Updated: Aug 23, 2020
Julio Cortez/ AP
It is becoming very clear that the Washington Nationals do not have the spark that we did last year. The 2019 World Series Champions are off to a rough start and are currently tied for last in the NL East behind the Atlanta Braves, Miami Marlins, and New York Mets. They are tied for last with the Philadelphia Phillies who have had a losing record or been .500 for eight straight seasons. The Nationals 9-13 record is the second-worst in the National League, only above the Pittsburgh Pirates, and that is if you consider the Pirates to be a Major League ballclub. It is not a good sign that the Miami Marlins are ahead of you in the standings after the first 20 games, but in my mind letting the New York Mets be above you is inexcusable. Nothing brings me more joy than spectating the Mets fans’ excitement heading into every season before they lose all hope within the first month. What makes the Nationals struggles so interesting is that they have relatively the same squad as last season, only without the best third basemen in baseball, Anthony Rendon. Washington resigned integral members of the 2019 squad including World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg, World Series hero Howie Kendrick, Daniel Hudson who closed out Game 7 of the World Series, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Mr. National Ryan Zimmerman, who has since opted out. They bulked up their bullpen by signing Will Harris who was on the Houston Astros and gave up the game-winning home run to Howie Kendrick last year. Will Harris was one of the best relief pitchers in baseball last season, posting a 1.50 ERA in 60 innings pitched with a .196 batting average against and 62 strikeouts. They also signed Starlin Castro to a 2-year deal to play 2nd base, but Castro broke his wrist and he is likely out for the rest of the season after playing in only 16 games. With the Nationals having the best rotation in baseball, a much-improved bullpen, and a serviceable lineup, why have they struggled so much through the first 22 games of this season?
As I sat down to write this article on August 17th after a brutal loss to the Atlanta Braves, I was in too much pain to express my anger and thoughts into written words. Not only did we blow a three-run lead in the 9th inning, but my arch-nemesis Dansby Swanson (who I have repeatedly said is one of the most overrated players in all of baseball, check out what I had to say about that in this article) hit the walk-off home run. On every Episode of the MoeCast, my baseball and sports podcast with Chris Blake available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and YouTube, we always have a segment at the start of every episode called “Monday Minute”. For the “Monday Minute” segment’s, I give a three-minute rant about the Nationals previous week and Chris speaks three minutes about his miserable Red Sox. If Monday nights Nationals vs Braves game is a foreshadow for the rest of the week we are all in big trouble. After seeing Swanson’s home run sail out of Truist Park in Atlanta I knew this team was in trouble. In a 60-game season, you just cannot let those types of games slip away. They split the series with Atlanta after a resounding win on Tuesday when they smashed 17 hits. After not playing on Wednesday due to rain and Thursday being a scheduled off day the Nationals battled the Miami Marlins on Friday night. Patrick Corbin did his thing and the bullpen held firm. We gave up only three runs to Miami, so we had to win, right? Wrong. The Nationals lost 3-2 and went down 1-2-3 in the 9th inning facing the Marlins closer and former National Brandon Kintzler. Go figure. After having 17 hits against the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday night they only amassed 4 hits on Thursday. There is something that is not right with this ballclub.
Is it too early to call this a World Series hangover? Are we the 2019 Red Sox who finished in third place in the AL East and missed the playoffs after winning the 2018 World Series? It is honestly too hard to tell at this point. On any given night we can look like the defending World Champions and on the next night we can look like a team with more questions than answers. Before this season, the Nationals problems in previous years could always be blamed on one thing. The bullpen. It became a broken record in the baseball world and rightly so. Washington’s bullpen ERA for the 2019 season was 5.68 which was the second-worst in the Major Leagues only ahead of the Baltimore Orioles at 5.79. It is truly remarkable that the Nationals won the World Series with the mess of a bullpen and the 5.68 ERA bullpen ERA was the worst bullpen ERA in Major League history for a playoff team. The frustrating part of this season is that there is not one specific problem that can be pointed too. The offense is performing around league average and the pitching is league average. Juan Soto is batting nearly .400 with 7 home runs and an OPS over 1.300 in just 14 games. The problem is that on any given night the bats can go silent or the pitching cannot be up to par. The Nationals formula for success in the past has been timely hitting and great starting pitching but that has not been the case this season. Washington is in the bottom five of the National League in starting pitchers’ innings and Manager Davey Martinez has expressed his concern with the bullpen workload. With Stephen Strasburg out with carpal tunnel syndrome in his hand, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin are pushed to pitch 7 or more innings in every start even if it is clear that they are gassed. Even though the Nationals have many new names in the bullpen, and some of them are being relied on way too much, it has been one of our bright spots. The bullpen is one of the best in the National League even with Sean Doolittle struggling and being placed on the IL. Daniel Hudson has been good for the most part and free-agent acquisition Will Harris has settled in after a rough start and a groin injury.
The timely hitting has not been there and by the conclusion of every game, the Nationals usually strand five or more runners on base. The Nationals defense has also been very poor except for Carter Kieboom who leads the Nationals with 5 defensive runs saved. This pleasant surprise is pretty shocking when considering his expectations on defense entering this season. The bottom line is after a 9-13 start there are many people to blame. Anibal Sanchez has to be better and Adam Eaton needs to provide us with something at the plate. Trea Turner has finally started to hit, but he has not taken the step forward that many Nationals fans had hoped after the departure of Anthony Rendon. Eric Thames has done nothing with the bat, but he is 4 for his last 8 with a home run and is hopefully turning the corner. With all of these problems through the first 22 games, the Nationals need to find a formula for success. There are many negatives to this season and this roster, but there are also numerous positive that could lead to a successful present and future.
The Nationals were the oldest team in baseball in 2019, Anthony Rendon left for the Los Angeles Angels, and the Nationals Minor League system is one of the worst in baseball. These all sound alarm bells for the future of the organization, but I am here to tell you that the future is bright in Washington. It might not look like it now and you might call me crazy, but I am confident that we will be a contending ballclub in the near future. One player that I was a big fan of heading into 2020 was 28-year-old Austin Voth. After his first two starts being solid he has had back to back rough starts. I am still confident in the 5th starter and his slider and fastball combination can be deadly. In contrast, 27-year-old Eric Fedde was someone that I could not trust in the slightest. Before this season, in 143 2/3 innings as a big leaguer, Fedde had a 5.39 ERA with 24 home runs allowed. He worked hard this past offseason and has done everything in his power to shut me up. In 17 2/3 innings, Fedde has been outstanding with a 2.55 ERA and only 2 home runs allowed. When looking at the bullpen the Nationals have one of the best relievers in the Major Leagues that no one cared to talk about. Tanner Rainey has finally put it all together. Rainey has been spectacular pitching 11 innings with 18 strikeouts and 5 walks. He has given up 2 hits in the 11 innings and he has an ERA of 0.82. Rainey is a future closer, and he is one of the few good stories in the bullpen. Another diamond in the rough find by Mike Rizzo was Kyle Finnegan. Finnegan signed a Major League deal with Washington this past offseason and the 28-year-old made an Opening Day roster for the first time in his career after 7 Minor League seasons. The rookie has pitched 9 innings allowing 4 hits with 8 strikeouts and he will be looking for more high leverage situations soon. The Nationals have these four young pitchers that have multiple years of control left, and their offense is well set up for the future. Their starting center fielder Victor Robles is 23 years old, their starting third baseman Carter Kieboom is 22 years old; Juan Soto is 21 years old, and rookie second baseman Luis Garcia is the youngest player in the Major Leagues at 20 years and 99 days old. The future is bright in Washington and it is important to realize that it could be much worse.
If you read through this article to find a definite answer for the Nationals struggles I am sorry I could not give it to you. I am not the man that can crack the code for this last-place ballclub. It is clear that the bats need to step up and the starting pitching needs to be more reliable. We are not a good enough team anymore to make many mistakes, but I am confident in Davey Martinez to instill the tools that we need for this ballclub to succeed. With only 38 games left, the Nationals need to wake up soon before it is too late. I would not be surprised if we do or do not perform well but at the end of the day I know I can relax and think about two things. The playoffs were expanded from 10 to 16 teams for this season, and after going through the ups and downs of this organization's first 14 years as a franchise we are the 2019 World Series Champions and nothing can take that away from us.