The Most Disappointing Season for … the Washington Nationals
The 2015 Washington Nationals
Record: 83-79 (2nd NL East, 7th out of 15 in NL)
Pythagorean Record: 83-79
Runs Scored: 703 (3rd in the NL)
Runs Allowed: 635 (7th in the NL)
Prior Season Record: 96-66
Manager: Matt Williams
Scott Fendley, the Spitter’s Crank Historian said, “Balderdash to the best! Baseball is about disappointment for 29 teams and victory for one. Let’s celebrate disappointment!”
Fendley selected The Most Disappointing seasons for each franchise (and did a separate one for the Expos, because they should still exist) in the Expansion era (1961-present).
First up in the series: the Nationals.
Hype: This was the year for playoff success? The NL was ripe for the taking. The lineup was going to pound, and the staff was going to dominate.
The Gory Details: Oh, optimism. A cruel mistress, it is, especially when it is misplaced. Really, though, the Nats had no reason NOT to be optimistic. Their lineup was all coming back, except for Adam LaRoche, but a healthy Ryan Zimmerman would be much better than LaRoche. They also added Yunel Escobar to allow Anthony Rendon to move to second and let Danny Espinosa play where needed.
The starting staff returned everyone (they combined for a ERA+ of 117 as a staff) and added stud Max Scherzer. Scherzer, Steve Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister were about as solid of a staff as anyone has had in recent history.
Only the bullpen was a little suspect. Drew Storen was re-installed as the closer after his meltdown, but the Nationals lost Tyler Clippard, a valuable high-leverage reliever, in acquiring Escobar. Still, with a solid lineup and a killer staff, there was nothing going to stand in the Nationals way.
Except…injuries, and then ineffectiveness, and then bonehead moves.
First, coming out of spring, three regulars (Rendon, Jayson Werth and Denard Span) weren’t ready to go. The biggest loss was Werth, who scalded the ball in 2014. He had shoulder surgery and was expected to miss a while. Span also had off-season surgery but hot prospect Michael Taylor could take his spot. Rendon’s loss meant instead of the guy who led the league in runs, they would have Espinosa or Dan Uggla (Uggggggh!) in the lineup instead.
Still, pitching, amirite? Pitching can cure it all. Hah.
It didn’t cure much. With the injured players rushing back and being ineffective, or still out, Washington went 10-13 in April. What didn’t help was that shortstop Ian Desmond developed a nasty error habit. I think one of his errant throws ended up at the terminus of the Orange Line in Vienna.
The dawning of May, though, meant the dawning of optimism. Everyone was getting back to health, except Rendon.. Desmond stopped making errors. The wins started to happen. Werth got hurt again (a wrist problem) but Taylor and Clint Robinson (an old AAAA player picked up from KC on the cheap) filled in.
Bryce Harper more than filled in for Werth in the month, just going insane with 13 bombs and a .360/.495/.884 slash line for the month. The only downer, really, was that Fister missed some time, but they just plugged in Tanner Roark, who was part of the rotation last year.
Washington climbed to 28-19 on May 27th, with a 1 ½ game lead. Then they got swept by the Reds to end the month. These things happen.
Rendon came back in early June. Werth was still out, but Harper hit .370 for the month. Zimmerman’s injury issues flared up again. Strasburg missed a few starts. No worries. They went 15-12 for June, wound up 43-34 with a 3 ½ game lead. The Mets cut the lead to two games at the All-Star break, but no one really took the Mets seriously as contenders, not with the Nats getting guys back over the next month or so.
The Mets would not go away. The Nats treaded water a bit and entered July 31 at 54-46 with a three game lead and facing a three game series at Shea. That was 54-46 with injuries to key people though.
Moves were being made all around baseball, and the Mets made their share, gaining Clippard for their pen, some depth, and most importantly, nabbing Yoenis Cespedes.
The Nationals made their move in late July as well. Yes, they had a few issues in the rotation. Strasburg was iffy at times, and not dominating like he had done. Fister was more out than in, and Roark wasn’t pitching well as a starter. Joe Ross was doing well as a replacement, but he was a raw rook. Another arm would be great.
Zimmerman, Rendon, Werth and Span were all battling injuries, and their production was way off. Harper, who at the end of July was slashing .330/.458/.679, basically was their offense. Another bat would be great.
Drew Storen had overcome a shaky patch in June and was unscored upon in July. He had 29 saves. He wasn’t a problem. Everyone needs bullpen depth, though. The Nationals could use another arm for the sixth or seventh inning and maybe it would help if Matt Williams was a little more flexible about when to use his best relievers instead of designating an inning for them.
Instead, the Nats made one deal, and it was for something they absolutely didn’t need. They needed pop, they needed a starter, they needed someone to help in the pen. They didn’t need a closer. And they most certainly didn’t need Jonathan Papelbon.
Papelbon was most definitely a one-inning wonder for a closer . Yes, he was a darn good relief pitcher, but the Nationals had one in Storen. They need to shift innings away from Blake Treinen and Casey Janssen, not add something they already had.
Everyone around baseball as confuzzled, as was Storen, and many of his teammates. Papelbon’s first appearance was July 30th, saving Scherzer’s 1-0 win over Miami. The Mets were next…a big series. This could get rid of those pesky upstarts once and for all.
The team, though, was in confusion, wondering what the heck happened. They didn’t address their needs and the Mets pitching handcuff the Nats three straight games. On August 2nd, Washginton went home for a seven game stand all squared.
There was no more thoughts of dominating the division. It was now a matter of survival. The Mets, with their additions, and their young pitching staff, weren’t going to go away.
Two also-rans, Arizona and Colorado, provided the opponents for the home stand. They split with the Diamondbacks and somehow lost two of three to the Rockies. THE ROCKIES! The Mets were now 1 ½ games ahead, and the Nationals had a 10-game roadie upcoming. If there ever was nut-cutting time, it was now.
It was the wrong time for a six-game losing streak. After a win at LA, they were shut out two straight games by the Dodgers, scored one run in their opener in San Francisco, then were pounded for 25 runs by the Giants in the next three days. They got some measure of revenge against Colorado, winning two of three, but the damage was done. The loss to the Rockies on Sunday, August 20th, the conclusion of the 10-game road trip, put the Nationals at 60-60, four games behind.
With the Cubs, Cardinals and Pirates making mincemeat of the rest of the league, there was no chance for a wild card. A team that was looked to dominate the division and go to the World Series – a team loaded with a formidable lineup and a deep rotation, was sinking, and sinking fast.
Storen blew up. He lost confidence, command, control, everything. The bats went quiet with one huge exception. The pitching wasn’t there.
The last straw came in early September. The Nationals won five in a row, and climbed back to four games behind. The Mets came in for a three game home stand. A sweep, and Washington is right back on it.
The Nationals hit Jon Niese for five runs in game one, but the Mets score five on Scherzer, then the middle men of the Nats fell apart. You know, the pitchers they didn’t upgrade at the end of July.
The next day, Jordan Zimmermann gives up one in 5 2/3 but Williams takes him out with a runner on third in the sixth. No worries. The Nats pile on Matt Harvey in the sixth and lead 7-1 in the seventh. Again, the soft underbelly of the Nats pen is exposed, Storen is still out in the weeds, and Papelbon has to come in the eighth just to bail out the team.
Kirk Nieuwenhuis — THE Kirk Nieuwenhuis — beats Papelbon in the 8th with a home run.
Washington can’t even salvage one game, again due to the bullpen. Strasburg has a 2-1 lead going to the eighth. Kelly Johnson smacks a home run. After an out and a single, Williams summons for Storen. The clown show continues as Cespedes loses a Storen pitch to the power alley.
Harper tries to save face by clouting a home run, but Papelbon gives it right back the next inning. The 5-3 loss put the Nationals seven behind – and while there were still games to be played – the season was over.
Except…in a rather meaningless game on Sunday, September 27th. Harper filed out in the eighth during a tie game. Papelbon, for whatever reason, has had enough of Harper’s sometimes lackadaisical methods and chokes him out near the dugout in front of God and everyone.
Williams, of course, seeing that THE FRANCHISE, who was having a historical season, was being physically assaulted, did the smart thing and removed Harper from the game. Oh, he also put Papelbon in to pitch. Five runs later – the game was lost and so was Williams’ career in Washington.
The Nationals scored the third most runs in the league. Harper, of course, was a big part of it. His OPS+ was 195. He had a .460 OBP and a .649 SLG. Yet, he drove in just 99 runs. That’s not his fault. Robinson had a nice season in an unexpected role. But Werth was useless and fighting injuries. Span was out more often than not, and Zimmerman missed a lot of time. Desmond flailed away to a .290 OBP. Rendon never got on track after coming back, and Taylor was just over his head. Harper WAS the offense.
On the pitching side, the starters weren’t dominant, but they weren’t horrible. Ross filled in quite nicely for Strasburg and Fister. Just Roark struggled. It was the pen that hurt Washington’s staff. Again, grabbing a luxury and not a necessity hurt the staff – basically it hurt everyone.
After the season was over, Williams was fired. Storen was traded. Escobar was traded as well. Desmond, Fister, Span and Zimmermann became free agents. No one knows if Zimmerman or Werth will be fully healthy. It’s going to be a new team in Washington.
They will have Bryce Harper. Oh, and Jonathan Papelbon. Help them all.
Chicken Wolf All-Stars: Bryce Harper, of course. He was the unanimous MVP, even with his 99 RBI. I guess sporstwriters aren’t all about RBI (oh, wait, Nolan Arenado finished 8th in MVP voting even though the Rockies were garbage, mainly because he led the league in RBI).
Honorable Mention Team: The 2008 Nationals weren’t supposed to be great, but they were 73-89 the year before and had a serviceable staff, and that was with Matt Chico leading them in starts and innings pitched. Any hope for 2008 were dashed early, and the Nats finished 59-102, finishing 14th in offense and 15th in pitching.
Bad Blast from the Past: I’m going to the Washington AL team here. Washington’s 19th century teams were all hot garbage from the word go – usually underfunded and unloved. The Senators were usually disappointing, so finding several examples isn’t hard. In 1924, the Senators won the World Series.
In 1925, the Senators lost the World Series. In 1926, Washington finished fourth, dropping 17 wins from their total. A big reason was that Walter Johnson was finally running out of gas. In 1924 and 1925, he went 43-14 combined with an ERA+ of 144. In 1926, he was 15-16 with an ERA+ of 107. The Big Train couldn’t be counted on for the big wins.