Thoughts on a devastating NLDS loss and looking forward to 2015

A week from now, it won’t feel any better. Really, nothing will make you feel better about what happened the past five days. Even 10 years from now, you’ll look back at this team  and wonder how so much promise unraveled so quickly. Even if the Nats win 5 of the next 7 World Series titles, you’ll still look back at this season as a million dollar check nobody bothered to cash.

Because, really, this team should have done more than wilt away in front of an inferior Giants team that seemed to bring a little bit of passion the Nats just didn’t have. This team this series wasted near shutouts from Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister and a solid if not spectacular performance by Stephen Strasburg in games 1-3. Even the vilified bullpen allowed only 5 runs in 19 plus innings over four games. A team that won its division by 17 games on the strength of its pitching pitched well this series. They likely would have continued pitching well if they had managed to stay alive this postseason.

So, no you won’t feel better about this series once time has given you the benefit of perspective. This Giants team is frisky enough to scratch out a run every now and then, but they’re not a strong offensive team. The Giants could and should have been dispatched had the Nationals offense looked anything like the 2014 Nationals offense.

So there’s plenty of blame to go around, but most of it resides with the Nationals hitters who, with the exception of Anthony Rendon and Bryce Harper, didn’t hit. It’s usually not worth getting too riled up about hitting stats over a 4-game stretch–which is a very small sample size–but it’s odd so many hitters went dark at the same time. Werth, LaRoche, Desmond, Ramos, and Span all retreated to their bad habits as hitters, and the team collectively scored a measly 9 runs over 45 innings.

Some commentators will use words like “clutch” and “choke” to fit some sort of lazy narrative that the Nationals weren’t ready for the “big stage”. But the credit should probably go to the Giants pitching staff who came in prepared to pitch to the Nats weaknesses, and executed their plan when it really mattered. I didn’t see too many adjustments from the Nationals hitters over four games, which is problematic. Over the course of a long season, things tend to even out. Over four games, things don’t have time to regress to the mean.

Other people will blame the Nationals four day layoff while the Giants played a Wild Card game to keep them “fresh”. I don’t think there’s any way to prove whether this was a factor in the series, but frankly, I’m having trouble believing that it was. The top seeds in each league won in the LCS against the wild card teams last year, and many teams this season didn’t have trouble with a four day layoff. The Orioles scored 12 runs in their first game after a three day layoff. The Cardinals and Dodgers scored a combined 19 runs after four day layoffs. And if the Giants were so fresh, why were their bats as cold as the Nats all series long? If four days is enough time to cool down bats, four days is enough time to warm them back up, and the Nationals looked just as cold in the last game as the first. Sorry, I’m not buying the layoff theory. It’s too convenient.

The Nationals simply lost. These things happen in a five game series. It’s not particularly fair, but nobody cares about fair. To win the World Series, you have to win short series. The Nationals didn’t show up, and you’ll now remember 2014 as a waste. For longer than you realize.

Looking ahead.

-While you emotionally recover, Mike Rizzo has already turned the page to 2015. Without almost the entire team under team control next season, conventional wisdom suggests there could be few changes to this roster. But we all know better. Mike Rizzo realizes if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. This is the guy that added Denard Span in 2013 and Doug Fister in 2014. He has his eye on at least one big name player to upgrade this roster.

-Adam LaRoche will probably move on to a new team. He’s a free agent, and a costly one at that on an average annual basis. Most importantly, he occupies the position Ryan Zimmerman will probably need to play next season. With no openings in the outfield, and third base off the table due to his shoulder injuries, Zimmerman will probably learn to play first base full time. Given the choice between Zimmerman and LaRoche, there’s no contest. Zimmerman is still in his prime as a hitter, and LaRoche is just beginning the long regression to journeyman veteran. LaRoche has been a fine first baseman, and I wouldn’t mind seeing him back for one more season. But Zimmerman won’t begin opening day 2015 on the bench like he spent the entire NLDS.

-The other option for Rizzo is exercising Denard Span’s team option before trading him to open a spot in the outfield for Zimmerman. Rizzo would only consider this if he feels Bryce Harper is ready to move back to centerfield full time. But Rizzo moved Harper away from centerfield for a reason. The best bet is that Span is back next season with Michael Taylor ready to take over in 2016.

-If Zimmerman moves to first base, Rendon will probably move back to second, and Rizzo will target a third baseman through free agency or trade (probably trade). Rendon may stay at third, with Rizzo targeting a second baseman. Either way, don’t be surprised to see an infielder added this offseason.

-Whether Span stays or not, outfield will be an interesting situation to monitor. Michael Taylor will get more seasoning in AAA next season, but Steven Souza doesn’t need any more time in the minors. He’ll probably begin 2015 with the big league club, and it’ll be interesting to see whether he improves as Jayson Werth’s power and defense declines. Werth has three more years on his contract. He may not be one of the Nationals top three outfielders by the time it’s done.

-The other offseason story will be the impending free agency of Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, and Ian Desmond, who all enter their last year of team control with the Nats. All will be expensive to re-sign, making it unlikely any of them will stay with a team that’s allegedly “beyond tapped out” in payroll. Fister is the most likely to stay since he demands fewer years due to his age. But it’s likely Rizzo is content to let all of them walk before folding prospects Blake Treinen, AJ Cole, and Lucas Giolito into the rotation.

-Don’t be surprised to see Rizzo look for a shortstop of the future, possibly by trading some of its young outfield or pitching depth. I wouldn’t even be surprised to see the Nats trade Tyler Clippard to a team desperate for bullpen help, like the Tigers, if they offered a young shortstop.

-Speaking of next season, I fully expect the 2015 NL East to illustrate what a missed opportunity this season really was. This year’s Mets gave me a 2011 Nationals vibe all season, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them make the same year to year leap that team did. Next year’s Mets could take the division. Same with the Marlins, whose young corps will continue to improve. The 2015 Braves cannot be as bad as this season’s version in the second half. The NL East will be far more competitive than the cake walk it was this year. This team will need to get better if it hopes to again earn the opportunity they just wasted.

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5 thoughts on “Thoughts on a devastating NLDS loss and looking forward to 2015”

  1. Appreciate this and all your posts this season. Good work.

    A wild card here that you don’t mention is Cabrera. He may end being the best IF option for the money, if the price isn’t too premium. Retaining Cabrera might also allow you to entertain the idea of trading Desi.

    Also, remember the Nats still have McLouth on the roster…if he regains his form after the labrum problem, he could be your CF option if Rizzo chooses to move Span. Between Taylor and McLouth, you might have yourself a really workable platoon.

    BTW, this is a harsh reality, but I think there’s plenty of evidence that Werth is not one of the top 3 OFs on the team right now. His defense is very average and on the decline, as are JW’s hitting skills. Hard to accept given what he’s meant to the franchise, but I feel we are closer to the end with him than most think.

    Finally, I would love to see the Nats find a way to keep JZimm. The guy is tough as nails and by far the most talented pitcher on the roster. He is the ace.

    Any way you slice it, some tough decisions await Rizzo.

  2. Cabrera is an option, but he’s probably not the best option. Since he’s a free agent, there’s no advantage to him over any other free agent infielder. All will go for market rates. But you’re right, keeping him at 2B next season is insurance if they can’t find another SS once Desmond leaves after next season.

    As for McLouth, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Nationals cut their losses and gave one of their younger players his roster spot. But he’s likely to have a chance to earn his way back in the rotation next spring, since he’s under contract.

    One of the problems with this roster is that Werth and Zimmerman somehow morphed into the same profile: guys who can’t play the infield and have limited range in the outfield, with big salaries and no trade clauses. You don’t have room for both of them and LaRoche.

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