WASHINGTON, December 31, 2013 — This time last year die-hard Nationals fans were getting over the game five gut punch from the Cardinals. There was a lot to mourn, no doubt, but there was a lot to be optimistic about at the same time.
Going into the winter in 2012, the Nats were looking for a lead off hitter and a fifth starter. GM Mike Rizzo banked a lot on the acquisitions of Dan Haren and Denard Span. He also banked a lot in the hitting talent of his 2012 players. Both free agents took too long to live up to the billing and the Nats never caught up with the Atlanta Braves in 2013, despite a late surge by Span and the Nationals.
This winter, the Nats were again looking for starting pithing. They surprised some by trading for Detroit’s Doug Fister and trading away infielder Steve Lombardozzi, left-hander Ian Krol and minor league lefty Robbie Ray. Throughout Major League Baseball, the Nationals were applauded and thought to have won this trade. Time will tell if Fister will support the already stout pitching rotation of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiller, and Ross Ohlendorf. The rich just got richer in that regard, but the Nats still have some holes that need to be shored up before they arrive in Viera, FL.
Here are the five takeaways so far from the Nationals off-season:
Bench Hitting still needs fixing: Doug Fister is no doubt a great addition to the starting rotation, but what about the Nats’ hitting? The Nationals’ bench was one of the worst offensively in baseball last season. The Nats’ starting fielders got off to a very sluggish start in 2013. What compounded to this slump was the lack of pinch hitting and competition from the bench. The Nationals’ bench in 2012, also nicknamed, the “Goon Squad,” batted a combined .288 (61-for-212) with four runs and 26 RBIs as pinch-hitters. In 2013, the Goon Squad lost their mojo and batted a lowly .209 with a slugging percentage of only .284.
With the Goon Squad only a distant memory at this point, the Nationals need some home grown hitting or proven veterans to breed competition. Averages start to rise when starting jobs are at stake. When guys off the bench don’t perform, the sense of urgency from the starters can dwindle as a result of a lack of competition. The end result was a Nationals team ranked 15th in the Majors in runs scored.
Fielding has become a major issue: A glaring hole last year was the fielding woes of the Nationals. Some cases, like with Ryan Zimmerman, were injury induced. If you look closer, however, the Nationals gave up the least amount of batted balls (or chances) in the National League while allowing the fourth most errors. What that tells you is the Nationals pitchers were doing their job, keeping the opponent from hitting the ball. Unfortunately, the Nationals fielders were not taking advantage of good pitching and less batted balls, ranking high in errors and extra base runners.
Return to Small Ball: In 2010 and 2011, the Nationals prided themselves on playing good sound baseball. They bunted players over. They routinely sacrificed their way into scoring runs. After the 2012 hitting surge, however, the Nats lost their way.
They forgot how to do the little things. Too many times a pitcher would get on base in a crucial situation and the next guy up could not execute a sound bunt or the pitcher would get thrown out at second base following a poor bunt attempt. Even if the 2014 Nationals hit the cover off the ball, they will still need to play better small ball to become a playoff contending team.
All teams go through slumps, but when your bullpen is limited, your bench is not performing, and luck is not on your side, the team must rely on the fundamentals. New manager Matt Williams will certainly focus on this area in Spring Training. It is one of the keys to his managerial philosophy. If the Nats can improve upon this area of hitting, they will be better equipped to take advantage of the opportunities on the base paths.
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