Washington’s woes: What went wrong?


Washington Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth high fives a teammate afer scoring a run.
Jayson Werth has been one of the few bats in the spotlight for the Washington Nationals in 2013. (Evan HabeebUSA TODAY Sports)

After winning more games (98) than any team in baseball last year, the Washington Nationals haven’t been able to replicate that success in 2013. They enter play today with a disappointing 59-60 record and a minus-21 run differential. Unless they do a 180 and catch fire down the stretch, they aren’t going back to the playoffs. Although, their recent five-game winning streak gives fans a little hope for a run at a wild card spot.

Their inability to play .500 ball is puzzling, to say the least. On paper, the Washington Nationals appear to have it all: plenty of starting pitching, a killer bullpen, great defense, and a lineup loaded with power and speed. Many preseason pundits predicted them to win the World Series. So, what went wrong?

In a word: hitting, as in the lack thereof. After fielding one of the better offensive units in the National League last year, the Nats’ lineup has been one of the league’s worst this year (especially on the road, where they’ve batted a pitiful .220/.283/.368 so far). Among National League teams, the Washington Nationals rank second to last in hits and third to last in runs per game. Given that the Nats also rank third from the bottom in the all-important OBP statistic, it’s no wonder they’ve had issues putting runs on the board.

Most of Washington’s position players have underachieved to some degree. Kurt Suzuki has been a black hole, but he had to play with Wilson Ramos on the mend. Adam LaRoche has taken a big step back after slamming 33 home runs and knocking in 100 last year. Danny Espinosa was utterly helpless before (mercifully) landing on the disabled list with a fractured right wrist. Denard Span has disappointed. Ryan Zimmerman‘s numbers are down, and Bryce Harper hasn’t been the same since coming off the DL. None of the bench players have stepped up, either. Ian Desmond and Jayson Werth are doing their best, but they simply haven’t gotten enough help.

The bullpen has slumped, too, particularly during the early part of the season. At 3.68, its ERA is up nearly half a run from last year’s stellar 3.28 mark. Drew Storen‘s the worst offender with his unsightly 5.95 ERA, while Craig Stammen, Ryan Mattheus and new closer Rafael Soriano have all hit their bumps in the road. Relievers are volatile from year to year, and Washington’s firemen haven’t been as sharp this year.

The only thing keeping the Washington Nationals from completely falling apart is the starting rotation, which has been almost as good as advertised. Jordan Zimmermann, in his age-27 season, has emerged as an early Cy Young candidate. He’s been even better than Stephen Strasburg, who’s having an excellent season in his own right. Gio Gonzalez hasn’t been able to repeat his dominance from one year ago, but he’s still been pretty good. Injuries have limited Ross Detwiler to 13 starts, but he’s pitched better than his 2-7 record suggests, and Taylor Jordan‘s done a decent job filling in.

The lone disappointment has been Dan Haren, who seemed like a good bounce-back candidate after enduring the worst full season of his career in 2012. Had he returned to form, Washington would probably be in the running for a wild card spot. Instead, he’s been even worse; he leads the league in home runs allowed, and his ERA is just a hair under five. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that he’s no longer the elite pitcher he once was, so it’s a good thing Mike Rizzo didn’t hand Haren the multi-year deal his track record suggested.

There’s a silver lining there, and elsewhere, too. Werth is finally earning his massive paycheck. Desmond proved his breakout 2012 was legit. Harper and Strasburg are going to be stars for a long, long time. The future is still bright for the Washington Nationals, just maybe not as bright as it appeared five months ago.

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