It's easy enough to dismiss most of what has happened this year to bad luck or at least things out of the team's control. Werth's injury. Ramos' injury. La Roche starting slow. Gio starting slow. Some back-end bullpen blowouts from guys you trusted fully. Even Espinosa, the current punching bag of the fans, who out there wouldn't have had him start the season and play at least a month, if not more? How can you blame a management when it's putting a team everyone thought was great out there and it doesn't perform.
But this ignores the fact that the team did take gambles during the off-season. They were minor gambles, seemingly pretty innocuous at the time, but they've all blown up in the Nats faces and contributed a fair amount to the struggles up to this point.
The signing of Dan Haren was the first gamble. On another team this would have been a bigger deal, but on the Nats, with 3 rotation guys who were expected to be good to very good and Detwiler looking like a fine back of the rotation guy, Haren didn't have to be great. He merely needed to be ok and eat up innings. He did battle an injury last year, but he seemed to pull through it and get stronger as the year went on. If he was right, he could be fantastic moving from the AL to the NL. Edwin Jackson, who filled this role last year, wanted a big contract and proved to be unreliable, so why not take a chance on a guy that might end up giving you one of the best rotations of all-time?
The problem though was depth. In that the Nats have none with starting pitching. Edwin Jackson was a machine went brought in for this role. He had no significant injury history in the past 4+ years and was only 28. Haren on the other hand had just battled injury and was going to be 32 and that's less reliable. If you didn't want to dip into your AAA pitching because it wasn't very good, then bringing in Haren was not the best move. Now it turns out he hasn't gotten injured, but he has given the Nats a performance very much like what they'd expect from a throw-away arm that would replace an injured Haren.Worse yet with a slow start from Gio and Stras not being dominant, the Haren issues meant more innings were needed from the front part of a pen which was a problem because of gamble #2.
The second gamble the Nats made was to cut out some of the middle reliever cost and set up a slightly unusual bullpen contstruction. Rizzo knows enough that a pen doesn't really need a lefty. If you have good enough pitchers they will get anyone out. For this reason he let Mike Gonzalez & Sean Burnett walk
to be replaced by Rafeal Soriano. With Soriano, Clippard, and Storen at the back end it presumably wouldn't matter who they faced because they'd get them out. This gamble worked out ok for the most part.
But then he also decided to roll with Zach Duke instead of Tom Gorzelanny to save a few dollars. While Gorzelanny had proved over the course of a couple grooming years that he was up to the job of middle relief, Duke had only one year post his last failed starter attempt and the results were mixed. Yes while up with the Nats he looked good, but the longer time he spent that year was in AAA and the stats are decidedly unimpressive. The other gamble he took was keeping H-Rod on the staff. H-Rod had no defined role. He's just a live arm that is around because Rizzo is desperate to prove he didn't lose that Willingham deal. Maybe he'll develop, maybe not, but he's nothing to be relied on. Of course with a rotation and back-end of the pen like the Nats have, the two gambles would hardly matter, right?
Back to where we ended gamble #1 - Haren failed though, and Gio wasn't sharp and Stras wasn't going deep. All of a sudden the Nats didn't need fewer bullpen innings they needed more. 20% more in April in comparison to 2012. Add in a couple of back-end blow-ups with Storen looking especially shaky, and you really do need all hands on deck. But Duke's shown he is that mediocre AAA arm that he looked like last year. And H-Rod remained an enigma. A guy you wanted to use when you are up a lot or down a lot just to see if he can get it, now had to be used when needed. He hasn't been as terrible as Duke but he hasn't done well and he's flirted with disaster enough times that you don't want to use him. The Nats pen went from strength to weakness in the blink of an eye. It's might have evened out with Strasburg and Gio doing better so Davey can pick and choose as he likes, but Ross got injured, leaving that Haren and "not Detwiler" spot as trouble. Hopefully when Detwiler comes back that'll help finally put the top back on this exploding soda bottle.
The third gamble was the worst one. Rizzo, bet hard on the bench. Last year Bernadina put up a career year. Tracy hit better than he had in years. Moore hit better than could ever had been expected looking at his minor league stats. Lombo basically maxed out initial expectations. Rather than see this as a lucky break that needed to be addressed, Rizzo doubled down. This was to be his bench. It would probably not be an issue. With Span replacing Morse, only Werth and Zimm had an injury history and both looked pretty healthy to end last year. The Nats might not even need the bench that much.
Whoops. Werth did get injured again (as one would expect at his age) and Danny, who looked injured at the end of last year, still looks injured. Zimm has predictably missed a few games (he will every year) and Bryce managed to bang himself up. It's not any more time, I bet, than last year with Morse being out a lot early and then Werth going down, but if Rizzo was hoping for fewer at bats from his bench he didn't get it. The bench in turn didn't only predictably regress, it crashed right past that. Bernadina is putting up the requisite worst year of his career to balance out the best one. Tracy isn't hitting at all. Moore is being exploited as badly as we thought he might based on his minor league numbers. Lombo is hitting like expected which is not exactly a good thing. They are the worst bench in the majors right now.
I've said before that if you are going to scrimp and save somewhere you do it at the edges. Your bench and your middle relief are the first two places to start. But as this season has indicated, you really don't want to scrimp and save anywhere if you want to be sure you will win. You don't know what will happen and you don't want a few bad performances or injuries to reveal your team's soft underbelly. This is why the best teams generally have the highest payrolls. Along with the superstars, they keep the Gorzelannys. They look at the OF situation and they sign a Reed Johnson or Scott Hairston and try to work it out. It doesn't mean that these moves will succeed (look at Hairston's numbers right now) but they try to get to the most wins, not the most wins per marginal dollar.
The Nats paid for this shortcut approach and a Haren gamble gone badly with a .500 record up to Memorial Day weekend. The Haren gamble may turn around, but the shortcuts will need to be addressed. Can it be done internally? Eury Perez? Anthony Rendon? Abad & Rosenbaum? Maybe. But that's a question Nats fans were hoping not to have in late May.