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Tweak It - Don't Blow It Up (Nats 2014) Chapter One: A Last Look Back

The Nats entered 2013 with a roster that was essentially unchanged from the 98 win 2012 team that was one agonizing strike away from the NLCS last year. There were changes around the margins. Three of the four lefties in the bullpen moved on, Michael Morse was traded, Denard Span was brought in, and Dan Haren replaced Edwin Jackson. Rafael Soriano was brought in late. But of the Nationals' 25 man Opening Day roster, 22 (88%) had been on the team the year before. 88%! Span, Haren and Soriano were the only three new players.

Despite that, Nats' GM Mike Rizzo gets a lot of criticism for messing around with success or accused of blowing up a winning team. But when you think about it, the players who left did very little for their new teams in 2013. The 2012 production of Sean Burnett and Mike Gonzalez was missed, but they were respectively injured and ineffective in 2013. Gorzelanny was a useful garbage time innings eater in 2012, and moved all the way up to "meh" (3-6, 3.90 ERA, 1.266 WHIP) this year. Retaining him over Duke would have been better, but was not a season changer. Morse was both injured AND ineffective this season, and while DeRosa had a bit of a bounce-back season his production in 2012 was so bad that Rizzo would have been mocked mercilessly for retaining him over going with the kids. Edwin Jackson was so terrible, he was worse than Dan Haren. Apologists tend to claim that it would all have been different, the players would have been better if they had stayed in DC - and the Nats would have been better, too. Of course, the apologists don't acknowledge that the players and the team could also have been worse. I acknowledge both possibilities - but use what actually happened as a powerful argument against hashing Rizzo for the turnover that happened.

Further, many of the reasons the Nats struggled were holdovers. Zach Duke, Danny Espinosa, Ryan Mattheus and Henry Rodriguez were all bloody awful. Chad Tracy turned into ... well, Chad Tracy, the pre-2012 version whose lousy hitting (OPS+ of 83, 79, 68 from 2008-2010) ended up with him being exiled to Japan. Ramos, Zimmerman and Detwiler either got injured or were still recovering from injury. Lombardozzi and Moore regressed, especially early in the year. Lombardozzi did rally late - his splits the first half of the season were .234/.246/.293. Yes, a .246 OBP. Although his second half numbers were better (.302/.333/.415), by then the Nationals had moved on. Lombo's first half struggles kept Espinosa in the lineup much longer than he otherwise would have been, and ultimately forced the Nationals to rush Rendon to the majors much earlier than they would have preferred. Rendon played surprisingly well despite the lousy situation, but that was after two months were gone. And "surprisingly well" for a guy who had barely played second base and had played a total of 79 minor league games. He stopped the bleeding, but was not an impact player last year. And of course Adam LaRoche went from a season that was one of his career best to one of his career worst.

Ironically, put it all together and Rizzo might more fairly be criticized for keeping the band together, not for breaking up the team. Of course, most of us were completely on board with hanging onto the 2012 roster (non-HRod division). Heck, the team won 98 games! But of course they fell 12 games short of that in 2013. For perspective, this year’s much-criticized team finished tied (with the 1969 Senators) for the second best record in DC baseball since WWII. But the heck with perspective - as 2012 was the best season since the 1933 Senators went 99-53-1, our expectations were quite rightly higher.

By the end of 2013, the Nationals had dumped Duke and HRod and shipped Espinosa off to AAA to hopefully fix whatever ails him. Moore had been sent to AAA and slugged his way back. He has nothing to prove at AAA, but a lot to prove at the MLB level. Mattheus managed to put his roster spot seriously in jeopardy. Haren and Tracy ... won't be back. So ... now what?

LINK: Next ... Chapter 2 - A Modest Proposal

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