Werth, Zimm, Span were highlights of 2013 season
Despite standout performances, Nationals fell short of postseason goal
WASHINGTON -- During the Winter Meetings of 2012, then-Nationals manager Davey Johnson made a bold prediction: "World Series or bust."
It turned out to be a bust, as the Nationals were eliminated from 2013's National League Wild Card race on Sept 23, losing to the Cardinals, 4-3, at Busch Stadium. The Nationals found out that they were out of the playoff picture about 10 minutes after the game; the Pirates and Reds both won to clinch playoff spots.
But most of the damage was done during the first half of the season. The Nationals got minimal production from their bench, while the bullpen was average at best. They didn't have a quality southpaw reliever until late in the second half, when Xavier Cedeno began retiring lefties on a consistent basis.
The offense struggled so badly during the first half that the organization dismissed Rick Eckstein as the hitting coach.
Then there were the injuries. The biggest blow came when outfielder Bryce Harper missed more than a month after banging into the right-field wall at Dodger Stadium during the middle of May.
But it wasn't all bad; the Nationals had their share of good moments, too. Here is one final look back at the top five storylines of 2013.
1. Werth the wait
Despite playing in only 129 games, Jayson Werth had his best season as a member of the Nationals. Werth ranked in the top five in the NL in on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.931), slugging percentage (.532) and on-base percentage (.398).
Werth's bat wasn't the only reason he had a strong season. He was solid in right field and is one of the best baserunners in the league.
Werth is especially helpful to young players such as Harper, who calls Werth his "older brother."
"That's how it is. He is an unbelievable teammate. He does things the right way every day," Harper said. "You can learn a lot from him every single day. I try to do that from the outfield to baserunning to facing pitchers. I take something from him every day, even if it's good or bad. He would tell me I look [bad] today. The next day I look fine. That's how he is."
2. Streak helps Span's season
After a slow start, center fielder Denard Span hit .302 after the All-Star break and had a Major League-leading 29-game hitting streak. Span hit .371 (46-for-124) with two homers and nine RBIs in that span. In those games, the Nationals went 22-7, and Span raised his batting average from .258 to .282. Span's streak is a game short of the Nats' record set by Ryan Zimmerman in 2009.
Who can forget Span's defensive prowess in center field? Span didn't commit an error in 384 total chances. He made a lot of great plays for Washington, but his best defensive game came on Aug. 14, when he made a game-ending catch in a 6-5 victory over the Giants. On an 0-1 pitch with two outs in the ninth inning, outfielder Hunter Pence surprised the Nats by pulling the ball to left-center field. Span, who was playing in right-center, had to go a long way, and he made a diving catch to end the game.
Span didn't know he had a chance to catch the ball until he was set to make the dive for it. Pence didn't know the catch was made until he heard the crowd's thunderous applause.
Asked if 2013 was his best season defensively, Span said, "As far as taking care of the baseball, throwing the ball to the right base all the time, keeping the ball down -- all that plays into not having any errors. It's not just catching the ball; it's the throws as well. I felt like this is definitely my best year."
3. An ace not named Strasburg
Right-hander Jordan Zimmermann was clearly the best pitcher in Washington's rotation in 2013. Zimmermann won a team-leading 19 games, reached 200 innings and was invited to his first All-Star Game.
When the season started, Stephen Strasburg was considered the ace of the Nationals' staff, but that title belonged to Zimmermann this year.
Zimmermann's best game came on April 26, when he pitched a one-hit shutout against the Reds. Zimmermann needed just 91 pitches to complete the game. He struck out four batters, walked just one and induced 12 ground-ball outs. He started the game by retiring 12 of the first 13 hitters he faced. No Reds runner reached scoring position throughout the contest.
"When the season started, everybody was talking about Strasburg and all the other guys, and I think Zimmermann has been our best pitcher all year," Span said. "Not to take anything away from Strasburg, but Zimmermann has been consistent all season long for us. When he gets the ball, we have a good chance of winning."
4. Johnson retires, Williams takes over
In Johnson's last game as a Major League manager, the Nationals lost to the D-Backs, 3-2, on Sept 29. Johnson had a distinguished career. He finished with a 1,372-1,071 record. Washington went 224-183 under Johnson.
A little over a month later, the Nationals introduced Matt Williams. Williams will wear uniform No. 9, the same number he sported as a player with the Giants, Indians and D-backs.
General manager Mike Rizzo was impressed by the way Williams managed the Salt River Rafters to the finals of the Arizona Fall League last year. Williams and Rizzo also worked together when the D-backs won the World Series in 2001. Williams was the everyday third baseman, while Rizzo was the scouting director.
Williams says he will encourage an aggressive style of play as manager. For example, if the opposing catcher is slow at the plate, the Nationals will be expected to run. Williams also plans to put players in motion in hit-and-run situations.
5. Rotation gets stronger
The Nationals made their rotation even better on Dec. 2, when they acquired right-hander Doug Fister from the Tigers for left-handers Ian Krol and Robbie Ray and infielder Steve Lombardozzi.
Fister joins a rotation that includes Strasburg, Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez. The Nationals had been seeking a starter ever since they decided to part ways with free-agent right-hander Dan Haren, who is coming off his worst season in the big leagues.
Fister, 29, went 14-9 with a 3.67 ERA last season, striking out 159 and walking 44 in 208 2/3 innings. With addition of Fister, the Nationals have arguably the best rotation in the NL East.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the Time. He can be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.