters was a disappointment in 2017 and he was even more so in 2018. Pedro Severino, the catcher of the future appears to now be the catcher of AAA. His bat was so far south of the Mendoza line that teams would walk the pitcher intentionally to face Severino (a slight exaggeration). For the 2018 season the catching position was a big hole and it appears to be a problem in 2019. They tried to trade for J.T. Realmuto in 2019, but they traded most of their quality players from their farm system for veterans to help them in the playoff run that the only attractive options the Nationals had were Juan Soto and Victor Robles, and the Nationals did not want to trade them.

7) The lack of leadership in the locker room. When the Nationals went into the playoffs in 2012 they allowed Michael Morse to leave as a free agent. He was the recognized leader of their clubhouse in 2012. Without him the Nationals did not make the playoffs in 2013. Jayson Werth took over the leadership reigns in 2014 and the Nationals returned to the playoffs. He left after the 2017 season and the Nationals again found a big void in the leadership equation. Myworld is not saying allowing Morse and Werth to depart was not the right move, but sometimes general managers do not take locker room camaraderie into account when building a team. Max Scherzer tried to take over the leadership role, but it is tough for part time players (starting pitchers) to rally position players. Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman seem to lack the fire or will to take over the leadership role.

The National players complained about management waving the white flag too soon and trading their veteran players, while getting nothing in return. Sometimes it is tough to look in the mirror and see reality. You want to see the good things. That 50 year old face is still 20 and those wrinkles around the eyes are invisible to your tainted view. The Nationals had too many problems at the beginning of the 2018 season to over come them. Perhaps next year will be different. One thing is certain. They will not be the favorite to win the National League East.

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