Washington Nationals must figure out how to judge bleak season

So in the same way the Nationals never had a true World Series celebration , they also never traded goodbyes. They couldn’t unpack a tou...

So in the same way the Nationals never had a true World Series celebration, they also never traded goodbyes. They couldn’t unpack a tough year with beers at their lockers. They will now do so alone, as it happens in 2020, left to answer a few difficult questions about this baseball season: How should a bad team be judged in such a short time? How many asterisks are there to go around?

“We didn’t play very well this year. I think it’s pretty evident,” reliever Daniel Hudson said. “We didn’t reach our goals. Even though it’s only 60 games, all of us wanted to win. We’re all competitors. We wanted to get in the playoffs, we wanted to try to defend the World Series, and we just didn’t do that.”

Then Hudson stepped back, offering a look at how he will roll the shortcomings through his head.

“You’d have to ask everyone else, but I’m not putting too much weight in a 60-game sample size,” he continued. “I know this team is better than how we played this year. I think if we would have gotten 162 games, or obviously more than 60 games, we would have showed that. I’m not going to lose sleep this offseason over a 60-game sample size. I’m sure a lot of guys in that locker room won’t, either.”

Here are the complicated truths of what the Nationals just did: Their record, 26-34, was their first losing finish since 2011, a year before Bryce Harper debuted and they began an eight-year run of contending each summer. Their winning percentage, .433, was their lowest since 2010, the year Stephen Strasburg’s arrival brought legitimacy to Washington. And it all was based on 60 games, as Hudson noted, a little more than a third of the schedule that typically measures teams.

“Just as I was the architect of the world champions in 2019, I’m the president and general manager of the last-place Nationals this year,” Mike Rizzo said Saturday. “That stings. We’re going to do everything we can not to have that happen again. We’re a winning organization. We’ve got a bunch of winners over here, and our goal is to win again next year in 2021.”

Before then, Rizzo has a lot of decisions to make. The Nationals hold club options for Aníbal Sánchez and Adam Eaton. Eric Thames and Howie Kendrick have mutual options for next year. Sean Doolittle, Kurt Suzuki, Ryan Zimmerman, Asdrúbal Cabrera, Michael A. Taylor and Javy Guerra become free agents in November. Then there are a number of non-tender candidates. The roster could be overhauled by the spring.

The needs will depend on whom Rizzo brings back. They could include a corner outfielder, a first baseman, a catcher, a back-of-the-rotation starter and a reliever or two, one of whom should be left-handed. They also could be informed by the Nationals’ assessment of what went wrong.

In 2018, after his first year as manager, Dave Martinez sifted through the worst parts of an 82-80 finish. In 2020, after signing an extension to stick with the club for the foreseeable future, he is flipping the approach. That doesn’t mean Martinez saw no faults in how the Nationals played across the past eight weeks. He often derided their defense and was fairly open about how much the rotation struggled.

But he wants his players to bottle their improvements and throw away the rest. He also wants them to keep gripping their championship.

“I really feel horrible for the guys,” Martinez said of the Nationals having to receive their rings and raise a banner in an empty stadium. “They earned every bit of that. And I always tell them: ‘Look, 2021 is coming. There will be baseball. Hopefully there will be fans. And these fans won’t forget. We’re world champs, and nobody’s ever going to take that away from us.’ ”

Each positive can be placed aside a shortcoming. Juan Soto won the National League batting title with a .351 average and led the majors in on-base-plus-slugging percentage. Victor Robles, on the other hand, reached base in less than 30 percent of his plate appearances and never quite adjusted to adding 15 pounds of muscle. Trea Turner led the majors with 78 hits and became a premier shortstop. But his defense sagged. Rookie Carter Kieboom went the opposite way, with his glove and arm reliable at third but his bat producing just one extra-base hit in 122 plate appearances.

The list goes on. The bullpen found bright spots in Tanner Rainey and Kyle Finnegan, then reasons to wonder how consistent Hudson and Will Harris can be in 2021. The rotation hopes to welcome back a healthy Strasburg but needs Patrick Corbin to sharpen his sinker and go back to limiting contact. The team, as a whole, has a lot of room to grow after slogging through a summer that, in reality, was more about keeping everyone healthy and safe.

The Nationals were happy with their ability to achieve that. It was their other efforts that slipped.

“When you’re a winning organization, I feel like there’s only one good season. And that’s winning a World Series,” Turner said Sunday. “There’s only going to be one team this year that accomplishes what they wanted. And everyone else, I’m sure fans and players, are going to be frustrated with how it ends up.”

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Newsrust: Washington Nationals must figure out how to judge bleak season
Washington Nationals must figure out how to judge bleak season
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