Do The Nationals Have Enough To Finally Make A Postseason Push?
On the surface, the Washington Nationals looked poised to finally break through and make a deep run into the playoffs, however, if we take a closer look, there are many obstacles that still lay in front of this club.
Sitting at 20 games above .500, it is pretty nice to be a Nationals fan right now, like myself. Everything seems perfect in the nation’s capital. There are several serious MVP candidates on the team right now with Harper, Scherzer, Zimmerman, Murphy, and maybe even the underrated Anthony Rendon.
Max Scherzer seems to strike out every batter he faces and is a midseason favorite to win his second straight and third career Cy Young. The team is in the upper echelon of the league in attendance numbers. Stephen Strasburg looks more and more like the superstar he was projected to be, coming out of San Diego State. The Nationals feature an elite offensive lineup and have a rotation as good as any team in the MLB right now. Fresh off the break, they capped off a 4 game road sweep of the Reds with a classic Strasburg outing, in a series in which they tallied 35 runs, 13 home runs, and their pitching staff struck out 43 Cincinnati batters, all without leadoff hitter and elite fielder Trea Turner, who is on the DL nursing a fractured wrist. With all they have going for them, including a double digit lead in the division title race, what could possibly plague this team? Well, there are a lot more problems in Washington D.C than there appears to be at first glance.
While the Nationals have several flaws, none is more glaring than the bullpen. There is no hiding it, the Washington bullpen is best described as abysmal, and that’s on a good day. The Nationals are currently 56–36; out of those 36 losses, more than 20 came at the hands of the bullpen.
Every bullpen has their off days, but if the bullpen were to only blow roughly half of those leads, the Nationals would be 68–24, own the best record in baseball, and be on pace for a record win total. Instead the Nationals bullpen has turned seemingly out of reach games into nail-biters, and forced the Nationals starting pitchers into throwing more innings than any other staff in the League.
The lasting mental effects of the poor bullpen outings on the team could eventually cause a tight knit clubhouse to turn on each other and result in a slump. We already witnessed this on the small scale in the weeks leading into the All Star game. In a one week span, Washington relievers surrendered three 2 Out, 2 Strike, 2 run home runs in the top of the ninth inning. While they still managed to win 2 of those 3 games, that kind of performance can be deflating for a lockeroom. The frustration finally started to reveal itself in the week leading into the all star break as the Nationals looked flat at times. Sure, some of that could just be fatigue from a long first half, but I can’t help to think some of that should be attributed to the bullpen. Fortunately for the Nationals, the All-Star break fell at the perfect time and gave everyone a chance to regroup for a big second half. However it is difficult for a team to continue to deal with blown leads.
Not only has the bullpen been bad, but Washington has had to deal with some unfortunate injuries. Just weeks into the season, The Nationals lost lead off hitter Adam Eaton; a player they traded the number 1 prospect in baseball for in the winter; for the season after he tore his ACL running through first. Just recently, his replacement, Micheal A. Taylor checked into the DL with an oblique strain. Outfielder and valuable veteran leader Jayson Werth still hasn't made it back to the field yet after fouling a ball of his foot more than a month ago. Just before the break, Trea Tuner fractured his wrist on a HBP right as he was getting into a groove, becoming the second leadoff hitter this lineup has lost this year. The Nationals will be able to survive all these injuries because they have such a deep lineup, and can maybe even use the injuries as an opportunity to showcase younger players they could offer in trade packages, but the bench is now lacking the depth it once had.
The biggest loss, however, might have just come as the organization was informed that Starting Pitcher Joe Ross will require Tommy John surgery after tearing his UCL in an outing he left in the 4th inning against the Braves in which his fastball velocity dipped all the way into the low 80’s. As I mentioned earlier, Dusty Baker has been forced to extend the arms of his starting pitchers much longer than he would like because of the bullpen. In his previous outing before his injury, Joe Ross threw more than 120 pitches in a 4th of July defeat of the woeful Mets. I’m not saying that the two are directly related, but it’s not a stretch to think that there could be some correlation between the two.
With no clear replacement option in the rotation for Ross, GM Mike Rizzo is faced with a tough decision. Right now, Dusty Baker has Edwin Jackson slotted as as replacement as the fifth starter. Jackson is an average arm with experience and will likely be a good enough replacement to get a win now and then, but he clearly stands out as a weakness.
Rizzo will either choose to ride things out with Jackson, confident in a double digit division lead, or go and trade for another pitcher to add to the staff. The Nationals already don’t have an extraordinarily deep farm system and can’t afford to trade away any prospects that aren't going towards bullpen help. So it looks like Washington will almost have to go with Jackson, or eventually a prospect, as their last man in the rotation. Hopefully the line up can give whoever it will be the same insane run support afforded to Joe Ross.
While I may have portrayed the Nationals to be in a difficult spot, the reality is that this team is a quick fix away from being a World Series favorite. This week, Washington traded for a pair of Oakland relievers Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle. Either can be inserted into the closer role, and provide immediate stability. Madson owns a 2.36 ERA and is among tops in the MLB in walks/hits per innings pitched. Doolittle has retired all 23 left handed batters he has faced this season, and has a 3.38 ERA as well as 3 saves in 3 opportunities. The trade puts the Nationals even closer to the postseason success they've yet to experienced(never advanced past the first round.) Rizzo still needs to add one or two arms to the bullpen to compliment guys like Matt Albers and Oliver Perez, as well as the two new additons. Personally I like the Phillie’s Pat Neshek and think we can get him at a good value as a nice rental.
The Nationals may have a big problem in their bullpen, but if and when that is addressed they will have the most complete team in baseball. They have a lineup that offers plenty of protection for their best hitters without any break for opposing pitchers. Washington also has a 1–2–3 punch in their pitching rotation necessary to propel this team deep into the playoffs. The Washington Nationals will be playing America’s favorite pastime well into football season, and I am very excited to watch this team reach new heights.