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The Washington Nationals must save themselves from falling out of contention

As the Washington Nationals approach the halfway mark of the 2018 season, they find themselves in unfamiliar territory.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After failing to score any runs over their last 18 innings, posting an 8-14 record in the first three and a half weeks of June and watching their deficit in the NL East creep up to four games, the Washington Nationals are on the brink of being in serious trouble.

Let’s get something straight here. The season is not yet even halfway over and this is no time for Nats fans to panic. Washington still has 84 games left on the schedule, giving the club plenty of time to make up ground in the division and make its expected return to the playoffs.

However, as talented as the Nationals are, it’s time for them to start playing with a sense of urgency.

The NL East is much tougher than it’s been in years past, with the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies presenting serious threats for the division crown.

Daniel Murphy and Adam Eaton have both returned from the disabled list, yet Washington is actually scoring fewer runs since Murphy made his season debut June 12 (3.1 runs per game) than it did prior to him joining the active roster (4.4). The offense is now nearly at full strength, exhausting the injury excuse of its credibility.

Injury blows to the pitching staff haven’t helped, and both Gio Gonzalez (8.44 ERA in June) and Tanner Roark (7.40 ERA in June) picked bad times to endure their worst slumps of the season. With a four-game weekend series against the Phillies looming, the Nationals are in rough shape and have shown no signs of improving.

How the Nationals have fared through 78 games since 2012

Year Wins GB in NL East Runs Scored Runs Allowed Won Division?
Year Wins GB in NL East Runs Scored Runs Allowed Won Division?
2018 41 -4 323 298 ?
2017 47 +9.5 442 346 Yes
2016 46 +4.5 358 276 Yes
2015 43 +3.5 343 312 No
2014 41 +1 312 276 Yes
2013 39 -2 275 303 No
2012 46 +3.5 325 271 Yes
The 2018 team has dug itself into a bigger hole than it’s accustomed too this far into the season. Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.

The Nationals have never faced an NL East deficit of more than four games and reached the playoffs in the same season. So far in 2018, Washington has spent a total of 19 days more than four games back in the division. It’s unprecedented territory for this group of players and recent history suggests it’s a hump that’ll be very difficult to get over.

If the Nationals are going to vault themselves back into the playoff race, the first thing they’re going to need to do is cut out sloppy plays. Washington has run into 32 outs on the basepaths this season — the most in the National League. The offense is struggling too much to shoot itself in the foot by handing opponents free outs.

The offense is also going to need better production out of its two biggest guns: Murphy and Bryce Harper. Both have shown signs of heating up, as Murphy has picked up six hits over his last four games and Harper has seven doubles in the past week. The Nats’ lineup can be one of the deepest in baseball when it’s at its best, but Harper and Murphy are its heart and soul and the team is going nowhere if they don’t figure things out at the plate.

Even if Harper and Murphy do return to form, Washington needs a boost at catcher. The team’s .552 OPS from the position is the worst in the majors. The Miami Marlins’ J.T. Realmuto may have too high a price but former Nats backstop and likely All-Star for the Tampa Bay Rays Wilson Ramos is looking like the most logical trade target by the day.

If Ramos is brought on and Ryan Zimmerman makes his eventual return, the Nationals’ offense looks something like this: Adam Eaton, Anthony Rendon, Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Wilson Ramos, Juan Soto, Trea Turner, Ryan Zimmerman, pitcher. That’s one scary group of hitters, and it just might be enough to keep the Nats in the playoff race.

The rotation is also going to have to return to form. Roark and Gonzalez’s struggles are alarming, putting the Nats in an uncomfortable position of having to rely on both of them to bounce back. As a result, the team has been rumored to be interested in acquiring starting pitcher depth. Several available options include the Rays’ Chris Archer, Toronto Blue JaysJ.A. Happ, Texas RangersCole Hamels and San Diego PadresTyson Ross.

Washington should be able to do all this without giving up top prospects Juan Soto and Victor Robles. Mike Rizzo and Co. are right to hold on to their two prized outfielders, who are either on the cusp of the majors or already in it, because of their high ceilings, cheap contracts and Harper’s impending free agency.

As for the rest of their farm system, the Nationals need to be open for business. Carter Kieboom and Wil Crowe have both had outstanding seasons at High-A Potomac, with the former earning a promotion to Double-A Harrisburg. Latin American signees Luis Garcia and Yasel Antuna are a few more years away but would certainly draw the eyes of some other executives.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Tampa Bay Rays
At 19 years old, Juan Soto has already proven to be too valuable a player to trade.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Given their position in the NL East standings, Washington can’t afford to be stingy with its prospects outside the top two. Last season, the Houston Astros didn’t shy away from Justin Verlander’s contract and it led them to a World Series. The Chicago Cubs paid a steep price that included Gleyber Torres for Aroldis Chapman and they won a title riding his arm out of the bullpen.

The window isn’t closing on the Nationals contending, but there are many reasons for the team to go all-in on 2018. In addition to Harper, Murphy, Gonzalez and set-up man Ryan Madson are all set to hit free agency. Max Scherzer is in the midst of another Cy Young-caliber season but at 33 there’s no telling when he’ll start to decline. Both the Braves and Phillies have more prospects rising through their system and figure to get even better as the years go on.

This isn’t a season in which the front office can be blamed for poor performance. For the most part, the Nationals’ biggest stars have either been hurt (Murphy, Eaton, Stephen Strasburg) or underperforming (Harper, Turner, Roark, Gonzalez). Rizzo was working on the assumption those were players he could rely on, which is a pretty fair assumption to make. Further, offseason additions such as Matt Adams, Jeremy Hellickson and Justin Miller have carried this team when its stars couldn’t.

Now it’s up to that front office to fill the holes in this ship before it sinks too deep. The Nationals have enough talent to compete for the NL pennant; that much is obvious. But if the team doesn’t start playing with more energy and the front office can’t bring in some reinforcements, Washington is in trouble.