Is there any hope for the floundering Washington Nationals to right the ship and get back to the top of the NL East?
If the 2019 MLB regular season were a game of Ken Griffey Jr. Baseball on the Nintendo 64, the Washington Nationals would be just about ready to yank the cartridge out of the system and blow on it with all their might. It’s been that type of start for the Nats in their first year without superstar Bryce Harper. Washington is 14-22 and has won more games than only the Kansas City Royals, Baltimore Orioles and Miami Marlins, three teams who are decidedly anti-winning in 2019 as they look to the future.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way for the Nationals. Too much talent remained on the roster, even without Harper, and the addition of starter Patrick Corbin gave their rotation another legitimate ace next to Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Even with the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves loading up, the Nats were still a common pick to win the division. In fact, the math geniuses at FiveThirtyEight tabbed them to win 89 games and have the second-best record in the National League.
So, can these Nationals, losers of 17 of their last 25 games dating back to April 10, figure things out and get back in the race?
The biggest culprit in the Nationals collapse remains the same as it has every year they have entered the upper echelon of MLB teams. Yet again, general manager Mike Rizzo has failed to put together a competent bullpen. Nationals relievers have already taken nine losses this year and have a combined 6.41 ERA in 105.1 innings. The bullpen has also allowed 119 hits, walked 56 and yielded 14 home runs. The numbers could be much uglier without the sterling performances so far from closer Sean Doolittle and setup man Kyle Barraclough, who have combined for a 1.22 ERA in 33 appearances and 29.1 innings.
There is absolutely nothing the Nationals can do to fix their bullpen, and the mess falls on Rizzo yet again. For all the millions the team has spent on starting pitching, they have continuously failed to take care of the middle-relief innings necessary to hold leads and win games. A constant stream of retreads has been brought in to try and support solid closers and eighth-inning guys. To wit, former All-Star Trevor Rosenthal, recovering from Tommy John, endured one of the worst starts in MLB history, allowing seven runs in four appearances before getting his first out of the season. Rosenthal landed on the injured list after allowing three runs on April 24 to bring his season ERA to 36.00.
Outside of the bullpen issues, the Nationals have been better than a 14-22 club. The offense is toward the bottom of the National League, but the lineup has been without Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner and Juan Soto for extended stretches. Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin have all been dominant, each striking out over 10 per-nine with excellent peripherals. Anibal Sanchez and Jeremy Hellickson have been disastrous in the fourth and fifth slots, but the Nationals only need to win half of their starts to have a chance. Tanner Roark has looked good for the Cincinnati Reds, and Rizzo likely regrets trading him for fringe prospect Tanner Rainey, who allowed 19 runs in seven innings last year for the Reds.
As bad as the Nationals have looked over the last month, they are far from dead. There is too much talent left on this team for it to implode without Harper. The return of Turner in a few weeks and Soto this weekend will provide a shot in the arm for the offense. Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin will continue doing more than enough to win three times a week.
Whether or not the Nationals will turn it around and live up to expectations depends entirely on the bullpen’s ability to not melt down several times a week — which also serves as a perfect reminder that seven-time All-Star and noted good reliever Craig Kimbrel remains unsigned. Owner Ted Lerner has never been shy about spending money. If they’re serious about fixing this season and not wasting another year of Scherzer and Strasburg’s prime, Lerner and Rizzo will find a way to reel in Kimbrel, even if he isn’t a Scott Boras client.