There is a disease in the modern media for instant analysis and it should come as no surprise that as soon as the Winter Meetings ended yesterday teams were being labeled as winners and losers. The Nationals are once again wearing the familiar crown of offseason winners. It is still early and they still need to add a few pieces but those pieces remain on the market and until they aren’t, they can be added. The Nationals were off-season winners last year as well. The Span deal was seen as filling two needs, better outfield defense and leadoff hitter, the move for Dan Haren was considered a good buy low option, and the Soriano move provided bullpen depth and was seen as a move that would put the Nationals over the top. Most of the roster remained the same and that was seen as the real victory. Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg were supposed to take steps forward in their careers and instead Strasburg took a step back and Harper had a great April, ran into a wall, and posted a .789 OPS afterwards. 2013 was a season where more went wrong than went right and the adjustments needed were never made.
The biggest issues with 2013 weren’t anything listed above. The Haren deal didn’t work out, but it was a one year deal and now Haren is off to LA on another one year deal in his continuing quest to rebuild value. Span improved the outfield greatly but struggled with the bat for most of the season. He should have been moved out of the leadoff spot sooner and for a longer period of time, but that isn’t Span’s call. And Soriano wasn’t great but he wasn’t as terrible as people believe. The off-season moves weren’t the real problem with the Nationals in 2013. The problem was with players already on the roster. No one on the bench hit. Steve Lombardozzi ended up being the best bench bat with a .616 OPS. That is terrible and below the paltry .622 OPS expected from the average NL pinch hitter. The Nats had no bench players who were even average and when injuries were suffered in a concurrent time frame everything unraveled.
Fister, McLouth, and Blevins are all great additions and fill needs that the Nationals have and they are once again enough for the Nationals to be favorites in the NL East. But my reaction to hearing them labeled as “offseason winners” wasn’t one of joy or happiness at being favorites once again it was: “oh shit”. That has to be because of what happened in 2013. The Nationals were favorites, guaranteed a spot in the postseason, and a near lock to play the Tigers or Angels in the World Series. The World Series was the Cardinals and Red Sox and neither the Angels nor the Nationals even made it to the postseason. Being an offseason winner only gets a team so far and the only thing that has me hopeful about the upcoming season is that the thought that the players’ expectations will be as guarded as mine.
It is a funny thing that expectations can do. An 86 win season, ten games over .500, isn’t bad. In baseball it should be considered good. It is tough to win, and for a team that has knew nothing but losing from 2005 through 2011, back to back winning seasons should be celebrated more. They can’t be. Expectations change the target and while back to back winning seasons are good the hope was so much higher. The thought before last season was that the Nationals are going to be one of the most exciting teams to watch. There were articles written saying they had a chance to be one of the best teams of all time, and then they were just another team. Another team with a low scoring offense that became stale and boring to watch at times. The games became redundant. The Nationals struggled to put men on base and when they did get men on base they couldn’t get them across home plate.
Now we’re gearing up for another offseason of high expectations. The Fister trade is already being hailed as one of the best moves of the offseason, Nate McLouth is a gigantic upgrade over any backup outfielder the Nationals had in 2013, and Jerry Blevins is a left handed reliever that can not only increase the Nationals platoon advantage but can get right handed hitters out as well. All three of these moves fill holes in the roster and it is presumed moves for a backup catcher and additional bench bat are yet to come. Once those are made the Nationals roster will be complete and with Taylor Jordan, Tanner Roark, Ross Ohlendorf, Nate Karns, Ross Detwiler, Xavier Cedeno, Ryan Mattheus, and Christian Garcia the Nationals should have the pitching depth to cover the final two bullpen spots, one rotation spot, and any issues that occur as the season progresses. The Nationals roster as of right now when compared to the 2013 roster is better and not only is it better 1-25, it is better 26-30 as well.
Get ready. The expectations will be high once again, but learn from 2013 and approach them with guarded optimism and not the outright exuberance we all had on Opening Day a year ago. I remember leaving that game. I felt high and joyous. Harper had hit two homers and Strasburg had looked brilliant in seven innings of work. Certainly most every game was going to be like this, but they weren’t, and great expectations dried up like sand in the desert giving way to dry disappointment. The Nationals for now are winners, winners of the Winter Meetings, a title as meaningless as Grapefruit League MVP.