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Should Washington Nationals have prepared better for rash of injuries?

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The Nats have been struck hard by the injury bug in 2015. Admittedly, it would have been difficult for Mike Rizzo to predict all of the injuries that the Nats have dealt with, but should he have had just a bit more foresight?

Mike Rizzo's tenure as the Nats GM has generally been excellent, but it seems he may have misjudged the impact that his returning players would have at the deadline this season.
Mike Rizzo's tenure as the Nats GM has generally been excellent, but it seems he may have misjudged the impact that his returning players would have at the deadline this season.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It was announced on Friday that Denard Span will have hip surgery that will end his 2015 season. This will be the 31-year-old center fielder's third trip to the disabled list this season. He missed the start of the year recovering from core surgery and had just returned earlier this week after spending six weeks on the disabled list with back spasms. When healthy, Span has been one of the best hitters on the Nats this season, batting .301/.365/.431 with 5 HR. He's gone a perfect 11 for 11 on stolen base attempts.

Span has, of course, been joined on the disabled list for long stints this season by Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, and Ryan Zimmerman. Those four players, accounting for half of the Nats projected starting lineup, have combined to play 247 games for the Nats this season (the Nats have played 126 games, so that's a possible total of 504), or 49% of their possible total. The Nats have certainly not lived up to expectations this season, but when half of your starting lineup misses half the games in a given season, that's a difficult obstacle to overcome.

As we've seen, particularly with Werth, even in those games which the Nats starters have been healthy enough to play, they haven't necessarily been at peak effectiveness. This is also something that should be expected. Not only are players often less than 100% physically when they're healthy enough to return from the disabled list, they can also take a little while to find their form and get their timing back.

With all of that in mind, did Nationals GM Mike Rizzo do enough to prepare his team in case of injury for the 2015 season? Should he have seen these injuries coming at the beginning of the season? Should he have done more at the deadline to add some insurance in case any of the players that have returned from injury didn't perform as they have in the past or suffered a setback?

Should Mike Rizzo have prepared better before the season?

In all honesty, Rizzo probably did what he needed to do with this roster before the season. There were certainly a couple of players that the Nats could have projected to miss some time prior to the year:

  • Ryan Zimmerman played in just 61 games in 2014 due to hamstring and thumb injuries. Zim hasn't played in more than 150 games since 2009 and turned thirty late last season. As a player ages, they generally start recovering less quickly. It would have been reasonable to budget a month or so of possible DL time for Zim.
  • Jayson Werth was coming off of shoulder surgery and had spent at least a month on the disabled list in two of the past three seasons. Now 36, the expectation should be that Werth is more likely to deal with nagging injuries than he was earlier in his career, so budgeting in some DL time for Werth would have been reasonable.
  • Denard Span was coming off of core surgery in the offseason and began the year on the disabled list. Prior to this season, Span had remained fairly healthy in his tenure with the Nats (he had concussion problems in Minnesota). However, knowing that he was coming off of surgery could have been a red flag that he might deal with more nagging injuries than he has in the past.
  • Bryce Harper has had trouble staying healthy in his career. He was limited to 118 games in 2013 and 100 games in 2014. While Harper's injuries were more of the fluky variety (running into walls, tearing a ligament in his thumb sliding into third base), they couldn't be discounted.

The Nats had some backup plans for those players. Michael A. Taylor was one of the top outfield prospects in the minors and has spent most of the season in the starting lineup. Clint Robinson filled in admirably as the club's first baseman when Zimmerman was on the disabled list, and played some in the corner outfield spots (yuck). The Nats had a $5 million bench bat in Nate McLouth who has also missed the entire year with a shoulder injury. Reed Johnson was added as corner outfield depth, but hasn't been able to stay healthy either. Matt den Dekker was added in the preseason, but hasn't played well enough in the minors to warrant much of a look.

In the preseason, Rizzo had backup plans in place. Aside from Taylor and the surprising overachiever they found in Robinson, they didn't have any backup plans who looked capable of handling starting duties for a little while in case any of their starters went down, but he had backup plans. It's difficult to place much fault on Rizzo for his roster construction before the season.

Should he have done more at the deadline to insure against underperformance/recurrence of an injury?

It's easy to give Rizzo a pass for not having more on hand to replace Rendon, Span, Werth, and Zimmerman at the beginning of the season. He had the whole season in front of him, so there was plenty of time for Span and Werth to get over their offseason surgeries and find their form. He had those backup plans in place, and there was reason to believe that McLouth and Johnson would be healthy enough to contribute at some point.

At the deadline, though, Rizzo had a lot more knowledge of what was going on with the roster. McLouth looked like he was done for the year (and is). Johnson still hadn't returned from the disabled list, and looked to be a month away (he strained his oblique while rehabbing). Rendon, Werth, and Zimmerman were all about ready to return from the disabled list, but.......

  • Rendon had essentially spent three stints on the disabled list. He began the year on the DL with his knee injury. He was about ready to return from his rehab assignment when he strained his oblique (technically not a second DL stint, but effectively one). After returning for about a month, Rendon hit the DL again with a quadriceps injury. That's three injuries, which leads us towards him having an injury prone season. It's also meant very little time in the lineup, which meant he was going to take some time to get in game shape.
  • Span was on the disabled list with back problems and his status to return was shaky. The Nats did eventually get him back (Tuesday), but got just two games out of him before his season ended.
  • Werth was on the disabled list with a broken wrist after having dealt with shoulder surgery over the offseason. He hadn't looked like himself before his broken wrist and figured to take quite some time to find his timing, if he did at all.
  • Zimmerman was dealing with a lingering foot injury (Plantar Fasciitis) which is a condition that typically doesn't go away for about a year with rest and could be career threatening.

With Rendon, Werth, and Zimmerman nearing returns, the Nats motto at the deadline was that they would be making three or four (when Span got healthy) trades simply by getting those injured players to return to the roster. Hindsight is 20/20 (though there was plenty of reason for foresight), but boy does this philosophy look like it was foolish right now. Werth has been ineffective since his return. Rendon, a top five MVP finisher last season, has essentially been a league average hitter playing out of position at second base. Zimmerman has been pretty effective, but a bit inconsistent. Span finally returned a month later and played just two games before his season ended.

With four players, three of whom are over thirty years old, having spent two months each on the disabled list, it's awfully hard to justify Mike Rizzo not insuring against what's happened this past month and getting an outfield bat at the trade deadline. There was an extremely high chance that these players wouldn't produce as they have in the past upon their return. There was also a pretty good chance that at least one of those players (who have shown a tendency to be injury prone at least this season) was going to either suffer a recurrence of their injury or an injury related to their previous injuries.

We can't say that the Nats didn't try to acquire an outfielder at the deadline, but it seems that they didn't try hard enough. Their lone acquisition at the trade deadline (Jonathan Papelbon) has become their closer for the remainder of this season and 2016, but the Nats haven't given him a ton of chances.

Mike Rizzo's tenure as the Washington Nationals GM has been excellent. He's taken over a team that lost 100 games in consecutive years in the past decade and turned them into a franchise that is expected to compete at the highest level. He's drafted and developed several young stars. He's done an outstanding job of nabbing cheap young talent on the trade market in recent years. That doesn't mean he's perfect, though.