Last year, the Washington Nationals won 98 games, and came within an eyelash of reaching the NLCS. They had three silver sluggers, a Cy Young candidate in Gio Gonzalez, the Rookie and Manager of the year, and an MVP candidate in Adam LaRoche (he finished 6th).

This year, they struggled to get over .500 until a late streak of success led to a total of 86 wins. Their fine starting pitching suffered for much of the season with low run support, and in several cases, failed to close ou

Let’s take a look at what really happened.

Going Down

Adam LaRoche. 2013 was a measurable dropoff from his last two full seasons, which averaged 28/100/.266. LaRoche dropped off by 13 HR, 38 RBI (this is a team stat, remember, so this reflects in part on his opportunities/men on base), and .034 of batting average. He did increase his walks and steals, but that’s not what first baseman are for. At 33, this kind of decline is not out of whack…his fielding declined a bit as well. Top tier 1B are hard to find, even on the free agent market. Hey, Mike Morse is available! [Consider, though, that LaRoche has a second year on his current deal, worth about $14 million! That means that Adam LaRoche will have been paid $60 million to play baseball over the last 11 years.]

Anthony Rendon. Replacing Danny Espinosa, the rookie contributed 7/35/.265 while learning 2B on the job. In 2012, Espinosa hit .247 with 17 HR and 20 SB and 239 total bases. No idea what happened to him…after a short revival, his AAA performance sank to a remarkable level — .158/3/12 in th bigs this year, .216/2/22 in AAA. Given his defensive ability, potential (he’s 26), and established ceiling, I would not be surprised to see him starting at SS in Pittsburgh next season! Rendon looks to have loads of potential, so his sophomore year will be defined when he shows if he can adjust to the adjustments that pitchers are making to him.

Steady On
Ryan Zimmerman. The Franchise in DC had a strong second half to come close to equalling his contribution in 2012. His slight drop in RBI is at least partially attributed to being moved to the 2nd slot in the lineup, but he actually hit one more HR, and his OPS+ was the same for the two seasons. His fielding graded out as slightly worse in 2013, but this continues a gradual trend. He presently ranks as a league-average 3B, and I still particularly enjoy watching him charging bouncers and flicking them over to 1B.

Ian Desmond. Playing in his fourth full season, Desi was healthy again and continued to produce, increasing his totals in runs, hits, doubles, triples, RBI, walks, and total bases. His defense showed some improvement, despite a few more errors: his range factor improved to league average (in 2012, he got to far fewer balls than the average SS). Coming off a solid, All-Star caliber season, this was an excellent follow-up.

Denard Span. Span got off to a slow start, and until his monthlong hitting streak in the last quarter of the season, Span’s numbers were markedly reduced from his 2012 season in Minnesota. Defensively, Span took the slot of Michael Morse (and some combination of Bernadina, Ankiel, Tyler Moore, Xavier Nady, et al). Hitting leadoff, Span’s on-base of .327 still leaves a lot to be desired, but his defense was generally excellent: in 153 games, he made zero errors, and fielded significantly more balls than the average CF. Some fans expressed remorse (reMorse, get it?) as the offense struggled, especially in July. Span was only a slight improvement over Morse in on-base, and clearly Morse is the better hitter for power (.791 vs .707 OPS). However, Morse managed only .651 this year, in 88 games, hitting .215 with 13 HR. Mike Rizzo may not have gotten what he wanted from Span (except down the stretch), but he was wise not to bank on performance from Morse.

Upside Revealed
Wilson Ramos. Oh my, here’s where it gets good. Ramos, despite missing half the season, set career highs in HR, RBI, average, slugging, and played an essential role in the late season offensive rebirth. Compared to Kurt Suzuki, he was a massive upgrade mid-season. Suzuki is good defensively, but his bat just doesn’t play 130 games a year. Suzuki, in almost the same exact playing time, had 14 fewer HR, hit 50 points lower, and contributed a miserable 593 OPS. A full year of Ramos (135-140 starts) will change the look of the offense entirely.

Jayson Werth. Oh, this is why they agreed to pay him all that money! I get it now. In only 129 games, he had a full season’s worth of doubles, homers, RBI, total bases, and also the highest average of his career. And he finished tied for second in OPS. Can he repeat this? Well, at 34 probably not for a full season. But he did establish himself as a leader by example, and he’s clearly showing no signs of slowing down.

Bryce Harper. Good and getting better…more walks and fewer strikeouts…OPS improved from 817 to 854…despite the injury (boy meets fence), put together two pretty good halves of 2013. The expectations are unreachable, and if he’s constantly compared to Mike Trout, he will suffer a bit. But he turns 21 this week, and already has 42 HR, 117 RBI, 29 steals, and career OPS of 834. We’ll take that for now. He played in 21 fewer games this year than last, and that’s with missing the first four weeks of 2012 with a bad case of being in AA and too young to rent a car. A full season bodes well for young Bryce’s stats.

Part 2 will discuss the pitching, and Part 3 will discuss the future…stay tuned!