On opening day 2013, a handful of players and team executives stood behind a table of hardware at Nationals Park and received a well-deserved ovation. There was Mike Rizzo, executive of the year; Davey Johnson, National League manager of the year; Bryce Harper, NL rookie of the year; Adam LaRoche, gold glove and silver slugger; and silver sluggers for Ian Desmond and Stephen Strasburg as well. Oh, and the unveiling of the NL East Division championship banner.
On opening day 2014, the pregame festivities will be shorter. No banner will be raised, and little, if any, hardware will be distributed. Fans will arrive at Nats Park with hope, but a wary hope, because 2013 has taught the Washington Nationals and their fans to take nothing for granted. Or at least it should have.
A season that began with great expectations quickly settled into an average slog through the first half, with the Nats hovering around .500. And that about sums them up: Average. Even in victory the Nats look less than stellar. Take Thursday’s 9-7 win over Pittsburgh on a walk-off homer by Harper. The Nats gave Gio Gonzalez a four-run lead in the first inning, yet he pitched a strangely unimpressive 11-strikeout game. The team then wasted the 4-0 lead, loaded the bases with no outs in the fifth and failed to score, then blew a 7-3 lead in the ninth, including another stumble by their closer, Rafael Soriano.
The Nats avoided a second straight sweep and ended their season-long six-game losing streak, but they are still 3-11 in their past 14 games. The victory put them eight games behind the division-leading Braves. Mathematically, that’s not insurmountable; for the Nats, it probably is.
So what went wrong for a team that made just a handful of changes in the offseason, yet is producing such drastically different results? Or at least it’s experiencing drastically different results. The Nats haven’t actually produced much of anything this season. Before Thursday’s 14-hit barrage, they ranked 27th in the league in batting and OPS. Simply put, they can’t hit consistently and they can’t hit with runners in scoring position. The top three starters have been good, not great; the back two spots in the rotation have struggled, to put it nicely, and the bullpen . . . I can’t think of a way to put it nicely.
Firing hitting coach Rick Eckstein may have been a largely symbolic move (to everyone except Eckstein, of course), but it’s also what teams do to get their players’ attention, to quiet restless fans, to appear as though they are doing something.
Still, no one is suggesting it’s housecleaning time. Mike Rizzo doesn’t go from the best GM in baseball to the worst in one season, but he has dual challenges: to diagnose this season’s problems and to hire a manager who can help him solve them next year.
Rizzo is not shy about expressing his confidence in and affection for the current roster, which he truly believes is one of the best in baseball. But he may need to take a hard look at ways to make upgrades, or change roles. There is a core group that is probably untouchable — Harper, Anthony Rendon, Desmond, Wilson Ramos, Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman, Jordan Zimmermann — but surely the cupboard in the farm system isn’t bare.
Drew Storen would have been on the untouchable list at the beginning of the season, but he’s been increasingly erratic, and part of the fault lies with the Nats. The acquisition of Soriano was hardly a mistake (four blown saves, two losses) but throwing him in the bullpen was putting the cat among the pigeons. Tyler Clippard made the adjustment to his new role but not Storen. Maybe the Nats are tired of waiting on him to do so, but they made him the No. 10 draft pick in 2009 and two seasons later he saved 43 games. Surely they should try to fix the problem, especially given the apparent dearth of talent out there in the bullpen.
All teams have players whose numbers fluctuate from season to season. What has been strange about the Nats’ offensive woes is they have infected nearly everyone on the roster. Jayson Werth’s average is down seven points, Zimmerman’s eight, Desmond’s 18 and LaRoche’s 26. Denard Span wasn’t with the Nats last season, but he has dropped from hitting leadoff to the seventh spot.
Ramos’s .289 is well over his 2012 average, but he played just 25 games last season and only 28 so far this season. Still, since he returned from injury, Ramos has been a bright spot. Rendon has been another. His .273 this season is well over the .247 posted by last season’s second baseman, Danny Espinosa. After going 3 for 5 Thursday, Harper’s .271 is a point higher than 2012.
Still, no Nat is hitting .300, and the idea that nearly the entire roster can begin whacking the ball around at will in late July is crazy on the face of it. Yes, the Nats’ roster looks good on paper. And in October that’s where you’ll find it: on paper, not in the playoffs.
For more by tracee Hamilton, visit washingtonpost.com/hamilton.