Oct 2, 2013, 6:00 AM EDT
The Nationals are transitioning into offseason mode, and so are we. Over these first five days, we’ll run through the five biggest storylines of the winter for this club, continuing today with the No. 2 storyline: Whether or not to keep the current starting lineup intact…
For more than four months, the Nationals owned one of baseball’s least-productive lineups. On August 7, they sported a .240 team batting average, a .299 on-base percentage and averaged a scant 3.7 runs per game.
Which understandably led to some questions about the offensive plan heading into 2014. The Nats couldn’t stick with the status quo, could they?
Well, after a dramatic turnaround in production during the season’s final seven weeks, they just might.
Over their final 48 games, the Nationals hit a collective .276, posted a .343 on-base percentage and scored 4.9 runs per game. Which led to a 32-16 record, the majors’ best during that closing stretch.
What were the biggest differences during those final seven weeks?
— The Nationals had a fully healthy lineup at last, with Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos playing every day and Bryce Harper feeling as close to 100 percent as he had all year.
— Denard Span finally got hot after a sluggish start to his first season in Washington, producing a 29-game hitting streak and setting the table for the rest of the lineup.
— Ryan Zimmerman rediscovered his lost power stroke, clubbing a league-leading 11 home runs in September to finish with a team-high 26.
— Overall, players seemed to thrive under new hitting Rick Schu, taking a more relaxed approach to the plate than they did under Rick Eckstein.
Rizzo also believes the Nationals were better at situational hitting down the stretch after struggling mightily with runners in scoring position early.
“I think offensive efficiency is the thing that kind of disappointed us most,” the GM said. “It’s not doing the little things to create runs and manufacture runs. We were more reliant on the long ball, 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.”
If Rizzo was inclined to make a lineup change, where would it happen? There aren’t many obvious answers. The Nationals are set in the outfield, at shortstop, catcher and at third base after Zimmerman made vast throwing improvements as the season progressed.
That leaves only first base and second base, and the Nationals don’t appear to believe either needs an upgrade.
Though Adam LaRoche struggled all season and finished with a .237 batting average and .735 OPS that each were career-lows in non-injury years, there appears to be organizational confidence in the veteran’s ability to bounce back in 2014.
“I think this year was an anomaly for him,” Rizzo said. “He showed streaks of being the Adam LaRoche that we all know. He had some physical ailments that curtailed some of his production. I’m confident he’ll come back to spring training next year fit, healthy and ready to produce, as he always has.”
Rizzo also gave an endorsement to Anthony Rendon, who as a rookie and novice second baseman hit .265 with seven homers and 23 RBI in his first 98 big-league games. Though the GM did leave the door slightly ajar for Steve Lombardozzi and the demoted Danny Espinosa entering 2014.
“When the season ends, Rendon will be our starting second baseman, but we’re going to go into spring training with an open competition for a lot of positions,” Rizzo said Saturday in Phoenix. “It’s going to be something we’ve got a lot of good young players at that position. Rendon has played remarkably well at that position for a guy who is learning defensively at the major-league level and trying to hit for the first time at the major-league level. Compound that with that he’s played more games than he’s ever played in his career, and he’s had a remarkable rookie season.
“And let’s not forget about Danny Espinosa, who hit 20 home runs and stole 20 bases in the big leagues already and is a stalwart defensive player. And Lombo, who is one of the most steady players that we have on the ballclub. We’ve got a lot of good options over there and we’re going to roll them out there in spring training and see what happens.”
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