It's a popular narrative these days to blame Matt Williams for the underachievement of the Washington Nationals. The team was expected by most analysts to run away with the division (whoops), and many words were written about the juggernaut that would be the 2015 Nationals.
I'm not here to cast aspersions upon my colleagues' predictions (or my own for that matter), nor do I wish to point out just how wrong we all were before the season began. Instead I'd like to take an objective look at the roster constructed by Mike Rizzo.
It is easy to use Matt Williams as a scapegoat, and it doesn't help him much there are poignant examples of tactical...inefficiencies highlighted in pieces such as this, this, and this. The conversation has changed significantly since Williams won the NL Manager of the Year Award just last season.
It's easy to blame a manager for a team's misfortune. We can become myopic in this view and perhaps unfairly lay too much blame on the manager rather than the players' execution. Everyone has access to a run expectancy matrix and a win expectancy chart, but we all should keep at the forefront of our minds that the players still have to perform.
Just as important, general managers and front offices have to build a successful roster with the ability to contend, maximizing budgets and mitigating risk. It's not entirely about the money (per FanGraphs' depth chart standings, even the $300 million payroll Dodgers are not projected to end the season with over 90 wins) just as it is not entirely about the manager's tactical ability. Winning is a combination of putting together the best team possible from roster spot 1 through 25 or 1 through 40 in order to create depth in a team's system; that is what MIke Rizzo has failed to do for the Nationals.
Injuries played a significant part in the Nationals' downward spiral to what looks like a non-playoff year in the nation's capital. Every team has injuries they must overcome in order to succeed, and roster construction beyond the starting eight positional players and front-line starters is what can help a team successfully tackle adversity.
The Cardinals and Mets look almost certain to win their divisions despite each team enduring significant injuries to star players. St. Louis is on pace to be the only 100-win team in the majors, and the Mets are doing a nice job of handling the Nationals despite clearly being the worse team on paper throughout most of the season. It is no accident that despite losing a top of the rotation pitcher in Adam Wainwright and a middle of the order bat, in Matt Holliday, the Cards did not lose a series until last week. Likewise, it's not a coincidence the Mets had contingencies to fill in for Zack Wheeler when he went down with an elbow injury.
The Nats did not have their projected starting lineup play in the same game until mid-August, and their lack of depth hurt them badly. Here's a look at the injured players who missed significant time, their replacements, and the value that was lost. Again, it is worth reiterating all teams have to deal with injuries, but where they are prolonged, and there are limited understudies behind players, it can lead to cataclysmic seasons such as this one.
|Positional Player||Games Missed (Through 9/10)||Majority Replacement|
|Anthony Rendon||80||Danny Espinosa|
|Jayson Werth||78||Clint Robinson|
|Denard Span||71||Michael Taylor|
|Ryan Zimmerman||44||Clint Robinson/Tyler Moore|
|Yunel Escobar||18||Infield Shuffle|
The two biggest disappointments this season have been Anthony Rendon (good when he's healthy, which is infrequent) and Jayson Werth (having the worst season of his career, even when he is on the field). Rendon had a breakout 2014 in which he posted a .287/.351/.473 slash line en route to a 131 wRC+ and 6.5 fWAR. Last year was the first time he played more than 100 games in the majors (he played in 153), but unfortunately he will be playing in fewer than half the games in 2015.
With Rendon designated the starting third baseman, Yunel Escobar was poised to be the Nats' starting second baseman. With Rendon down, Escobar was forced back to the left side of the infield with Danny Espinosa playing second on a regular basis. A significantly below average hitter, Espi had not posted a league average or better line at the plate since 2011 and finished the 2014 season 25 percent below league average. Though he is a good defender, the Nats took a huge step back at the plate, which was only exacerbated when they had more injuries as the year progressed.
Yunel Escobar missed only 19 games this season, but it did cause an infield game of musical chairs around the horn. With Escobar down, Espinosa had to play third with second manned by Dan Uggla. It's questionable as to whether Uggla should have been rostered by any Major League team, let alone a team projected to win its division in a landslide.
At first base, perennially injured Ryan Zimmerman has missed 44 games and was replaced by Clint Robinson and Tyler Moore. Clint Robinson is 30 years old and through his journeyman career had amassed a total...0.1 fWAR. Moore has been atrocious, posting a -0.9 fWAR with a putrid 56 wRC+. Playing Moore in 82 games to this point is inexcusable for a team with an upper tier payroll in a big market.
As if the lack of depth in the infield wasn't enough of an issue, the outfield woes weren't much better. The Nats have the fifth highest outfield fWAR with 10.2...pretty decent, right? Except 8.6 of that value is from Bryce Harper! He's single-handedly keeping the Nats outfield in the upper echelon of value; the rest of the group has been pretty much a black hole. Werth is 36 years old, has suffered from a nagging wrist injury (which never seem to heal quickly), and his understudy was Clint Robinson. Robinson has started over 100 games this year and has been pretty much exactly what you would expect from a replacement player, posting a 0.2 fWAR.
Denard Span has been oft-injured as well, and his understudy is 24-year-old Michael Taylor, who looks like he could use more MiLB seasoning at the plate (he has a wRC+ nearly 20 percent below league average). Span has posted good numbers when he's played, but he missed most of the summer and the damage has been done.
With the Nationals' high payroll and expectations as a potential 100-win team going into the season, Mike Rizzo did not prepare enough contingencies for depth. Despite having a young and often injured player in Anthony Rendon, a 36-year-old outfielder in Jayson Werth, and a chronically hobbled first baseman in Ryan Zimmerman, the replacement players acquired by Rizzo did not put them in a position to succeed. Matt Williams will get his share of the blame, and rightfully so, but let's not forget who put together 1-25.
A special thank you to my friend, Nationals fanatic Mary Hay, who helped me put together the forensics for this underwhelming Nats season. She did it without getting too overly frustrated with me or the Nats, which is quite an accomplishment in and of itself.