Who should take the blame for the Nats' season?

USA TODAY Sports

Davey Johnson, retiree and fall guy, or general manager Mike Rizzo?

1: Crawling from the Wreckage

On Tuesday, the Nationals called up outfield prospect Eury Perez. Given that Washington is 14 games out in the National League East and seven behind Cincinnati for the second NL wild-card spot, anything they do now is purely aimed at next year and/or the entertainment of their fans, so they might as well see what Perez has to offer. Sure, the Nats still have a faint heartbeat due to a September schedule that includes 17 games against the Phillies, Marlins, and Mets, but this remains a team that has shown little inclination to get much beyond the .500 mark it has circled all season. September and the offseason will be spent remembering that beautiful, clear day a year ago, back before Mike Rizzo shot his team in the foot by keeping Stephen Strasburg out of the postseason. Anything seemed possible then, including another NL East title in 2013. It was not to be. Now all we will have is recriminations.

Since late July, when hitting coach Rick Eckstein was let go after a run of nearly five years, it has seemed clear that the front office was going to try to pin the deflation of the Nat's gonfalon bubble on the coaching staff. Reliever Tyler Clippard fired back at the front office for undermining ex-closer Drew Storen's confidence by signing free agent Rafael Soriano to a two-year deal to close. At least one pundit has suggested that this season's record will keep departing manager Davey Johnson -- whose current .560 career winning percentage ranks 10th among managers who have skippered at least a thousand games from 1900 up, fourth among those who managed purely in the postwar years -- shut out of the Hall of Fame.

Now, if said pundit meant that last in the sense that a second championship would have caused Johnson to sail in but the absence of a post-'86 title will make him a harder sell for the 16 members of the Hall of Fame's Expansion Era Committee (which last time around included Royals owner David Glass, which should tell you something), well, that's fair. Leaving aside the four managers who haven't yet had their turn at bat (Tony La Russa, Joe Torre, Cito Gaston, and the still-active Terry Francona and Bruce Bochy), 13 of the 17 managers who won two or more World Series are in the Hall (relatively recent exceptions include Ralph Houk, Danny Murtaugh, and Tom Kelly), whereas the one-championship guys (again excluding the still-active and the recently retired) have just four who were elected primarily as managers (Earl Weaver, Whitey Herzog, Leo Durocher, and Red Schoendienst, the last of whom who went in as sort of an all-you-can eat player-manager-coach general principles guy).

If the point was that this year's Nationals represent a disappointment of such epic dimensions that an otherwise-deserving Hall of Fame candidate should be denied entry, that's different. Johnson might or might not have exacerbated this year's problems, but there are issues with the roster that are far beyond the scope of a manager's brief to repair.

2: They Burned Down the Playground

Last year, the Nationals' ideal lineup (by position, not order) looked something like this:

C Wilson Ramos
1B Adam LaRoche
2B Danny Espinosa
3B Ryan Zimmerman
OF Mike Morse
OF Bryce Harper
OF Jayson Werth

They had a lot of injuries, and there was also Bryce Harper's service-time to be manipulated, so they ended up using a lot of substitutes:

Player

Pct of games played

C Wilson Ramos

15

1B Adam LaRoche

95

2B Danny Espinosa

99

3B Ryan Zimmerman

90

SS Ian Desmond

80

OF Mike Morse

63

OF Bryce Harper

86

OF Jayson Werth

50


To put it another way, last year Nationals non-pitchers took 5,887 trips to the plate. The players above had 3,960 of them, or 67 percent. That wasn't such a bad thing, though, because the replacements were so good. They hit .248/.303/.376, which is not great, but also not  terrible by the standards of replacements. When you pare things down to the guys the Nats carried over to this season -- Steve Lombardozzi, Roger Bernadina, Tyler Moore, Kurt Suzuki, and Chad Tracy -- things get even better. That little group, which had about 60 percent of the non-pitcher plate appearances given over to substitutes, hit .274/.331/.406. Again, if you had a regular doing that you'd hardly expect him to get MVP votes, but it's also a sight better than Denard Span is doing this year.

This year, they started out with roughly the same ideal lineup, but with the full-season addition of Harper and Span taking Morse's place on the roster. They've still had the injuries, though:

Player

Pct of games played

C Wilson Ramos

41

1B Adam LaRoche

95

2B Danny Espinosa

32

3B Ryan Zimmerman

90

SS Ian Desmond

98

OF Denard Span

95

OF Bryce Harper

72

OF Jayson Werth

77


So far, the above eight have had 70 percent of the team's non-pitcher plate appearances, so the Nats have done a little better, but not so much that the replacements haven't been important (we'll get to Anthony Rendon in a moment). Those carryover subs from last year? They've combined to hit .220/.260/.315. Two of them were bad enough that they're no longer in the organization -- Suzuki was traded to the A's (for Indiana Jones' pitching assistant, Dakota Bacus) while Bernadina was simply released.

As for 2011 first-round pick Anthony Rendon, who has taken over second base through some combination of Espinosa being injured and forgetting how to play baseball (after hitting .158 in the majors, Espinosa has hit a powerless .216 at Triple-A), his slump-y second half (.222/.295/.351 since the end of June, a span equal to one-third of a full season) and discomfort at the position has meant that, for all his talent, the Nationals have traded down relative to the great defense/decent offense that Espinosa gave them in 2011 and 2012.

The reserve situation became so dire that Scott Hairston had to be brought over from the Cubs in July.

3: So Who is to Blame?

The downfall of the Nationals' bench raises some difficult questions. Part-time players are highly variable because luck plays an outsized role in small samples. Would the responsible thing for Mike Rizzo to do have been to gut the back end of the roster on the theory that it probably wasn't as good as it looked? Would such a thing have even been realistic? The answer is probably not -- there isn't enough cheaply available talent in baseball right now for a general manager to overthrow his bench on an instinct, a whim.

That's the kind of thing Branch Rickey used to do, but you have to remember that he had something like a monopoly on player-development at the time. In 1935, the defending world-champion Cardinals won 98 games. After, Rickey just let go of his starting right fielder, sold him to the Reds, and just outright released his fourth outfielder. There were always more players coming. And right there we have identified the problem with the Nationals: There are no more players coming.

It's tough to fault the Nationals for failing in the player-development realm. After all, they've drafted and promoted Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper as well as Rendon and Drew Storen. Beyond those first-round picks, all of whom were highly touted and therefore should not necessarily be read as evidence of great insight on the part of the Nationals (then again, the Yankees left the highly-touted Nick Castellanos on the board so they could draft Cito Culver, so maybe it should) there have been more misses than hits among the position players. Consider the 2006-2011 drafts, the classes which might have brought the players who should be helping the Nationals now. On the following list of position-player draftees, an asterisk indicates the player has yet to reach the majors.

2006

2007

2008

Chris Marrero

Derek Norris

Danny Espinosa

Steven Souza*

Tyler Moore

Steve Lombardozzi

Destin Hood*

2009

2010

2011

Jeff Kobernus

Bryce Harper

Anthony Rendon

Michael Taylor*

Zach Walters

Brian Goodwin*

Jason Martinson*

Matthew Skole*

Billy Burns*


Obviously someone unanticipated might rise up out of the last few drafts, but as of this moment, that's it, that's the list. We can add in a few international signings such as the aforementioned Eury the Fury, catchers Sandy Leon (hitting .173 on the season) and Jhonathan Solano, and the 27-year-old outfielder Corey Brown, who came over from the A's in the Josh Willingham deal. With all of the players not named Harper and Rendon, it's hard to spot the guys who might post a consistent league-average on-base percentage in the majors -- Burns, perhaps, or Souza, but they're far enough away that it's hard to know for sure.

Davey Johnson says "We don't feel like we're out of this thing" atFederal Baseball.

Let's get back to Eury Perez. Perez, 23, has been up twice before. He's a career .305 hitter in the minor leagues, where he's played over 600 games since making his pro debut as a 17-year-old back in 2007. He is extremely fast, extremely impatient, and extremely powerless. He is, in short, the kind of hitter who has to hit .310, field like Tris Speaker, and steal bases like Vince Coleman to be valuable. Perez is unlikely to roll up this combination of accomplishments -- few players do, after all -- he's almost certainly going to spend the major-league phase of his career as a fourth or fifth outfielder.

A manager is only as good as the tools given him by his general manager. He can push buttons, but if the buttons aren't connected to anything, nothing is going to happen.

4: The Rizzo Factor

The Nationals have hardly had a disastrous season, but to the extent that the club has disappointed, the responsibility would seem to fall on the front office. Even if Rizzo can be forgiven for taking his bench at  face value, he also guessed wrong on the back end of the rotation, taking a gamble on Dan Haren that, until recently, was almost all downside. Left-handed relief has been a weakness all season. Beyond the no-brainer first-round picks, the drafting operation has been disappointing. There are no ready starters. There are no reserves.

Rizzo is a capable general manager, that much is obvious, but having taken his team to the goal line, he has now demonstrated in consecutive seasons that he doesn't know how to take it over the line. Last year he sacrificed his team's chances in order to protect Strasburg from a fate that was purely hypothetical. This year he failed to make certain the team had sufficient depth to survive the inevitable injuries. Of course, the time to do that was three, four, and five years ago.

Maybe that reflects poorly on Davey Johnson, but I'm not sure how.

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