Over the last few games, the Washington Nationals’ offense and starting rotation has looked sluggish, tired, and sometimes even unmotivated. Frankly, can you blame them?
After more than a month of bailing out their bullpen time and time again, the offense’s production has fallen back down to earth, and is sitting at a reasonable .248 average during the month of May (which is decent, but meager compared to the team’s .297 clip in April).
Moreover, the team has struggled to get the last hit, the one needed to cash in on run-scoring opportunities, and has struggled to put up a fight in the later innings of the game when the team is down.
Meanwhile, the Nationals’ starting rotation seems to have caught the contagious disease—some combination of an inability to paint corners, throw first-pitch strikes, or induce ground balls—spreading around the clubhouse.
It would make sense: How would you feel if every time you finished your work—your PowerPoint, report, memo—your coworker barged in the door only to delete everything you had worked so hard to complete?
Barged isn’t actually the right word here: When the door to the Nationals’ bullpen opens, it groans slowly on its hinges, patient zero of a groaning epidemic about to spread across the entire D.C. metropolitan area as a downtrodden pitcher jogs in from right or left field.
When a Nationals’ reliever enters, the result of the game feels sealed—and in the wrong way.
Bryce Harper’s two home runs and five RBI suddenly mean nothing; a seven-inning gem from Stephen Strasburg is about as useful as a print newspaper in the offices of SB Nation or Vox; Trea Turner’s Jeter-esque throw may as well have never happened.
Which is why it makes sense that the team is jaded, sick and tired of the bullpen’s inability to hold any lead smaller than ten runs, tired of never getting a breather and being able to hand it off to the next guy.
One can’t totally blame the front office for this failure; based on last season, the bullpen should have held together at least somewhat more than it did.
Blake Treinen, Shawn Kelley, and Joe Blanton’s ERAs were expected to go up by some, but certainly not by five, six, or seven runs.
Plus, the combination of Treinen, Kelley, Enny Romero, Blanton, and Koda Glover could have been—should have been, was almost—good.
Some lucky calls, more first pitch strikes, and fewer timely hits, and you’re looking at one of the best bullpens in the National League.
It’s also quite possible that the bullpen just hasn’t caught a break—the pen, minus Sammy Solis, Blanton, and Kelley, has a FIP (a more refined, fielding/luck-independent version of ERA) of 3.69, nearly a one-run difference from that group’s collective ERA of approximately 4.49.
Unfortunately for Mike Rizzo and Dusty Baker, “almost” only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.
The bullpen isn’t doing its job, and the Nats, despite being up six games in the NL East, are as good as dead last, given that a team unable to hold a lead in the late innings is a team that gets swept in the first round of the postseason.
It’s clear that Rizzo and Baker aren’t happy with the status quo; Rizzo has called his ‘pen the “worst in the league,” and Baker’s press conferences, typically upbeat and positive, have become fifteen minute trips to the morgue.
The theory at this point is that the Nats have no choice but to ride out the bullpen’s struggles and then make a trade when other teams are willing to make a deal.
There’s some truth to that sentiment; every major league team that needs to be sellers takes a long time to come to terms with the fact that their days of contending are over.
It doesn’t mean that Rizzo can’t do anything right now.
Any team is willing to make a trade if it’s for the right price; if the Nationals go out and offer the players other teams believe that they’d have to strongly push for to acquire at the deadline, such as Juan Soto and Carter Kieboom, right now, and then proceeded to meet any demand not involving Trea Turner or Victor Robles, they could have their pick of any closer not named Kenley Jansen, Aroldis Chapman, or (oddly) Greg Holland.
Rizzo could also capitalize on his trust in the Nats’ offense by trading away Adam Lind, who’s hit at a .333 clip with 14 RBI in just 45 at bats, and replacing his bat on the bench with Clint Robinson.
There’s also pitching depth in Washington’s system that Rizzo and Baker simply can no longer afford to ignore; Trevor Gott—who has been good for a 2.89 FIP in Triple-A, and is walking 1.96 batters per nine innings—has no business in Triple-A Syracuse, especially given that he’s on the 40-man roster.
A case could also be made for Austin Adams (also on the 40-man), who has put up a 1.42 ERA and 2.86 FIP in Syracuse.
If, once he’s off the DL, Adams is able to fix his problem with walks (currently he averages 8.05 per nine innings) to some extent, the righty has a case to be in the show.
Likewise, guys like Treinen and Romero are running out of reasons to stay in the majors.
Even if they may not be pitching as poorly as their numbers suggest (which would be suggested by a rather large difference in ERA and FIP), their numbers are still bad enough to warrant some drastic action; Treinen’s 7.78 ERA and 4.00 FIP are anything but impressive, and Enny Romero’s 5.75 ERA and 4.80 FIP are even less impressive, given the relative consistency between his numbers.
Rizzo could decide to make one of these moves. He could decide to make all of them, or some number in between. No matter what, it’s inarguable that he has to make at least one move. The Nationals simply cannot afford to keep their bullpen the way it is.
Every position player or starting pitcher can’t go through the rest of the season believing that what they do doesn’t actually matter, or worse, that the Nats aren’t even trying to do anything to fix it.
Otherwise, if things go on the way they are, Washington won’t see past game four of the NLDS, let alone the World Series; hell, they may not even see past the end of the regular season.
In this scenario, everyone not named Max Scherzer will only be playing to pad their numbers in an attempt to secure their next contract.
Any remote chance the Nats had at retaining Bryce Harper will have been obliterated, and Stephen Strasburg, frustrated yet again, will give serious thought to exercising his opt-out clause in 2019 and relocating to the west coast.
And, when it’s all said and done, this iteration of the Nationals will be remembered as the least successful team with such a high caliber of starting pitching and such a dominant lineup—at least this side of the 116-win 2001 Seattle Mariners that didn’t reach the World Series.
The pundits, in the Nationals’ annual obituary, will write down something along these lines: “The Nats were almost good enough to win the World Series, but the rest of the team’s success was usurped by the bullpen’s problems, the first round yet again being the final stop on the team’s postseason journey.”
In other words, a season that only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.