Here we are, folks: the End of Season Post-Mortem series. If you're new here (which about 50% of our reader base is in comparison to last year), here's a brief explanation: after a team is eliminated from playoff contention, we're going to put their season under a microscope and look at just what the hell went wrong, what went right, and so on and so forth. The goal is to post these the day after a team is eliminated.
Expectations are a hell of a thing. The Washington Nationals were a popular pick to win the World Series coming into the season. But a relatively young team buckled under the weight of those predictions and ended up as perhaps the biggest disappointment of 2013. Going from a breakout surprise to a heavy favorite can be a difficult transition for a club to make, and the Nats demonstrated that painfully for their fans. The Braves running out to the best record in the National League certainly didn't help either. A strong September provided some encouragement and briefly rekindled hope among Nats fans. But it was also a reminder of how unfulfilling this season ultimately was.
Preseason prediction: What's scary is that their realistic scenario isn't all that far off from their best case scenario. On paper, they have arguably the best rotation in baseball. Pair that with a deep and highly talented back end of the bullpen and the Nationals become a run prevention nightmare for opponents. They should probably expect some regression in the lineup from guys like LaRoche and Desmond, but with a healthy Werth, a more experienced Harper and Span providing a catalyst, the Nats score more than enough runs to support their stellar pitching staff. They'll spend most of the season looking at the Braves in their rearview mirror but ultimately pull away in the end and finish with 98 wins and the best record in baseball.
What Went Right: As expected, the Nats got strong starting pitching. Rather than Stephen Strasburg or Gio Gonzalez, however, Jordan Zimmermann emerged as Washington's top starter. He leads the NL with 19 victories and has a shot at earning 20 wins. The 27-year-old also exceeded 200 innings, the only Nationals starting pitcher to reach that mark this year.
But the "ace" label still belongs to Strasburg. Though he'll finish with a losing record, his ERA and hits per nine innings are both lower than last season. Oblique and forearm injuries prevented Strasburg from throwing 200 innings or reaching 200 strikeouts, continuing concerns over whether he can make it through a full season healthy.
In September, Washington played like the team so many expected to see through the entire season. A stretch during which the Nats won 14 of 17 games pushed them into contention for the NL's second wild-card spot. Ryan Zimmerman compiled a 1.037 OPS for the month with 11 homers. Denard Span batted .326, including a 29-game hitting streak. But this team had spent the rest of the season digging itself too deep a hole to climb out from.
What Went Wrong: For all the acclaim that the Nationals' pitching receives, the lineup just didn't hit well enough for the team to contend this year. As a team, Washington is hitting .253 with a .711 OPS. Those figures rank sixth and seventh in the NL, respectively. Compare that to 2012, when the Nats hit .261 with a .750 OPS.
One of the main culprits in the Nats' drop in performance was Adam LaRoche. After a MVP-caliber season of 33 homers and 100 RBI that earned him a new two-year contract, the first baseman followed up with the worst year of his career. His .237 batting average and .736 OPS were career-low marks.
Dan Haren was signed as a veteran anchor for the back end of Washington's rotation, much like Edwin Jackson was a year ago. But this was a disastrous acquistion from the beginning. Though Haren pitched better after the All-Star break, his abysmal first half of 2013 resulted in the worst year of his career. His 4.87 ERA was the third-worst among NL qualifying starters, as was his .773 opponents' OPS. Signing Haren looked like a savvy move by general manager Mike Rizzo, but he has to be thankful he only inked the 33-year-old to a one-year contract.
Most Surprising Player: The $127 million contract that Jayson Werth signed in 2011 looked sure to be dead weight on the Nats' payroll. The deal could still end up being a significant burden. But for one year, at least, Werth played like he was worth that kind of money. He had his best year in a Nationals uniform, finishing among the NL's top five in batting average, slugging percentage and OPS. Somewhat surprisingly, Werth didn't lead the Nats in home runs or RBI. But if he can maintain that level of production for another couple of seasons, Werth, Span and Bryce Harper could make the Nats' outfield one of the best in MLB.
Most Disappointing Player: Haren is certainly a candidate for this title. But let's go with Danny Espinosa instead. Strikeouts were a major problem for the second baseman last year, as he led the league with 189. Unfortunately for him and the Nats, there wasn't any improvement in that area this season. Espinosa struck out 47 times in 44 games, contributing signficantly to a .158/.193/.272 slash average. With no turnaround apparent, the Nats demoted Espinosa to Triple-A Syracuse, where he hit .218 in 313 plate appearances.
Part of his struggles can be attributed to a fractured wrist that he played with for a month before it was diagnosed. Espinosa may also still be fighting a torn rotator cuff as well. Additionally, he suffered a thumb injury in the minors. But Espinosa's future with the Nationals may be blocked. Anthony Rendon took over at second base and played well, providing some stability at the position. Unless Zimmerman eventually moves over to first base with Rendon then moving back to third, there might not just be a spot for Espinosa. Don't be surprised if the Nats try to trade him this offseason.
The Future: The Nationals learned that playing under heavy expectations could be crushing. This wasn't a surprise team with a blinding future, as it was in 2012. Yet an excellent core is still in place with Strasburg, Gonzalez and Zimmermann leading the starting rotation, while Harper, Zimmerman and Ian Desmond are foundational players for the everyday lineup. The bullpen should continue to be strong as well, thanks to Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard and Craig Stammen.
Rizzo has to find a couple of quality arms to fill out that rotation. That will surely be his offseason objective, along with finding a new manager to replace Davey Johnson. But other than that, he'll likely tweak this roster rather than try to make any significant additions or changes. The lineup is set for the most part. Those hitters just have to play better and not waste excellent pitching from their top three starters.