How can the Washington Nationals contend again in 2014?

Sep 8, 2012; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth (28) is congratulated by Ryan Zimmerman (11) and Bryce Harper (34) after hitting a solo homer against the Miami Marlins during the ninth inning at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals entered the 2013 MLB season as a popular choice to win the National League pennant and advance to the World Series. With a dominant starting rotation and a young, powerful offense, nobody imagined that the Atlanta Braves would run away with the N.L. East as easily as they have (entering play on September 3, the Braves have a 15 1/2 game lead).

So what happened? Why have the Nationals, a 98-win team in 2012 that should only have matured and improved over the past year, scuffled so much this summer, and what must be done to ensure that this was a one-year fluke?

Not much, actually. While it’s hard to declare an entire season a fluke, well, it kind of has been. The top three offensive players on the squad have all performed to what might be expected of them. Despite lingering injuries, Bryce Harper has had a very good sophomore campaign, hitting .278/.387/.514 with 19 home runs to this point. Veteran third baseman Ryan Zimmerman is now in his age-28 season and is putting up numbers just below his career norms, with a triple-slash of .278/.351/.441.

And Jayson Werth has been a revelation in his comeback from an arm injury that hindered the end of his 2012 season, regaining a surprising amount of his previous power and coming in at a.320/.395/.528 with 21 home runs. A player that was considered to potentially be a weak link due to his age and injuries has been the most valuable offensive performer through much of the season.

The rest of the offense as absolutely been a disappointment, with off-season acquisition Denard Span leading the way. The career .352 on-base mark that he carries has been just .327 this season for the Nationals, and an appalling .297 away from Nationals Park. Catcher Wilson Ramos has been on the shelf with multiple injuries again in 2013, and recently-traded Kurt Suzuki was awful in his place.

Ian Desmond has been decent at shortstop, posting a .285/.336/.478 mark with 20 home runs, but his double-play counterpart Danny Espinosa was banished to the minors after batting just .158/.193/.272 in his first 158 at-bats. Anthony Rendon hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire in his place, hitting .259/.321/.387.  And lastly, Adam LaRoche has come back to earth, following up his .271/.343/.510 2012 season with an unsightly .233/.3188/.403 line thus far in 2013.

Count me as someone that thinks that Ramos will be a very good major league catcher and a ‘plus’ contributer as an offensive catcher if he can ever stay healthy. As far as Span goes, he was adjusting to a new team, division, and league, so that could explain the significant dip in walk rate, from 9.5% in his Minnesota Twins career to just 6.8% in 2013 with Washington. One would think that he would bounce back and play significantly better moving forward.

On the other hand, take a look at Span’s career home and away splits: in ballparks that Span has called home (the Metrodome, Target Field, and Nationals Park), he’s hit an outstanding .311/.381/.429, while his road numbers are a well below replacement-level .257/.325/.348. In fact, the 113 games that Span played at the old Metrodome is by far the best he’s ever hit in any ballpark. How much stock can be taken in these numbers? Usually not a whole lot, but we now have six years of data on Span.

First base is a situation that will need to be figured out, but Rendon should improve greatly both at the plate and in the field at second base if Espinosa can’t salvage his career. The offense should be just fine moving forward, and they appear to have simply ran into a combination of bad luck and regression to the mean. The front office can be blamed for not having a backup plan in the middle infield that wasn’t a young player that needed to be relied on, between Espinosa, Rendon, and utility player Stephen Lombardozzi, but that’s the only real, legitimate criticism of the construction of the club.

As far as pitching goes, the Nationals’ rotation has actually been quite good. Strasburg has certainly held up his end of the bargain, throwing 164 innings with a 2.85 ERA and 1.04 WHIP, and Jordan Zimmerman and Gio Gonzalez have both been very good as well, with ERAs in the mid-3′s. There aren’t too many teams in the major leagues that have a better top-three in their rotation than Washington.

In fact, Ross Detwiler has been decent when available as a #4 starter with a 4.04 ERA, albeit with rough peripheral numbers. On the flip side, Dan Haren has an ugly 5.02 ERA, but his peripheral numbers are very good with a 3.77 xFIP and WHIP of just 1.28 thanks to his exquisite control. In the bullpen, Drew Storen (5.26 ERA) has been a huge disappointment, but otherwise the bullpen has been solid.

In other words, the Nationals have simply had an unfortunate season. Their offense has settled just below the middle-of-the-pack in runs scored, but if Span rebounds and Rendon progresses as expected, they should bounce to the top half of the majors in runs. Combined with a pitching staff that is just barely in the top half of the big leagues in overall ERA and runs per game, that should be a recipe for the playoffs.

The Nationals should still have some projection in young players like Rendon and Ramos, and Detwiler should improve some as well. There is enough talent in the organization for Washington that a World Series title should absolutely remain a realistic goal in the very near future. Obviously, it hasn’t helped that Atlanta has had an absurd season, but the fact that the Nationals have fought back to a winning record at 69-68 has to be commended.

It hasn’t been a rough go of it, but the battle for the N.L. East should be tightly contested for the foreseeable future.

Tags: Atlanta Braves MLB Washington Nationals

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