In 2018, Max Scherzer had what the already three-time Cy Young Award winner considered the best season of his career. Juan Soto produced one of the greatest seasons in history by a teenager. Anthony Rendon essentially duplicated his numbers from the previous season when he finished sixth in National League MVP voting. Bryce Harper, despite a dismal first half, finished with 34 homers, 100 RBIs, 103 runs and 130 walks. Adam Eaton hit .301 with a .394 on-base percentage. The team’s first basemen collectively hit 38 homers with 122 RBIs and an .830 OPS. Sean Doolittle had a 1.60 ERA, 0.600 WHIP, 60 strikeouts and only six walks.
Those were all exceptional seasons by individuals whose contributions could only have made a positive difference to the Nationals, who as a team outscored their opponents by 89 runs (even with Sunday’s 12-0 loss to the Rockies, its most lopsided of the year).
Yet the team that packed up late Sunday afternoon in Denver and dispersed across the country and Latin America for the winter did so as the not-so-proud owners of an 82-80 record. This team, which peaked at 11 games over .500 on June 6, fell to 2 games over on July 1 and then played exactly .500 ball the rest of the way. It was eliminated from the National League East race on Sept. 21 and finished eight games behind the division champion Braves.
How, then, did all of those individual positives come together to create a decidedly mediocre team, one that didn’t come anywhere close to its anticipated goal when the season began?
General manager Mike Rizzo, during a pregame session with reporters Sunday, first mentioned the spate of injuries the Nationals suffered. More specifically, the timing of the injuries they suffered, with the lineup ravaged early, then the rotation, then the bullpen.
Rizzo, though, didn’t stop there.
“Beyond that, we’ve played 162 games,” he said. “It’s a marathon, and it shows you who you are. I think this season has shown us who we are. We’ve earned the record that we have.”
That was something of an out-of-character admission by Rizzo, a highly accomplished baseball executive for whom humility is not a typical trait. The architect of a roster that went 82-80 didn’t try to sugarcoat that record, didn’t try to suggest all was well and that things went exactly as planned.
“There’s a lot of things we could’ve done different, should’ve done different, should’ve foreseen,” he said. “But those are things that I’m responsible for. Win, lose or draw, it’s my team. Again, we are who we are, and this is the record we have.”
How, though, did the Nationals wind up with that record? In short, despite their exceptional talent and moments of greatness, they didn’t do the little things well enough to win more close games.
Run differential is supposed to be an accurate indicator of a team’s eventual success over a 162-game schedule, and the Nationals’ run differential suggested they should have gone 90-72. Some will say their plus-89 total was skewered by several blowout wins, but even when you throw out their five most-lopsided wins and their five most-lopsided losses, they still finished at plus-68. They should have won more than 82 games.
Why didn’t they? Well, consider their record in one-run games: 18-24. Only the Diamondbacks, Mets and Reds had a lower winning percentage among NL clubs in those tightest of games this season. And then consider their record in extra-inning games: 4-10. Nobody had a lower winning percentage among all major league clubs.
Poor situational hitting. Few consistently reliable relievers to match up in big spots late in games. Mistakes in the field and on the bases. They all contributed to those narrow losses.
“I think we’ve all learned a lot about what it takes to really, really win and become a world champion,” first-year manager Davey Martinez said. “I think this was a lesson learned. I think next year coming to spring training, these guys will be ready.”
The players who return in 2019 will be asked to focus on some different things, making sure they fine-tune their fundamentals before worrying about the big stuff. But there will be plenty of new players next spring, as well.
Martinez walked into the clubhouse in West Palm Beach, Fla., in February a stranger among a roster that was nearly identical to the one Dusty Baker had at the end of the 2017 season. That won’t be the case next year. Daniel Murphy, Gio Gonzalez, Ryan Madson, Brandon Kintzler, Shawn Kelley and Brian Goodwin all were dealt away this summer. Matt Wieters, Jeremy Hellickson and Mark Reynolds are all free agents who are unlikely to return. And nobody knows where Harper will be playing come 2019.
“It’s always tough,” Martinez said of year-to-year roster turnover. “You build relationships with all these guys. And it’s tough when you don’t see them back and they move on. But it’s part of it. I’ve been doing this a long time, and it’s part of it. Hopefully the next group of guys we get are up for the challenge and then we move on.”
Rizzo has no shortage of major challenges facing him this winter, and it’s not simply about Harper. He needs to acquire at least one (possibly two) quality starting pitchers, a catcher, a second baseman, several relievers and several bench players.
There will be some money to spend, but it’s going to be nearly impossible to fill all the holes via free agency. Trades will be necessary, if the Nationals farm system has enough remaining chips to acquire what is desired.
“We have an extremely popular minor league system,” Rizzo said. “We certainly have players with trade value. But we’re going to attack this from every different angle: free agency, trades, internal options. We’re in a good place where we feel good about where we’re looking in ‘19 and beyond that.”
Adding to the Nationals’ challenge is this simple fact: The NL East is much, much better than it was when they won the division in 2016 and 2017. The Braves just won 90 games with the youngest roster in baseball, and they’ll have both money to spend and prospects to trade in an attempt to get better this winter. The Phillies, despite their late-season collapse, have young talent and a fistful of dollars that will allow them to bid on every prominent free agent on the market.
Rizzo, as he has maintained all along, insists the Nationals’ window of opportunity is not closing. Even if they lose all of their free agents, they’re still guaranteed to enter 2019 with Scherzer, Rendon, Soto, Eaton, Doolittle, Trea Turner, Ryan Zimmerman, Victor Robles, Stephen Strasburg and Tanner Roark anchoring the roster and money to spend.
“We feel really good about the organization as a whole,” Rizzo said. “We like the core group of players we have under control on the roster. We like the talented players we have in our minor leagues. We like the process we go through to make decisions and get things done. I consider this year an anomaly. I think we’re going to reboot next year, make some adjustments, and compete for the National League East again.”
But as they found out over the last six months, nothing is guaranteed anymore for this franchise. The 2019 Nationals may get back to the top of the mountain. But they can’t just assume they’ll get there. They’re going to have to earn it.