Harper slides safely at the plate (USA TODAY SPORTS IMAGES)
WASHINGTON (WUSA) -- Regression. It might be the ugliest word in sports.
2012 was sublime for the Nationals. It's positive energy transcended to non sports fans. It refashioned the way baseball was viewed in Washington D.C. It made everyone a believer.
A dark cloud hovered over the 2013 season and was only recently submerged with sunshine, likely too late. Answers from the team about the struggles were murky. The inability to score runs was an eye sore. Frustration oozed out of the clubhouse and onto the field.
And here within was the problem. Washington thought they could replicate 2012 with many new parts and with the MLB's best teams now zeroing in on the Nats. You can't recreate old success. Each season is a new chapter in history. Looking backwards to try and indentify Washington's problems arguably caused more.
No sweeping changes are necessary for the Nationals as winter approaches. The starting rotation was never a problem this season -- and the newfound depth of the rotation is something to be proud of. Although the bullpen had lapses, they've been above average. There's only one arguable weak link in the lineup. This ship can be righted.
1) Hire a manager with more of an iron fist
God bless Davey Johnson. His two and a half year tenure at the helm of the Nationals bench was full of memories -- mostly full of good times, although some contain heart break and bewilderment. In their search for Johnson's replacement, the Nationals shouldn't recreate the wheel but someone with less of laissez-faire approach could pay dividends. Some possible candidates:
Randy Knorr - The Nationals current bench coach is fiery and he's not scared to deflect some of the pressure on his players -- something Johnson has trouble juggling. Knorr has called out Bryce Harper for hustling and he's been ejected a few times. He's not a sexy pick though, something the Nationals have built a reputation for choosing.
Mark McGwire - He's been a hitting coach for two of baseball's most prominent teams; the St. Louis Cardinals and currently the Los Angeles Dodgers. McGwire has done well at not tying each batter "need to be more aggressive," like Johnson repeatedly told reporters. Instead McGwire takes a more individual approach based on what hitter he is coaching. His expertise would help this Nationals lineup and it would be a bold move in the baseball world.
It's worth noting there could be some reputable managers fired who could use some fresh scenery on a talented ball club -- in a relatively painless division like the NL East. Current Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington, though not stern, could handle the Nationals well. Mike Scioscia has run out of answers with the Angels, and is highly regarded in baseball circles. And am I crazy to argue MASN analyst Ray Knight deserves some consideration -- at the very least. He's a Davey Johnson disicple, and a more passionate and intense one at that. He knows the ballclub inside and out. He managed the Reds in the mid 90's, although not so graciously. If he wants the job, Knight should get an interview. Or maybe he comes on as a new bench coach.
2) Package some young pitching in a trade for another big bat
As the season finally winds down and we take a look at the numbers, it's clear Adam LaRoche (.239/.331/.410, 20 HR's, 62 RBI's) was the weakest link in the Nationals lineup. There was a reason the organization waited months last offseason before caving in to LaRoche's salary demands. It's time to make an upgrade, and the easiest way will probably be via a trade. Some sort of package deal with Ross Detwiler/Tanner Roark/Ross Ohlendorf/Nathan Karns/Taylor Jordan with LaRoche and maybe another prospect, would get the trick done. You might think it's not reasonable to trade such young arms. And then you have flashbacks of all the runs the Nationals stranded in 2013, and the pill becomes easier to swallow.
Some tweeters have pined for Giancarlo Stanton. You'd think the Marlins wouldn't be foolish enough to trade Stanton in division...and then you remember they are the Marlins. Stanton could bulk up even more in a move to first base, or Jayson Werth could make the move to prolong his career.
Other candidates to consider are:
Kendrys Morales - Morales, 30, strikes out less than LaRoche and doubles more often. He's hitting .280 in a Seattle lineup where he's one of the best players. The Mariners would want to keep Morales, but they know pitching is the key to building from the bottom up.
Nick Markakis - The Orioles would commit ungodly sins to get their hands on the kind of arms Washington has assembled. Alhough Markakis is having a down year, he's a much more reliable left handed bat. Plus they may not even want LaRoche, so you could relegate him to ... my next point.
3) Reestablish depth on the bench
The Nationals sort of panicked when they plucked Denard Span from the Twins and traded Michael Morse. Big ol' number 38 would've actually been perfect as pinch hitter, backup corner outfielder and maybe even a starting first baseman against left handed pitching. Early season injuries to Harper, Zimmerman and Werth disjointed the Nationals to the core, and a remedy for recovery appeared way too late in September.
The Nats' starting lineup really doesn't contain a weakness. But adding starting quality depth to the bench, probably ridding themselves of Chad Tracy, Scott Hairston and Jhonatan Solano would be a serious start to an overhaul.
Here's to hoping 2014 is less bumpier and more memorable for the right reasons.