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At 42-47, you probably wouldn’t think we’d be having a conversation about the Nationals being in the playoff hunt, since for much of this season, they haven’t looked like a particularly good team.
Yet Washington is only six games behind the Mets for the NL East lead, and Ronald Jr.’s ACL injury effectively removes the Braves from the discussion – Thursday night's acquisition of Joc Pederson notwithstanding.
The margin for error is still relatively thin, especially considering that a Wild Card bid seems almost completely out of reach – the Nats are nine games behind the Padres for the No. 5 seed.
Still, this team won the World Series two short years ago, their upside increases tremendously with Stephen Strasburg and Kyle Schwarber, plus Mike Rizzo rarely sells and almost always buys at the Trade Deadline.
Suffice it to say, the Nationals will return from the All-Star break with their eyes on a playoff chase. So, what does that mean for them in the near future?
Short Leash For Struggling Starters
This may hold true for guys like Victor Robles, Starlin Castro and Josh Harrison, but it’s much more about the pitchers. Let’s face facts; Washington has only had one consistently good starting pitcher this season. Erick Fedde and Joe Ross have had sporadic success, Paolo Espino was a nice Cinderella story for a while, and Patrick Corbin and Jon Lester have been major disappointments.
Jon Lester, in particular, is skating on extremely thin ice. His ERA sits at 5.54 through 14 starts, his strikeout rate is slightly below six per nine innings (which is ugly), and he’s averaging 4 ½ innings per start. He’s trending in the wrong direction, too.
Lester is on a one-year, $10 million contract. That’s more money than Rizzo and the Nationals would prefer to flush down the toilet, but it's not Corbin’s colossal contract. One more bad outing plus the return of Strasburg and/or Ross would likely spell the end for him in Washington – although there’s a distinct possibility that he could be stashed as a left-handed specialist out of the bullpen.
For the time being, Strasburg and Ross are on the Injured List. To start the second half, the Nationals will be trotting out Fedde, Corbin and Scherzer consecutively against the Padres in Washington, beginning on Friday. Theoretically, that would mean Lester, Espino and Fedde thereafter ahead of an off day, but it’s tough to know for sure.
Things will look better once Strasburg returns, but that won’t eliminate the overall volatility of the rotation. Someone – possibly multiple people – needs to rebound. From a financial perspective, it probably needs to be Corbin, but production is ultimately production, regardless of where it comes from.
The Pen is Out of Hand
It’s not necessarily their fault. The bullpen has struggled to stay healthy at times, too, leading to a lot of inexperienced and marginally qualified relievers trotting onto the mound. It began to improve shortly before the break, but the win/loss record didn’t reflect that.
The bottom line is that the Nationals need to get the ball to Brad Hand. He’s had a very successful season thus far, as has setup man Daniel Hudson – when healthy. Beyond that, however, it’s been difficult to identify any sort of pecking order of relievers worth trusting.
Never was this more apparent than when Hudson, Tanner Rainey, Will Harris and Kyle Finnegan were all on the IL. Finnegan himself has seen mixed results this season, and Rainey and Harris have been disappointments overall in 2021. Nonetheless, games during June and July in which Wander Suero, Austin Voth or Kyle McGowin were given the reins in the eighth inning of close games tended to not go favorably for the Nationals. While that’s not entirely unexpected, these situations often became unavoidable, and they resulted in strings of heartbreaking losses.
More games with the “A bullpen” intact will compensate for the previous shortcomings while the core was sidelined, but when push comes to shove, depth still matters.
The Impact of “The Injury Rat”
Strasburg’s absence has loomed large for the Nats recently, but he’s not alone on the shelf. Yan Gomes and Alex Avila are both on the IL (and so is Raudy Reed in Triple-A), forcing Dave Martinez to turn to minor leaguers Tres Barrera and Jakson Reetz. That won’t cut it.
Schwarber was scorching hot at the plate before he got shipped to the IL. It’s tough to say how much longer he’ll be sidelined, but it’s fairly obvious that Josh Harrison isn’t an ideal left fielder – although his feistiness towards nearby fans has certainly been entertaining. Andrew Stevenson was recently activated from the IL, but the team opted to keep him in Triple-A, and Gerardo Parra and Yadiel Hernandez have largely struggled at the plate, too.
Jordy Mercer is out for now. Although that isn’t crippling, Luis Garcia and Carter Kieboom (among other minor leaguers) have also spent time on the IL, which led to the brief promotion of Humberto Arteaga and acquisition of Alcides Escobar. Garcia is back now, but until he gets back to where he was offensively prior to the injury, he’s not in the Nationals’ immediate plans.
It’s completely fair to question whether the existing cast of characters can keep the Nationals afloat. It’s also reasonable to consider what the team did in 2019, though. How quickly these injured players return – and how well they perform once they’re back – will go a long way towards determining Washington’s fate this year.
That’s also the catch. The injured stars need to return soon, and their replacements need to produce at a respectable level until they’re back.
Regardless of who’s in each position, the starters need to pitch better, low-leverage relievers need to keep the team in games, and the offense needs to consistently have sustained success for nine innings. Nothing comes easy in Major League Baseball, but the formula isn’t complex, and it’s one that this team is capable of executing.
The Chase Is On
Martinez often talks about taking the season one game at a time (AKA going “1-0 today”), but it’s also currently a race to July 30. Although buying has historically been Rizzo’s preference, there’s a somewhat fixed margin that the Nationals have to maintain in order for him and the organization to feel comfortable with staying in the fight this year. Only they know it, but it absolutely exists.
We can talk about the trade deadline in a week or so. I have my thoughts on what I think the Nationals should do, what I think they will do, and how these plans could be derailed. Names like Adam Frazier, Bryan Reynolds and Eduardo Escobar are intriguing and affordable, but stars like Hand, Schwarber or even Scherzer could fetch Washington a young asset or two that would solidify their farm system.
The reality, however, is that those ideas are likely irrelevant until the pendulum swings one way or another during the team’s first handful of games after the All-Star break. Success during a three-game set against the Padres to open the second half would create some enthusiasm and optimism, whereas dropping the following series against the Marlins may sink the Nationals into a deeper hole that pushes them towards selling at the end of the month.
Stephen, I really like your writing style and wordsmithing abilities. The email for this article reached out and grabbed me and kept me engaged. And you always find an entertaining way to work in a lot of data without it feeling like a data dump. Excellent job. Look forward to following your next assessment of our Nats.
I text Stephen. He's got a stat to back up every one of his opinions too....
Thanks so much, Doug! It's always great to hear that people enjoy my writing, especially since I'm a young writer. I hope to keep you coming back for more of my content!
Dave, maybe we should create one of those automated text systems for pregame/in-game updates.