Skip to content

After disappointing ’13, Nats want continuity in ’14

Sep 30, 2013, 8:50 AM EDT

USA Today Sports Images USA Today Sports Images

PHOENIX — The overwhelming sense of disappointment was evident throughout the Nationals’ clubhouse at Chase Field late Sunday afternoon, once their season was officially over, their 2013 record forever written in stone as 86-76.

Everyone in that clubhouse expected to win more than 86 games this year. A second-straight NL East title, followed by a deep October run, was the realistic goal. A Wild Card berth was the fallback option. Anything less was unsatisfactory.

And yet, there was another strong emotion mixed in with that overriding sense of disappointment: Hope. Hope that next year will be better. Hope that an MLB-best 32-16 record over the final seven weeks bodes well for the future. And, above all else, hope that the men who make this franchise’s most-important decisions will choose to keep the roster and coaching staff intact, not blow the whole operation up after one underachieving season.

“We have the players,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “We have everything we need right here. We have the manager, we have the staff. To be honest, I don’t know if there’s somebody else better out there who could bring more out of us than what this staff did. We played tremendous the last two months of the season. It was unfortunate that we didn’t get off to a good start, but I think we proved what we have is good enough.”

Others around the baseball world may scoff and may suggest the Nationals remain far too confident an organization after failing to live up to the hype in 2013. This team had baseball’s 12th-best record this season and finished 4 games out of a playoff berth, 10 games back in its own division.

How could the Nationals not believe change is necessary this winter? Well, their performance over the final seven weeks may have convinced them to stick with the status quo.

“I don’t think we played hot at the end of the season,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “I think we played the way we were supposed to play the whole season toward the end of the season.”

Indeed, the club that won 32 of its final 48 games looked very much like a legitimate contender. A powerful, balanced lineup finally produced top-to-bottom, averaging 5 runs per game. A pitching staff that hit some speed bumps along the way turned dominant late, posting a 3.24 ERA over that 48-game stretch. And a defensive group that surprisingly was among baseball’s worst early on, surrendering 38 unearned runs before the All-Star break, improved by leaps and bounds and allowed only 14 to cross the plate during the second half of the season.

It came far too late to catapult the Nationals into the playoffs, but not too late to remind everyone just how good this team could be.

“We did get it going, but that was for a month and a half,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “The good thing is, it’s something to build off of and come into next year fine.”

“There’s a lot of teams that played the way we played, with the expectations we had, that could have just folded it in and cashed it in for the season,” Rizzo said. “But these guys pulled themselves up by the bootstraps when I think our low-water mark was 6 games under .500 and played extremely well from there. To me, that shows the character and mettle of a champion. Although we didn’t play like a champion early enough in the season, I think that we finished with a flourish, and it’s going to set us up well going into the winter and into spring training.”

Thus, Rizzo’s offseason shopping list doesn’t appear to be very long. He will try to bolster his bullpen and bench, two strengths in 2012 that became problem areas in 2013. He could pursue a veteran No. 5 starter, though he suggested he prefers the candidates he already has in-house.

Rizzo’s first decision — and, everyone agrees, most important decision — will be selecting a manager to replace the departing Davey Johnson. He hasn’t tipped his hand one bit so far, but if he has paid any attention to his own employees, he knows the preferred choice: Randy Knorr.

The 44-year-old former catcher has positioned himself as well as possible to succeed Johnson, having spent the last nine seasons either managing at every level of the Nationals’ farm system or serving on the big-league staff, the last two as Johnson’s bench coach.

“He’s been a tremendous influence on my career,” said Desmond, who first played for Knorr as a 19-year-old at low-Class A Savannah in 2005. “For me to say anybody else but Randy would be a lie. That’s who I want to see as the manager of this ballclub.”

Whether Knorr or somebody else — Matt Williams? Ron Gardenhire? — gets the job, the Nationals’ fifth full-time manager in eight years will be inheriting a roster loaded with talent.

Bryce Harper will be 21 and hoping to ascend to the top of the sport. Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez will be back for another season as one of the best young pitching trios in baseball. Jayson Werth will be coming off a career year. Desmond will return as one of the best all-around shortstops in the game. Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos and Denard Span will hope to parlay their strong second halves into full-season performances.

The Nationals may have been brought down a peg in 2013, but they’ll enter 2014 firmly believing they can re-ascend to the top of the mountain and fulfill the lofty expectations they could not meet this year.

“The only thing I ask of whoever makes the decisions on the managerial side of things is: Don’t mess it up,” reliever Tyler Clippard said. “We’ve got a good thing going on. We’ve got a good thing here.”

  1. TimDz - Sep 30, 2013 at 9:27 AM

    Their season ending record consisted of many games against bottom feeding teams….
    Some tweaks need to be made…..

    • JamesFan - Sep 30, 2013 at 1:41 PM

      Yes, the euphoria forget getting swept by the Cards and losing 5 of the last 8. The reality is that these Nats did not compete with Atl, Stl, LAD. They have to do that to make a run in 2014.

  2. rogieshan - Sep 30, 2013 at 10:01 AM

    While I agree Desmond is “the best all-around shortstop in the game”, he is certainly not the most steady. If he could just tone down his over-aggressiveness at the plate, particularly with RISP, and demonstrate more awareness in the field, the sky is the limit,

    As for sticking with the status quo. I have always felt the current lineup is far too easily neutralized by good pitching and has demonstrated. an inability to manufacture runs. I’m hoping the next manager will be a little more ‘small-ball’ minded when it comes to the offense.

    • Eric - Sep 30, 2013 at 10:52 AM

      I agree 100% re: his plate approach and the need to bring more small ball to the table. Fortunately, Rizzo pretty clearly stated he felt the reliance on long ball was a problem this year.

      • Eric - Sep 30, 2013 at 10:54 AM

        From the Washington Post:
        “I think offensive efficiency is the thing that kind of disappointed us most,” Rizzo said. “It’s not doing the little things to create runs and manufacture runs. We were more reliant on the longball, I think, than we should’ve been and I think it’s shown. We’ve created more runs, we’ve stolen more bases, we’ve hit with runners in scoring position much better recently, and that’s really the roster that we constructed all along. We just waited too long to get it going.”

        I really hope that plays a significant role in decision making process.

      • rogieshan - Sep 30, 2013 at 11:46 AM

        Good find on the Rizzo quote. Yes, the GM may have “constructed” his roster to create more runs, but his manager’s philosophy was to produce them through the long ball and be aggressive in attacking the fastball early in the count. I don’t have the stats, but the team must surely have led the league in seeing the fewest pitches per game. Outside of Span & Werth, do we have hitters who are willing to work the count? (And God help us if Espinosa gets another crack in the lineup.) So, yes, I too hope Rizzo takes it all into consideration in who he hires as the next manager.

      • Jw - Sep 30, 2013 at 11:56 AM

        How soon they forget. The whole first half was spent with a philosophy of take more pitches, work the count. Lots of called strike three. Hard to play small ball and manufacture runs when you have no one on base. It wasn’t until Schu arrived and they adopted Davey’s approach that they started scoring runs.

      • therealjohnc - Sep 30, 2013 at 11:56 AM

        I have no problem with the team being more flexible in its approach. I’m deeply skeptical of doing that with Desmond. The Nationals (Riggleman) tried to make Desmond go deeper in counts, hit to right, etc. He was lousy at it (OPS of .700 in 2010, .656 in 2011). Davey showed up and said “hey, hit the ball hard.” Now Desmond has put up back to back 20/20 seasons and as a good defensive SS has put up OPS’s of .845 and .784 the past two years.

        Let Desmond hack. In individual at bats it may not work out so well, but overall the team will be better for it.

      • Eric - Sep 30, 2013 at 12:16 PM

        “It wasn’t until Schu arrived and they adopted Davey’s approach that they started scoring runs.”

        I saw a lot more small ball after Eck left than before. Also, I don’t think an offensive strategy that incorporates small ball tactics precludes aggressiveness at the plate.

        “I have no problem with the team being more flexible in its approach. I’m deeply skeptical of doing that with Desmond.”

        I agree with the overall point. I don’t think we need to become the Cardinals and emphasize small ball up and down the line up. But, I do think having the ability to deploy its attendant techniques is critical across a many batters in the line up. This is particularly true since one of our biggest weaknesses seems to be junk ball pitchers that other line ups devour.

  3. janebeard - Sep 30, 2013 at 10:37 AM

    Last year, they weren’t playing as well in September as they did in the rest of the year. And that trend continued in this season. I’m hoping that getting stronger at the end will have some sort of carry-over impact in April. It’s fantasy, I know. But what else can I hope for.

    I’m curious to know what people are guessing for the name and timing of the new manager. I have to say I hope it’s soon and that it’s not Cal Ripken Jr.

    • rogieshan - Sep 30, 2013 at 11:28 AM

      I have no problem if it’s Randy Knorr, and he’s shown glimpses that he could be decisive and stern at the helm, but I would rather Rizzo not promote from within simply because I feel the players had gotten a little too comfortable with Davey’s hands-off approach and perhaps need to be pushed harder by a figure other than someone they’re familiar with.

      If you buy what the media is saying, then Matt Williams is the front runner.

    • Section 222 - Sep 30, 2013 at 11:35 AM

      And just to continue that hope, the Nats were very hot in September 2011, and came out of the gates red hot in 2012. That hot start was the gift that kept on giving all year long, as was the Braves’ hot start this year. So let’s hope this hot September carries over to April 2014.

      • Eric - Sep 30, 2013 at 12:03 PM

        Didn’t you call this the “Gambler’s Fallacy” just last week? ;)

        Or, maybe you thought I was making predictions and not just espousing hope?

      • Eric - Sep 30, 2013 at 12:04 PM

        Anyway, petty ribbing aside, I really do think this team turned a corner in the attitude department down the stretch this year that will help them get past problems I, too, see stretching back to September 2012.

      • Sec 3, My Sofa - Sep 30, 2013 at 1:09 PM

        Didn’t you call this the “Gambler’s Fallacy” just last week? ;)

        FTR, I believe that was me, not 222.

      • Eric - Sep 30, 2013 at 2:14 PM

        Oh! Well, in that case, my apologies for the ribbing, 222 ;)

    • Sec 3, My Sofa - Sep 30, 2013 at 1:10 PM

      If you buy what the media is saying, then Matt Williams is the front runner.”

      Of course, if you bought what the media was saying before the season, and as late as July, the Nats are going to the playoffs. So there’s that.

  4. Section 222 - Sep 30, 2013 at 11:33 AM

    Just heard from my ticket rep that the Nats will be refunding all deposits for postseason tix, including the service charge.

  5. jd - Sep 30, 2013 at 11:34 AM

    I will be more than happy if the Nats come back next year with essentially the same team that finished this year with as Mark says some tweaks to the bench and pen, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect better to a lot better results from: RZim,Rendon,Ramos,Harper,Spann,Strasburg,Gio,Det,Storen. I also think it’s not unreasonable to hope for better from LaRoche in his contract year.

    Big moves can sometimes backfire. Exhibit A – Soriano, Exhibit B – Haren/EJax.

    The real key is the manager and pitching coach. I have no opinion about Knorr but I trust that Rizzo does and that he knows him well enough. As far as outside candidates I am only interested in Girardi as a current manager and in Ausmus as an up and comer.

    • NatsLady - Sep 30, 2013 at 11:42 AM

      I don’t regard Soriano as a “backfire.”

      (1) He was adequate as a closer. He “slumped” for a while, but who didn’t. Probably concealed a minor injury.
      (2) Drew Storen cost this team millions of dollars–that’s a FACT. He failed in the most important situation there is, you can blame the umps, Davey, whatever, but in the end, Storen was called on to pitch one inning and didn’t. If his mind was messed up, that’s on him. If you want to win, then you welcome whatever resources your GM brings to bear.

      That said, Soriano should probably be in a setup role next season.

      • rogieshan - Sep 30, 2013 at 11:54 AM

        Soriano in a setup role? We know that’s highly unlikely. Unless Mariano Rivera comes immediately out of retirement and signs with the Nats, Raffi ain’t setting up nobody. He would poison the atmosphere on the team even more so than he already has with his surly attitude.

      • jd - Sep 30, 2013 at 2:25 PM

        NL,

        Sorry but this analysis is not to your standards. Mariano Rivera blew a save in game 7 of the world series against Arizona, not to mention several times against the Red Sox in their epic comeback against the Yankees but the Yankees didn’t run out and get a new closer based on those events. It was an over reaction of the worst kind and it cost the team Storen for much of this year.

        Soriano was something less than adequate. The job he did could have been done by any number of relievers. When Pittsburgh let their closer go via FA they let Grilli close (brilliantly) and when Grilli went down they let Melancon close (brilliantly). The Soriano move was Rizzo’s worst by far.

    • NatsLady - Sep 30, 2013 at 11:45 AM

      As for Haren, we saw in the 2nd half what he was supposed to be. I don’t know how you diagnose mental problems. That was a weird one.

      • Eric - Sep 30, 2013 at 11:59 AM

        Not sure if you read the WaPo article about him recently, but between the lines I detected a lot of angst on his part over being away from his family, missing most of his oldest’s first year of kindergarten, etc. I have kids almost the same age as his, and maybe that’s coloring how I interpreted the article, but I can definitely imagine that contributing to his struggles, at least early on.

        In any case, I suspect after awhile it became a vicious cycle that didn’t need any outside fuel to keep the downward spiral going.

    • Hiram Hover - Sep 30, 2013 at 11:55 AM

      Agree that manager comes first. And if by “big moves” you mean 9 figure, multi-year free agent signings, no.

      But some kind of moves would help shore up the back end of the starting rotation, and ALR is a a big question mark for me.

      Incidentally–I don’t think EJax and Haren were either big moves or backfires. Both were one year deals. While they were disappointing, they weren’t brought here to be aces–they were brought here to eat innings, and they did.

      Without a reliable innings eater, the Nats are rolling the dice next year if they count only on internal options for the 4 and 5 spots. Even if we assume that the Big 3 stay healthy all season long, they still need to get 63-65 starts from Det/Roark/Jordan/etc etc., and to get enough wins in those starts to contend. That’s a tall order from a pretty unproven/unreliable bunch.

    • Jw - Sep 30, 2013 at 1:10 PM

      Chances of the Nats getting Girardi just went way down. Cubs fired Sveum.

  6. NatsLady - Sep 30, 2013 at 11:36 AM

    Interesting stat.

    Joe Sheehan ‏@joe_sheehan
    Roster stability: the #Indians got 98.4% of their PAs from just 13 guys.

    Makes you think of Davey, figuring out what line-up works best, and going with it, game after game. I don’t fault him on that. My questions lie more in the area of managing starters/relievers.

    • NatsLady - Sep 30, 2013 at 11:37 AM

      But you can ask, why ALR for so long? At a certain point, it had to be clear he was physically ailing and not going to recover from his slump.

  7. therealjohnc - Sep 30, 2013 at 11:51 AM

    There will be change; that’s a given. In baseball no team remains completely static from season to season. The question is whether there needs to be radical change going forward. IMHO that would be wildly foolish – Dan Snyder-esque, if you will. This team is still one of the youngest in all of MLB. The arc of the team has been consistantly positive over the past four years, and tied the 1969 Senators for the second most successful baseball season in DC since WWII. The team needs to play sounder fundamental baseball.

    -Don’t get hung up on the error total and fielding percentage; the Nats’ overall defense in 2013 was solid (11th of 30 MLB teams in defensive efficiency). But it could be so much better. A healthy Zimmerman, a Rendon settling into his new position instead of learning on the fly, and Harper with another season in the OF under his belt should all make that happen without changing the personnel.
    -The back end of the rotation needs to improve. Given how bad Haren was for the first three months of the season, and that Detwiler missed most of the year due to injury, this is an attainable goal. More importantly, the emergence of Tanner Roark, Taylor Jordan and Nate Karns (as well as the continued development of A.J. Cole and Sammy Solis) give the team valuable depth that simply wasn’t present going into 2013. In 2014 the team will not have “depth” consisting of Chris Young and Yunesky Maya.
    -The bench needs to improve. With Tyler Moore’s improvement during the season and the acquisition of Scott Hairston, it’s probably already better. Even if they don’t pick up another OF, Corey Brown should be better than 2013 Roger Bernadina (although probably not as good as 2012 Roger Bernadina). In addition to Steve Lombardozzi, the team has a number of versatile bench candidates (Kobernus and Espinosa chief among them). Danny Espinosa has minor league options and his trad value is nil, so I’m for keeping him as the primary option should Desmond miss extensive time due to injury.
    -The offense needs to improve. It’s unlikely that Werth produces another season like 2013, but fortunately it’s also unlikely that ALR does. Between that and improved health from Zimmerman and a full season of Ramos, the team has a decent chance at improving even with Werth regressing somewhat.

  8. Drew - Sep 30, 2013 at 12:39 PM

    The team does need to play with more urgency throughout the season, but I hope Matt Williams is not the choice.

    The San Francisco Chronicle has reported that in 2002 Williams purchased $11,600 worth of HGH and steroids from a Florida clinic. Williams admitted buying HGH and said it was to rehab his ankle.

    I’m sick to death of the cheaters. I didn’t like it with LoDuca and Guillen. I didn’t like that F.P. was in the Mitchell Report.

    Hiring Williams would send a terrible message to young guys like Harper, Moore and Rendon.

    Just say no.

    • NatsLady - Sep 30, 2013 at 12:51 PM

      Have to agree. So far, Rizzo has kept the team pretty clean (you never know, of course).

  9. Eric - Sep 30, 2013 at 12:58 PM

    Consider me up on your soap box, Drew (I can pick up another one if it gets crowded up here).

    I’m really glad Gio emerged unscathed from Biogenesis and hope that’s the closest any Nat ever gets to anything like that.

  10. natsfan1a - Sep 30, 2013 at 1:02 PM

    Um, yeah. It’s getting kinda crowded on here.

  11. Theophilus T.S. - Sep 30, 2013 at 2:14 PM

    I have never figured out how Rangers management could tolerate their coke-snorting manager. Not that it’s won them a lot of World Championships.

    Matt Williams taking hgh in the ’90s — that’s a different era but I’m also tired of hearing excuses. Nelson Cruz will play tonight, Johnny Peralta will play LF in Detroit — so I don’t think the PED “crisis” is over, even if Rodriguez sits 200 games. I think baseball has to be Caesar’s wife-like for a dozen years or so until the culture dies out. Cynics can accuse me of wishful thinking but I believe a couple more 200-game suspensions might do it.

Archives

Mark joins Rob Carlin and Brent Harris every Thursday at 4 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet for a half-hour show on the Nats, Orioles and rest of MLB. Re-airs Thursdays at 11:30 p.m., Saturdays at 9 a.m. and Sundays at 11:30 a.m.

ON THE RADIO

As ESPN-980 AM's Nats Insider, Mark makes daily appearances on the station's various shows. Here's the 2014 schedule (subject to change)...

MON: 12:45 p.m.
TUE: 2:30 p.m.
WED: 4:30 p.m.
THU: 2:30 p.m.
FRI: 1:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m.
SAT: 10:30 a.m.

*All times Eastern. You can also listen to the station on 94.3 FM, 92.7 FM and online at ESPN980.com.

Follow us on Twitter