The Nats are now officially out of the playoffs. The question that we're going to try to see answered over and over again over the next couple weeks is "Why?", but that question had been answered long ago. The bench, back of the rotation, and bullpen had flaws that were exposed by injury. These flaws were not addressed in a timely fashion. A few months ago this was not apparent to everyone. It was hard to imagine that the Nats, a 98 win powerhouse, could be dropped to a below .500 team simply because their play at the margins was so bad. This past few months clears that up though. They are not a below .500 team. They are only going to miss the playoffs by a few games. Now you can clearly see why a few games lost when they didn't have to be 3 months ago matters.
The margins are not the only reason the Nats are on the outside looking in as September ends. Every good team has an off month. It's a long season and you can't be several games over every month (well you CAN, that's what 100+ win teams do, but I digress) The Nats were only together for 3 months this year but they still managed to have that off month. July's 11-16 record, with Bryce back and Ramos back and Werth back, is close to unforgivable. That's the type of month that could cost you a division title. You can't blame that on Espinosa or Tyler Moore or 1st half Haren.
There will be people looking to blame someone for the failure. A departing Davey makes an easy target, but really the issue lies with Rizzo. Rizzo did his job as if he was still overseeing a rebuilding team, rather than one that was already built. Boswell notes that the team has patience and needs that consistent tone. I couldn't disagree more. Patience is for the team on the rise, the team ascending. The team ascendant needs urgency.
If you look at the job Rizzo did this year overall it can be hard to pick out the failure exactly. This team should have been very good. Like I've said before, all these baseball analysts picking the Nats are not morons. The talent was there. But Rizzo did fail and it's easier to see if you look at Rizzo's job a little differently than just putting the best 25/40 guys out on the field. Instead break the roster construction into three parts. There's the assembly of your "base team", the guys you play everyday, the rotation spots, and your main relief arms. Then there is what I like to call "disaster prep". This is putting together your bench and remaining pitching staff trying to account for where obvious issues may occur. (For example, if the Yankees start Jeter at SS next year Cashman better have a SS worthy of starting in the majors on hand. If not he's failed at his job even though he made a fine base team decision.) The third part is "damage control". This is dealing with the issues that were not obvious that pop up during the season.
Rizzo excelled at assembling the base team. While some things didn't work out exactly, it is hard to find fault in his logic at the time. Span for Morse made sense for an offense that looked like it might bust out with Bryce Harper entering superstardom and getting full years from Werth and Ramos. You could carry the average Span at the plate and he could help fix the OF defense situation. Haren and Detwiler at the end of the rotation? The Top 3 are so strong that gambles at the back end make sense. Detwiler looked really good at the end of last year. Haren could give the Nats one of the best rotations in recent memory if he bounced back. Adding Soriano looked like it was strengthening a strength. The one flaw is that their long relief man was weakened by going from Gorzelanny to Duke, but that's like the last man in the base team.
Rizzo struggled with disaster prep. The Nats had a few areas that needed shoring up. Their OF, C, CI, and back of the rotation were all injury risks. I can't really fault the choices Rizzo made in the OF or with C. Bernadina had been an adequate #4 for a few years now, was not old, and was coming off his best year. Tyler Moore at least deserved a shot at the #5 spot, albeit with a short leash given his late season failings. Kurt Suzuki is about the best you are going to do for a back-up C. Rizzo failed to do anything at the corners leaving fan-favorite but not a good player Lombardozzi and too-old to trust Chad Tracy in place. This didn't come into play really but I wanted to note it. You prepare for disasters but you hope they never come. Rizzo also blew it when it came to pitching depth. With Haren and Detwiler coming off seasons where they were injured (not to mention having two post-TJ pitchers at the top of your rotation) a good 6th starter, even maybe a reliable 7th would be crucial. Instead Rizzo looked to rely on guys like Chirs Young and Yuneksy Maya. Big mistake.
Rizzo failed miserably with damage control. During the season things happened that nobody would reasonably plan for. Espinosa's injury turned him into a AAA hitter (if that). Rizzo's reaction? No deals. Wait and see if we can't get Rendon to play 2nd. Ramos got injured again real early in the season leaving Suzuki as the
everyday catcher with no solid back-ups. Rizzo's reaction? No deals. Wait it out. When the inevitable OF injuries did occur the disaster prep failed as well. Not only did Tyler Moore's bad play continue, but Bernadina crashed out - having the worst season of his career. Rizzo's reaction? No deals until July 7th (at which point everyone was back). Pitching failures and injuries lead to a chain reaction exposing not only the failure to prepare adequately for this obvious disaster, but the issues with long relief and bullpen depth. Rizzo's reaction? No deals. See if we can scrape by with that's on hand.
Mike Rizzo sat on his hands for 3 months waiting for the team he assembled to come back together and play like we all knew they could. That was far too long and it cost the Nats the playoffs. Why did he do that? I could hypothesize several reasons; money issues, may present difficult roster issues upon returns, didn't want to deplete an already weak farm system, but I think it was far simpler than that. I think Rizzo didn't do anything this year because not doing anything worked last year. In 2012 disasters happened and the preparations were weak. Morse went down. Ramos went down. Werth went down. Storen went down. To fill their roles he had Ankiel, Nady, Flores, Lidge and H-Rod. Rizzo stood around and did nothing. He watched them fail. Then he watched Bernadina and Tracy and Bryce and Moore and the guys in the pen show up and carry the team in the absence of the base guys. Other than a trade for Suzuki he did very little.
It's important to look at that Suzuki deal. Wilson Ramos, the planned starter, went down for the year in mid May. Mike Rizzo let Jesus Flores and the collection of nobodies the Nats had in the minors hold down that position for over 2 and a half months before bringing in a replacement. That's crazy. You had to know by mid-June that Flores wasn't going to cut it. But Rizzo didn't do anything.
Mike Rizzo has spent the past 2 seasons on autopilot while games are being played. Here is the team I assembled, let's see what happens. That worked in 2012 but it didn't in 2013 and I'm telling you it's going to fail more often than not if your goals are lofty. The Nats may make the playoffs a few times, but if their goals are winning pennants and World Serieseses, Mike Rizzo needs to adjust his approach. His base roster construction is great. His disaster prep is serviceable. His damage control simply does not exist. It needs to.
We'll see the team do this, that, and the other in the offseason trying to shore up the pen and the back of the rotation and the bench. All this is good and honestly I think we can trust Rizzo with this work. The real test for him and therefore for this team, comes in mid-June next year. When Desmond is out and Gio is out and the team's 3 game lead on the Braves is now a 2 game deficit. What does Rizzo do then? Does he continue to fiddle while the team burns? Or does he learn to be urgent and make the deals that might hurt tomorrow to help today?