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Nats Questions Have Been Answered, But Not Favorably

It’s time to face reality.

The season is a long way from being complete, but at this point in time, the Nationals don’t look as good this year as we hoped they would. Entering the season, their roster seemed to have an NL East championship ceiling with plenty of talent spread across the team, including players who had succeeded in high-intensity moments in the past.

But the pieces have not fit together so far this year. Sluggers have not hit well, the batting order continues to not make sense on a day-to-day basis, and the team has repeatedly struggled at the beginning of games and faltered in key situations.

One great way to assess how this year has gone thus far, relative to expectations, is by looking back at many of the questions people – myself included – had about the Nationals entering the regular season. 

Why Sign Both Bell and Schwarber?

This lineup needed to add some power. Anthony Rendon had left a glaring void that wasn’t filled following the World Series, players like Howie Kendrick and Asdrubal Cabrera were also gone, and Victor Robles regressed in 2020. None of that was arguable, but the way the team addressed it was strange.

Rather than replacing the loss of Rendon with another right-handed slugger, or even a similarly well-rounded hitter from either side, they bought low on two high upside, boom or bust, left-handed power hitters.

Thus far, Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber have been busts. Schwarber has delivered in a couple of important moments, but has had his share of struggles overall. Conversely, Bell has yet to find any kind of rhythm, and he appears to have gotten himself demoted from batting cleanup to hitting sixth.

Batting the two of them consecutively –and behind Juan Soto – was always worrisome. They were never going to consistently produce, meaning that portion of the lineup would be susceptible to cold streaks. Their lack of consistency might not provide much protection for Soto, which could lead to him getting walked frequently. And the fact that all three of them were left handed might hurt them late in games, allowing opposing teams to turn to a left-handed reliever to limit their production.

This duo has certainly been worse than expected, but it shouldn’t have been entirely unforeseen. Despite their upside, they’ve always been hit or miss and relatively duplicative.

Who Leads Off?

Losing Kendrick, Cabrera and perhaps most notably Adam Eaton freed up Dave Martinez to experiment with the top of his lineup. During Spring Training, he almost exclusively used Robles at the top, with Trea Turner generally batting third. Throughout March, that strategy was very successful, so he carried it over into the beginning of the regular season.

Once the season started, Robles’ productivity became much more mixed – with arguably more bad than good. After seven games, Martinez pulled the plug on the idea and moved Turner back to the leadoff position.

Davey has tried Josh Harrison and Andrew Stevenson up top for a game at a time, but he’s largely stuck with Turner. While Trea has hit well, it’s thinned out the rest of the lineup substantially. If teams are able to get past him, there’s essentially only been one player left to fear in the entire lineup, and teams could walk that guy if they want to and feel no ill effects.

We’re Still Waiting on Kieboom?

Previously the organization’s top-rated prospect, Carter Kieboom was always heralded as the heir to the throne at the hot corner once Rendon left. It was risky, but understandable in 2020. Then he struggled mightily, to the point of being benched and subsequently optioned to the Alternate Training Site.

Even after all of that, once the trade rumors surrounding Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant subsided, the job was once again Kieboom’s for the taking. If he could simply be more productive in Spring Training than he was the previous season, the decision would be clear.

So what did he do? He hit so poorly that the Nationals were forced to send him to the minor leagues again.

Making matters worse, Luis Garcia – who had been viewed just a notch below him as a prospect – didn’t fare much better, and he too was sent to the minors. That forced Martinez to give the second and third base jobs to Josh Harrison and Starlin Castro, respectively. Neither of them could’ve realistically been relied upon to carry the lineup much of anywhere, and although they’ve been far from the meat of this team’s problems, they’ve lived up to expectations in that respect.

What About Ryan Zimmerman?

This may have been the most befuddling aspect of trading for Josh Bell. Although Zimmerman can no longer be relied upon to play every day, he’s one of Washington’s most reliable hitters – not to mention the arguable face of the franchise since its inception. The Howie Kendrick model of playing a game or two and then sitting one out seemed reasonable, but anything beyond that felt like overkill and a disservice to the lineup.

Bell has received the lion’s share of the work at first base, and it’s been ugly. Still, it’s not as easy to bench him as his statistical production suggests; he still provides theoretical firepower.

At a minimum, Zimmerman should be Davey’s go-to pinch hitter. He could probably even justify an occasional start in left field – especially while Soto was on the IL – and that’s without even mentioning the periodic rest he could provide Bell with at first base.

Yet, since Bell’s return from the COVID-19 IL on April 12, Zimmerman has only started eight of a possible 27 games, receiving 44 plate appearances over that span  – as a starter or off the bench (compared to Bell’s 94).

Until that split decreases, the offense will have dry spells.

To Whom Shall Michael A. Give Way?

The role Michael A. Taylor played was more difficult and more important than many people realize. He was never Plan A, he didn’t often receive consistent playing time, and he was asked to wear a lot of hats – from emergency work at all three outfield spots to pinch hitting, pinch running, or a late-game defensive substitution.

Andrew Stevenson was the closest thing the Nationals had to a replacement, and many people thought he might have been a better option. Although he’s been adequate, and possibly more consistent, there isn’t much upside that he’s provided.

The larger problem, however, is that two of Washington’s starting outfielders are left-handed, and so is the man behind Stevenson (Yadiel Hernandez). That’ll help you spell Robles situationally, but what about Schwarber?

This issue overlaps with other ones, too. If Kieboom or Garcia were even semi-starters, Harrison could draw some starts in an outfield corner, and Zimmerman (or even Bell) could regardless. Still, it doesn’t negate the fact that the outfield’s construction is questionable.

Will There Be Another Rotation Dislocation?

For the most part, the answer has been no, but it came close. Patrick Corbin missed some time to start the season and was spotty when he returned, Jon Lester didn’t debut until a couple weeks ago, and Stephen Strasburg has missed an extended period.

Thankfully, Max Scherzer looks like a top-tier ace again, and Joe Ross and Erick Fedde have been steady, aside from a start or two.

The younger duo might have to be monitored long term, though. Fedde has never hit 100 major league innings, and his season-high as a pro is 121.2, dating back to 2018. Ross has narrowly eclipsed 100 once, and his professional best is 152.2, but that was nearly a lifetime ago (2015 and pre-Tommy John surgery). The most he’s thrown since is 104, and nearly half of those were in AAA.

Strasburg’s return and avoidance of additional injuries – from him or anyone else – would be immensely helpful, but that’s seemingly an impossible request .

Bullpen or Bulls***?

This area rests squarely on Dave Martinez. For the first few weeks of the season, the bullpen was very effective – nearly top to bottom. Recently, the tables have turned.

This unit has talent. Brad Hand has been an All Star recently; Daniel Hudson closed out a World Series; Will Harris has had filthy years; and Tanner Rainey, Wander Suero and Kyle Finnegan have looked like long-term solutions at times. Even Austin Voth has found his footing as a reliever.

This will always come down to usage, particularly the issue of over-usage.

According to James O’Hara (@nextyeardc on Twitter), the Nationals are tied for second in the MLB this season in relief appearances on zero days of rest (meaning back-to-back days), first in appearances of a full inning or longer after pitching the previous day, and first by that same metric since Martinez was hired in 2018.

In fact, pushing one-inning relievers beyond three outs is an issue in its own right, although it’s partially impacted by the Nationals (and Martinez, specifically) rarely carrying a prototypical multi-inning reliever.

Among the current roster, Suero has been the most negatively impacted reliever by these trends – he just returned from an IL stint that was arguably necessitated by this very issue. On Wednesday night, Finnegan surpassed him with his team-leading fifth such appearance this season, and he’s seen a dip in performance since last year.

Rainey was forced to undergo a significant operation over the offseason that was largely attributable to over-usage, and we all saw how rapidly Sean Doolittle fell apart after being relied upon unsustainably heavily.

It’s been a frequently recurring issue for Martinez. Baseball Reference indicated, entering Wednesday, that the Nationals had allowed the league’s fourth-highest OPS in high-leverage situations, much of which has been caused by bullpen misconfiguration. The hope has to be that, now that the bullpen is full strength, he’ll feel more comfortable with spreading the workload amongst a larger subset of the unit. Otherwise, they’ll be singing the same tune as every other year – which isn’t exactly a Billboard chart-topper.

When Will Things Get Better?

Washington’s minor league system has been among the worst in baseball for several years. Rather than rehashing prospect rankings or the need for the Nationals to get more from their homegrown talent, here’s a rundown of how the minor league affiliates have performed, entering Friday – keep in mind that the Nats are 14–19 so far this season.

  • AAA Rochester: 2–7
  • AA Harrisburg: 1–8
  • High-A Wilmington: 4–5
  • Low-A Fredericksburg: 0–9

Many of Washington’s top prospects have also struggled so far this year, with four exceptions.

  • RHP Cade Cavalli (No. 1, per MLB Pipeline): no runs allowed and 15 strikeouts through two starts (10 innings)
  • RHP Cole Henry (No. 3): one base runner (single) allowed and 10 strikeouts in six innings on Thursday
  • LHP Matt Cronin (No. 10): one hit, one walk, no runs allowed, and eight strikeouts in three games (4.1 innings)
  • RHP Joan Adon (No. 16): 1.74 ERA through two starts

Naturally, the only successful prospects have been the ones playing for the only affiliate with a respectable record. However, it’s unfortunate that the only success has come from players who likely won’t be able to contribute in D.C. until at least 2022.

Of note, Jackson Rutledge (also in High-A) was recently inserted into MLB Pipeline’s top 100 league-wide prospects, joining Cavalli, who is currently No. 85 and climbing. The right-handed trio at the top of Wilmington’s rotation will have a large say in how Washington’s pitching staff looks in the coming years.

What Can They Do Now?

Overall, things aren’t so great, although the middle third of the lineup looked much improved on Thursday – at least for a day. Regardless, the Nationals need to do something to flip the script. It’s why I believe adding someone who’s currently on the open market would be so valuable.

Whether that happens or not, the Nats have a three-game series on tap in Arizona. Scherzer will throw in the opener tonight at 9:40 p.m. ET, followed by Ross and Fedde. Rookie right-hander Riley Smith will start the series for the Diamondbacks, but they haven’t disclosed who will pitch this weekend. If they stay on standard rest, it’ll be Luke Weaver on Saturday and Madison Bumgarner on Sunday.

The D-backs will presumably also be without some of their better hitters. Starting outfielders Ketel Marte and Kole Calhoun and first baseman Christian Walker are currently on the IL, and Asdrubal Cabrera might be heading there as well after suffering a gruesome hamstring strain on Thursday. That would leave catcher Carson Kelly and infielder Eduardo Escobar as their most fearsome hitters, and neither of them have particularly game-changing ability.

At 17–21, Arizona’s record is nearly as bad as Washington’s. Given how shorthanded they may also be, it’s the exact type of series the Nationals need to help them right the ship. Getting back into playoff contention might be a tall task – this year’s roster doesn’t resemble 2019 – so every win they can get will be extremely important.

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