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Are The Washington Nationals Who We Thought They Were?

After dropping five or their first six games, the Nationals found their groove at Coors Field against the Colorado Rockies.

In what was a relatively winnable series out west, the Nationals looked much more competent than they did against the Braves and Rays to start the season. 

Washington lost the series opener 1-0, but bounced back to win two of the next three games and improve their record to 3-7.

They took an awfully strange route to get where they did. The Nationals got a one-run, home run-free outing from Josiah Gray, but lost. They won a game with MacKenzie Gore (who had struggled previously in Colorado) on the mound, in which the bats erupted for 10 runs on 19 hits. They capitalized on a four-hit, 5 RBI performance from career minor leaguer Stone Garrett in game three. Then with a chance at a series win, they blew a three-run lead in the finale.

Aside from wins and losses, there were some significant takeaways from this series, considering the success from unexpected sources and a growing sample size of results.

MacKenzie Gore Is A Stud

There’s not a whole lot more to be said, since I wrote about this a week ago. Nonetheless, Gore backed up a stellar Nationals debut with a strong second outing.

Against Colorado, he lasted six innings with five hits, two walks and two runs allowed while striking out six Rockies batters.

The equally impressive part of his season thus far is his mental makeup. It’s early, but he appears to be someone who can walk the walk and talk the talk.

Gore carries himself like an ace, and with each passing start, he looks more and more likely to be one. 

Kyle Finnegan Should Be Demoted

While the vast majority of the bullpen had been firing on all cylinders, their (somewhat) veteran closer has followed up an at times shaky 2022 with a brutal start to this season.

The reality has always been that Finnegan was keeping the seat warm for a more qualified option once someone emerged. That arguably happened last year, but has become increasingly evident this year.

Up to this point, Finnegan has a 14.54 ERA with a 50 percent success rate in save opportunities.

Conversely, setup men Carl Edwards Jr and Hunter Harvey each have a 2.25 ERA - with Harvey’s advanced metrics suggesting he’s among the best relievers in the league this far in 2023 - and Mason Thompson has surrendered only one run and three base runners.

Finnegan’s case as this team’s closer has always been shaky. It’s been based mainly on his incumbency as the setup man in 2021, and eventually stepping into the closer role when the Nationals moved on from Brad Hand.

Cutting ties with Finnegan like they did Hand and Austin Voth among others might be an overreaction this early in the season. However, the Nationals need to give someone else a look in the ninth inning. Harvey gets my vote.

The Outfield Isn’t So Bad

Maybe this has more to do with a small sample size than anything else, but this group sans Corey Dickerson (who’s on the 10-day IL) is hitting beyond anyone’s expectations.

Lane Thomas’ productivity is a bit ESS shocking, but he’s batting .359 with an .829 OPS, even with Dave Martinez sprinkling him across many different spots in the lineup.

Alex Call carried his hot Spring Training into April, producing an .840 OPS and elevating himself into a middle of the order - and occasional leadoff hitter - level of contributor.

It gets wonkier, though. Victor Robles has been invaluable at the plate, batting nearly .400 with more walks than strikeouts at the bottom of the lineup.

And then there’s our leader Dave’s favorite: Stone Garrett, who’s gone 7-for-12 with two walks, five RBIs and four runs scored since replacing Dickerson on the roster a week ago.

 The wildest thing about all of this is how left for dead each of these players had recently been. Robles’ status in that regard speaks for itself, Thomas was acquired in exchange for an over-the-hill version of Jon Lester, and Call and Garrett had each been designated for assignment and claimed by Washington last year.

This may only be a short-term solution with highly-touted outfield prospects on the way. Still, this unit as currently constructed looks much more formidable than expected.

The Lineup Needs Some Changes

I’m a big fan of meritocracy, especially when it aligns with the vision of the team.

Here are the facts. Guys like Joey Meneses, Dominic Smith and Jeimer Candelario don’t really matter here. It’d be great if they could produce enough to get the Nationals a significant long-term asset via trade, but this trio on its own likely has no future in Washington.

Core guys like Keibert Ruiz, Luis Garcia and CJ Abrams do - and it’s increasingly looking like the aforementioned outfield quartet might.

There’s been a clear disparity in productivity between those two groups of players. The younger hitters have substantially outhit the veterans.

It’s not necessarily time to bench anyone, but the days of Meneses, Smith and Candelario batting in the heart of the lineup probably need to end.

With that said, sitting Meneses and Smith at times to free up more opportunities for Garrett as the designated hitter would be nice.

Will Adjustments Be Made?

The Nationals finish their road trip by playing three games against the Angels before returning to Washington for a three-game weekend series against the Cleveland Guardians.

It’s time to see what Martinez can do with a roster that might not be as bad as we all thought. Will he stick to the status quo or have the difficult conversations needed to empower some more deserving players?


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Thursday, 01 June 2023

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