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Schwarber, Starting Staff, And The Status Of The System

Not long ago, the Nationals’ offense was starving for production from anyone other than Trea Turner and Juan Soto. The pro-Max Scherzer trade crowd was also gaining some legitimacy, and even the minor league system was barely treading water – providing no contingency plans for big league ballplayers that seemed to keep getting injured.

The season was slowly slipping away from them.

But all of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, Washington starting winning games left and right – 12 of their last 15, to be precise. In a lot of ways, it makes no sense, but in others, it’s exactly like it always goes: predictably unpredictable.

Clearly, the Nationals have transformed themselves into a different team recently. Is it sustainable, though?

Kyle Schwarber Clobbering Baseballs

This whole winning streak of sorts started with Schwarber being named the leadoff hitter. He’s been on a hot streak of all hot streaks ever since. He hit two more home runs on Monday night, and in doing so, set numerous all-time records (please excuse me if I left anything out):

  • Most home runs (11) while hitting leadoff over a span of 13 games
  • Tied Barry Bonds (2001) and Sammy Sosa (1998) for the most home runs in a 17-game stretch (15)
  • Also tied for the second-most in the month of June in MLB history, and the most in any month in franchise history
  • Tied Frank Howard (1968) with 11 home runs in his last nine games, the most since at least 1901
  • Fourth player to have five multi-home run games in a calendar month

Schwarber is also tied with Jose Altuve for the most home runs to lead off a game (six) this season, and Schwarber has done so in 49 fewer games at the top of the lineup.

We get it; he’s on fire – and I’m not surprised that it’s happening. We all knew he had something like that in him, but he’s always struggled to sustain anything close to it over an entire season. He’s often had torrential stretches, but he’s never hit 40 home runs in a season. He’s on pace for 51 this year, and that’s with a dry stretch early in the season.

Schwarber won’t maintain the historic pace he’s on right now, and we don’t yet know what this offense looks like when he’s a good, but not great hitter. Particularly amidst a power outage from Soto (Josh Bell has a higher season-long slugging percentage than him), can the Nationals afford to not have Schwarber hit at an elite rate? Might they even need to add another bat?

At some point down the road, it’ll also be worth considering whether the team can afford to keep him, as he approaches free agency this offseason. My guess is he’d command somewhere in the neighborhood of $60 million over three years – pending the outcome of the rest of this season, of course.

What’s Up With Starting Pitching?

Breaking news: Max Scherzer has been great. As long as he’s healthy, that’s probably something Washington can essentially bank on for the rest of the year. What’s funky, however, is the rest of the rotation.

Patrick Corbin is trending in the right direction, but he still holds an ERA of 5.33 this year. That’s not what the Nationals paid for, and it won’t work if he has to be the No. 2 starter with Stephen Strasburg sidelined for an indefinite period going forward.

Jon Lester has been similarly shaky, and he’s also averaging fewer than five innings per start. Like Corbin, although for a much shorter duration, he’s not living up to the contract Washington signed him to.

Joe Ross has also admittedly been a bit unreliable, but in totality, he’s still been what the Nationals wanted him to be. His ERA is slightly above 4.00 and he’s going relatively deep into games most of the time. They want him to be a fourth or fifth starter, and he’s delivered on that request. And arguably best of all, he’s stayed healthy.

Then there’s Erick Fedde, the confounding variable. He hasn’t always been available, but he’s often been the team’s second-best starter when he’s been on the mound this year. That raises numerous questions. Is this type of performance sustainable for him? Has he finally reached his potential as a former highly-rated prospect? Does this mean he should stick in the rotation, even with a healthy Strasburg and a group of six starters for five spots? If it does, who gets demoted: Ross, who’s been fairly dependable, or Lester, who has a wealth of experience and is making twice as much money as Ross this season?

Don’t forget about Paolo Espino in this discussion, either. Inevitably, he’ll end up on the losing end relative to the other six starters, but he’s here for now and performing admirably. After Monday’s spot start in place of Fedde, Espino’s ERA dropped to 2.02 in more than 35 innings. At a minimum, he seems to have solidified himself above prospects like Cade Cavalli, Tim Cate and Sterling Sharp. We’ll see if Dave Martinez shifts course on Saturday (the next time his spot in the rotation comes up), but it’s hard to imagine he will.

The Farm Is Fine, But Not Fantastic

Baseball America recently updated their league-wide prospect rankings, moving Washington’s system further up from the basement – which is where they resided previously.

I’ve discussed Cavalli and Matt Cronin already, but the list of young players performing in the minor leagues doesn’t stop there. In fact, two familiar faces to Nats fans – who perhaps have caused them some agony in the past – have turned things around.

Third baseman Carter Kieboom has boosted his on-base percentage (OBP) in Triple-A Rochester to .391 and his OPS to .816. He’s on a six-game hitting streak, during which he’s batting .370 with three doubles and a pair of home runs, and his defense has also been steady. Of course, that’s not against major league pitching, but seeing success again is always good for morale.

Shortstop Luis Garcia has been playing even better. Through 32 games in Rochester, Garcia has posted a batting average of .305 with an OBP of .371. He has 23 hits in 17 games this month (including two games in the big leagues), with at least one knock in 16 of them. He’s been their leadoff hitter, and he’s suddenly a slugger, too. He’s hit 11 home runs in 128 at bats in Rochester this year, and his slugging percentage in Triple-A this month is a sweltering .815 – that’s not as high as Schwarber lately, but it’s mighty good.

To that end, Garcia – who just turned 21 years old last month – has filled into his frame, which was always projected to happen by scouting experts. Once a somewhat wiry teenager, Garcia is now listed at 6-foot-2 and 224 pounds. Therefore, the extra power he’s developed at the plate shouldn’t be shocking, even though it’s something we’d seen very little of from him previously. The only concern should be whether he’s outgrowing the shortstop position.

At some point, and considering how well they’ve been hitting, the Nationals will have to make a tough call and decide whether to promote Kieboom and/or Garcia – particularly if Josh Harrison and Starlin Castro’s struggles continue. There’s quite a bit of discussion regarding trading for a second or third baseman, but I wouldn’t even consider doing so until testing out the youngsters one more time.

The talent within the organization is otherwise thin, particularly with pitchers Jackson Rutledge and Cole Henry both injured. However, there at least appear to be more players who are capable of contributing at the big league level this season than there were entering this season.

The Race to the Break

None of these questions have obvious answers right now, nor should they be at the center of anyone’s mind – aside from my own. However, the Nationals have a tough slate of games prior to the All-Star break. We’ll learn a lot about the state of the team over the next couple weeks, as well as during their return after the break.

Currently, they’re a .500 team that’s trending towards playoff position. Whether they continue in that direction will dictate the direction they take ahead of the Trade Deadline, which is just over a month away.

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