MLB.com Columnist

Bill Ladson

Nats fall short of 1st-place expectations in '15

Despite historic seasons from Scherzer, Harper, Washington finishes 2nd

Nats fall short of 1st-place expectations in '15

WASHINGTON -- It was supposed to be the Nationals and everybody else in the National League East in 2015. It was supposed to be a runaway for Washington after it signed right-hander Max Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million contract before the season started. His presence was supposed to mean that the Nationals would have an unhittable rotation that included Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister.

By the time Spring Training started, outfielder Bryce Harper was already joking, "Where's my ring?" But as it turned out, the Nationals didn't even reach the postseason and finished in second place behind the Mets.

Washington's rotation wasn't as powerful as expected. Only Scherzer and Strasburg -- during the second half -- showed that they could be dominant. A lot of the blame for the team underachieving can be pointed toward the bullpen, which was known to blow leads in big games, especially against the Mets during the second half.

At one point during the season, Harper was a one-man wrecking crew on offense, because a lot of his teammates were injured. But the Nationals needed more than Harper to overtake the Mets. It didn't help, for example, that Ryan Zimmerman missed the final 25 games of the season because of a left oblique injury.

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When Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon returned from their injuries, they were not the dominant forces they were the previous season.

Manager Matt Williams and his staff were dismissed the day after the regular season ended. If the Nationals want to get back to the postseason in 2016, they need to make changes to their roster.

Record: 83-79, second place, NL East.

Defining moment: On July 31, the Nationals were three game games ahead of the Mets. Then the two teams met in a crucial three-game series at Citi Field with the Mets sweeping the series. All of a sudden, they found themselves in a first-place tie.

After that series, the Nationals went 17-16 and found themselves four games behind the Mets in the NL East when the two teams met again for another three-game series at Nationals Park starting Sept. 7. The Mets swept that series, too, and the Nationals fell seven games back, almost killing any chance of them playing in the postseason. It didn't help that Washington's bullpen was not productive. There was a stretch in September in which Williams couldn't rely on any reliever to get important outs.

What went right: Harper led the NL in several categories, including home runs (tied for first), runs scored, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. He also played solid defense in right field.

Scherzer showed that he was worth the big contract. He led the starting staff in every major category including wins (14), strikeouts (276) and innings pitched (228 2/3). He pitched two no-hitters along the way.

Scherzer fans 17 in no-hitter

The Nationals also had a solid bench for the first time since 2012. Clint Robinson was the MVP of the Goon Squad. He hit for power and showed that he could play first base and the outfield. Danny Espinosa made a comeback and showed that he was not an easy out like he was the previous two years.

Michael Taylor filled in nicely in center field while Denard Span was on the disabled list. While Taylor didn't hit for average, he was an above-average hitter with men on base. Taylor was also an above-average center fielder. It seemed like he made at least one great defensive play a week.

Joe Ross emerged as a starter of the future. He replaced Fister and pitched 76 2/3 innings before he was shut down for the season.

What went wrong: It starts with injuries. A total of 17 players -- including Zimmerman, Werth and Rendon -- were put on the disabled list. The biggest blow was Span, who was placed on the DL three times because of a left hip injury, back tightness and abdominal surgery. During his absence, the Nationals had to use at least four leadoff hitters -- Werth, Rendon, Taylor and Yunel Escobar -- who didn't get on base as often as Span.

The bullpen was the weakest link. The Nationals never found an effective eighth-inning setup guy after trading Tyler Clippard to the Athletics in the offseason. They thought they had one in Casey Janssen, but he was hit hard.

Drew Storen was having a great season as the closer (29 saves) until the Nationals acquired veteran Jonathan Papelbon from the Phillies before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. Storen suddenly became the setup man and didn't pitch well, while Papelbon didn't get save opportunities. Papelbon finished the season serving a suspension for his altercation with Harper in the dugout.

Rizzo on Papelbon, Harper

Biggest surprise: Robinson was a guy who was raking in the Minor Leagues for eight years before he was given a chance to show his skills in the Major Leagues. He was a longshot to make the Nationals' 25-man roster, but he made the team over Mike Carp and was their best bench player during the season.

Hitter of the Year: Who else could it be but Harper? He was "The Natural." He put up numbers that were similar to Barry Bonds. It wouldn't come as a surprise if he won the NL Most Valuable Player Award in November.

Is Harper #AwardWorthy? Vote now for Best Major Leaguer

Pitcher of the Year: Scherzer was the workhorse of the rotation. Prior to this year, he had one compete game in his career. This year alone, Scherzer had four complete games; two of them came when he pitched no-hitters.

Is Scherzer #AwardWorthy? Vote now for Best Starting Pitcher

Rookie of the Year: It has to go to Robinson because of the big hits he supplied during the year. He also played three positions -- first base and the corner-outfield spots. He never played the outfield until this year, but he felt playing the outfield gave him a better chance of making the team.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All theTime. He also can be found on Twitter @WashingNats This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.