Do you want to know what was missing, in the most big-picture way, around the Nationals in 2013? Complacency. They disappointed this season, but within those setbacks Washington took another step, maybe one of the last steps, to becoming a baseball town. Enough time has passed and the city has seen enough success. Nationals Park no longer houses a just-happy-to-be-here vibe. Washington baseball fans have a team, thank goodness. Now they want a winner, dammit.
Year 9 is when the honeymoon ended. Fans at Nationals Park will boo the ever-living daylights out of a free agent pitcher who goes bust. They will rage against the dearth of left-handed relief options. They will question managerial tactics. They will cherish their twin phenoms, but then they will demand more of them. They want to know how the new manager plans to use defensive analytics. They have a standard now, and 86 wins for the sixth-best record in the National League ain’t it.
And they will keep coming. The Nationals drew more than 2.6 million fans this year, more than any season since their first in Washington, more than their magical 2012 season.
Last year in this space, I wrote that no season would bring the pure joy of 2012 again, that even a World Series wouldn’t provide the same jolt of electricity, would not feel as — here comes a nauseating word, but it fits — innocent. That seems even truer now, and that’s okay. Having a baseball team means celebrating the victories and appreciating the players. But it also means bemoaning the losses, critiquing the strategy, yelling at the television and yearning for more, all summer long. 2013 proved Washington is there.
Do you want to know what else was missing? Resignation. Unfulfilled expectations only made Washington more eager. The Nationals’ stumbles will probably prevent talking heads and reporters (ahem) from anointing them again. But the anticipation among fans will be just as thick as last spring. They want to see how Matt Williams motivates, how many groundballs Doug Fister can produce, how Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper grow. They care.
Before we move into 2014, here is one last look back at the 10 biggest Nationals stories of 2013.
10. Ryan Zimmerman starts transition to first base
The Nationals’ franchise third baseman, after a season that tested him like none before, is still a third baseman. But Zimmerman, at the request of Matt Williams, will bring a first baseman’s mitt with him to Viera. The plan is for him to make maybe 10 to 15 starts at first, to give Adam LaRoche a break against tough lefty starters. It could also be a precursor.
Zimmerman’s final month-and-a-half showed that he had overcome his dismal throwing woes, which followed shoulder surgery in November 2012. But even as they were signing Zimmerman to a six-year, $100 million extension in February 2012, the Nationals were aware that Zimmerman could be moving across the diamond eventually. This is the first step.
9. Mike Rizzo scores a contract extension
The Nationals’ disappointing season did not prevent ownership from securing Mike Rizzo as its primary baseball architect into the future. In early August, even as the season was crumbling, the Nationals gave Rizzo an extension that made him one of the five highest-paid GMs in the sport. Rizzo had already shaped the team in his image. The raise, extension and promotion to team president only made it more clear who is in charge – and who deserves both credit and blame. It also added continuity and provided clarity for any managerial candidate.
8. Danny Espinosa gives way to Anthony Rendon
The Nationals languished for two months without any majors, but that changed June 4. Danny Espinosa, playing with a small tear in his left shoulder, and his .465 OPS were shipped to the disabled list, a temporary stay before heading to the minors. In his place was top prospect Anthony Rendon, breaking into the majors as a full-time player at second base, where he had not played since Little League.
Rendon started hot and played well enough to maintain the hope that he can be a productive hitter for years to come. Espinosa’s situation is more complicated. The Nationals are counting on him, for now, to be their utility infielder. How will take to that role? Can he rebuild his swing? How’s his shoulder? Is there any lingering resentment that he missed arbitration eligibility by less than five games?
Think back to Espinosa’s rookie year, when he had 15 homers and 3.0 wins above replacement at the all-star break, and you get an idea of his raw ability. He looked like he would be part of the Nationals’ core. After half a season in the minors, can he get back to that point?
7. Gio Gonzalez exonerated in Biogenesis scandal
From the first day Gio Gonzalez’s name surfaced in the Miami New Times’s first account of the Biogenesis clinic, Gonzalez pleaded his innocence. In the end, Major League Baseball sided with him. Gonzalez never allowed his ties to baseball’s latest black mark distract. He did not match his initial season in Washington, but he still went 11-8 with a 3.36 ERA. Like the rest of his team, Gonzalez did not experience the same smooth sailing as 2012; see his tiff with Jayson Werth. But the Nationals’ worst fears after the Biogenesis allegations quickly evaporated.
6. Doug Fister beefs up the rotation
The Nationals have included one January or February surprise in their offseason the past two seasons. Barring that, their biggest move was trading Ian Krol, Steve Lombardozzi and prospect Robbie Ray to the Tigers for Doug Fister, a sinkerballer who will likely fill the No. 4 slot in the rotation. Regarded by many across the league as a coup, Fister’s addition will give the Nationals one of the strongest rotations in baseball.
5. Stephen Strasburg, with some hurdles, goes the distance
He left the innings-limit uproar behind, but with Stephen Strasburg there is always something. Teammates and coaches openly implored him to show better body language on the mound. He landed on the disabled with a sore oblique. He was ejected for throwing at two Atlanta Braves, then walked off the field as if in a trance. He skipped a September start with a sore forearm, and later it was revealed he pitched much of the season with loose bodies in his right elbow, which were surgically removed.
Strasburg can be better – both he and his teammates know it. But let’s not forget he’s already excellent. He finished with a 3.00 ERA and struck out 191 batters in 183 innings against 56 walks. He threw the second-hardest fastball in the majors. He threw his first complete game and came within one pitch of another. He still left you want more, and maybe in 2014 he will leave that behind, too.
4. Tyler Clippard sounds off on management over Rafael Soriano after Drew Storen’s demotion
Early on, it became clear that the Nationals’ joyride of 2012 would not be duplicated. That was never more stark than the night of July 26. After Ryan Zimmerman’s walk-off homer capped a doubleheader, the Nationals sent Drew Storen to the minors. Rather than a starting a celebration, the Nationals faced an open wound ripped open.
Clippard spoke for almost four straight minutes, all simmering resentment. He clobbered the Nationals for signing Rafael Soriano in January, which in his mind sent a message to Storen that the team lost its faith in him after Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS. “It’s one of those things that I think was handled very poorly by the organization,” Clippard said.
The open discord was representative of the shift inside the Nationals clubhouse. For the first time, they were forced to deal with the pressure of expectations and the tension from not meeting them. For four months, those dual influences helped sink the season. That it all stretched back to the Game 5 debacle only heightened the symbolism. Even if Soriano saved 43 games, Clippard’s comments (putting aside the loss of a first-round pick) opened the debate: Would they have been better off not signing him?
3. Bryce Harper explodes, and then he hits the wall
Will 2014 be a breakout year for Bryce Harper? Well, you could say the breakout already happened. On April 28, 24 games into the season, Harper was hitting .360/.444/.756 – good for an even 1.200 OPS – with nine homers. That night, he banged into the wall in Atlanta. He went 5 for his next 33 before he ran full-throttle into the right field fence at Dodger Stadium.
The moment shaped the rest of his season. Harper hobbled through late spring, feeling pressure to stay in the lineup as the offense around him fizzled, until he landed on the disabled list and missed a month. He took a cortisone shot to quell bursitis in his knee, which would require surgery in the offseason.
Outside the manager’s office, the most fascinating question regarding the Nationals may be what Harper does in his age-21 season, coming off two all-star appearances. The Nationals added over-qualified fourth outfielder Nate McLouth, in part, to keep Harper and Jayson Werth healthy. How will Harper balance his all-out style with the need to stay on the field? And how will Matt Williams help? His contract situation bears watching, too, but mostly we all want to see what Harper does next on the field.
2. Davey bids adieu
Davey Johnson was just the right manager at just the right time, until he wasn’t. That was the way it always went for Johnson in his managerial career, a mix of maverick brilliance and constant defiance. At 70, he hadn’t changed – he was great building up a team but couldn’t put it back together once it fell. His “World Series or bust” proclamation hovered over the Nationals all year. He stirred up controversy from opening day, when he said he wasn’t sure he was so happy with stepping down. When he pointed out in July that “bust” was the likeliest option, Bryce Harper responded by saying everyone – the manager included – needed to show heart. The Nationals’ firing of his hitting coach Rick Eckstein wounded Johnson, and he never really recovered. He went on about the lack of balance in the bullpen and options on the bench. He would have been fine, he said, if Mike Rizzo wanted to fire or replace him. He became oddly fascinated with finishing 300 games over .500.
Even with all of that, Johnson left the Nationals better off than when he found them, and he did it in a way few others could have. He stuck by Ian Desmond and helped him become one of baseball’s best shortstops. He gave Jayson Werth the run of the clubhouse, to the team’s betterment. He replaced a losing, wayward atmosphere with a swashbuckling confidence. His strengths far outweighed his weaknesses. Johnson spent two and a half years in the Nationals’ dugout, and the Nationals were better for having the brush with an original baseball character.
1. Matt Williams takes the reins
The Nationals’ biggest decision in shaping their future makes for a pretty easy No. 1. The Nationals need to bridge the gap between contender and champion, and they chose Williams – a former star with no big league managing experience – as the man to lead them. His scant track record makes it hard to come up with an opinion for now. But it also makes the future that much more fascinating.
Also worthy of mention: Rick Eckstein’s firing; Denard Span’s hitting streak; Jordan Zimmermann’s all-star selection; Ian Desmond’s second straight Silver Slugger; Jayson Werth’s blistering two months; Dan Haren’s letdown; opening day bliss.