With little fanfare, Rizzo chose to let John Lannan walk away and did not extend Edwin Jackson a one-year, $13.3 million qualifying offer. (That decision still mystifies many around the league, who believed there was no chance Jackson would accept the offer. The move cost the Nationals a first-round draft pick and the draft pool money that would have come with it.)
Rizzo filled the fifth starter spot with Dan Haren, perhaps the most accomplished starter available in free agency. By the numbers — a 5.79 ERA and a league-leading 21 homers allowed — he has been perhaps the worst starting pitcher in the majors this season.
Haren’s struggles have been compounded by injuries to Ross Detwiler. The Nationals have gone 15-27 in games started by anyone other than Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Zimmermann.
“The talent is here,” Haren said. “Everyone knows that. It’s just a matter of performing. There’s a lot of guys on the team that need to be better – mostly myself.”
Free agent Rafael Soriano has been a fine closer, saving 25 games in 29 chances. But the Nationals’ reconfiguration of the bullpen still has led to a series of small calamities, culminating with the demotion Friday of Drew Storen, a 25-year-old former first-round pick who once saved 43 games.
Rizzo has admitted the mistake of beginning the season with Zach Duke, who was more accustomed to starting, as their lone left-handed reliever. The call-ups of Ian Krol and Fernando Abad have stabilized the left side of the bullpen, but their presence can’t erase two months of blowups.
Johnson’s usage of his relievers has been questionable in some ways. Despite Storen’s struggles, he leads the team with 47 appearances. Clippard clearly has been the Nationals’ best reliever, but in crucial spots Storen has more appearances. Clippard has pitched in 46 games, and only 18 appearances have come in high-leverage situations, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
The Nationals were expected to have one of the best defenses in the majors. They have instead been one of the worst. The Nationals rank 23rd in UZR, the catch-all defensive metric used by FanGraphs.com, and their 73 errors are tied for the fourth most in the majors.
Zimmerman’s throwing has improved from an early-season crisis, but he leads the majors with 11 throwing errors, and his 16 total errors are one off the league high. LaRoche, a Gold Glover in 2012, has been below average — FanGraphs rates him 23rd out of 25 first basemen to play at least 500 innings.
The root of the shortcomings has been difficult to find. During one rough defensive patch over the weekend, one scout who follows the Nationals texted, “When did they start playing like the Bad News Bears?”
The best explanation also may be the simplest: The Nationals haven’t met expectations because the expectations were set too high.
Despite the constellation of young stars and reliable veterans on their roster, few had elite track records. Only two players — Gonzalez and Haren — had been selected to multiple all-star teams. Only LaRoche and Jayson Werth had finished top 10 in a season MVP voting.
In the spring, the incandescent memories of the second half of 2012 still held prominence. They scored 4.8 runs per game in the second half of the season, riding career performances from LaRoche, Desmond, Kurt Suzuki, the entire bench — too many hitters to name. It may have been asking too much to duplicate a charmed confluence.
Even if the Nationals can’t say why they’re at this point, they now must figure out how to pull themselves out. Two months remain, and the weak National League East has kept alive their chances to crawl back into contention.
“The longer that we struggle, the more pressure we’re going to put on ourselves, the more that we have to fight to get out of it,” Haren said. “Time is running out. We were saying months ago that we’ve got plenty of time. But the games are dwindling.”