After entering the season projected to contend among the best teams in baseball, the Washington Nationals are in the midst of an early-season collapse that has them searching for real estate in the basement of the NL East standings.
The Nats, who were swept by the Milwaukee Brewers to open this week, are 14-22 and seven games back of the Philadelphia Phillies in their division. It’s the first time since September 17, 2011 that the team is at least eight games under .500.
There are many layers that have contributed to Washington’s slow start. Injuries to starters Anthony Rendon (elbow), Trea Turner (finger), Juan Soto (back) and Ryan Zimmerman (foot) are certainly to blame for the lack of offensive production, as replacements Wilmer Difo (.621 OPS), Carter Kieboom (.491) and Michael Taylor (.368) have all failed to provide a spark at the plate.
It’s worth mentioning that Howie Kendrick’s versatility around the infield has been invaluable; he’s played third, second, and first base while providing the Nats with one of their few consistent bats in the lineup. Yet he can’t do it all alone, and Brian Dozier’s struggles (.618 OPS) and Victor Robles’ strikeout problems (41:5 strikeout-to-walk ratio) aren’t going away anytime soon.
The pitching staff behind Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin has been a mess as well. Anibal Sanchez (0-5, 5.15 ERA) and Jeremy Hellickson (2-1, 5.52) have failed to anchor the back end of the rotation. In the bullpen, 12 different pitchers have appeared in a game for the Nats and eight of them have an ERA of 6.00 or higher.
For a team that preached doing the “little things” right during Spring Training, defense and baserunning have been particularly glaring issues. The Nationals’ 27 errors are the fifth-most in baseball and they’re one of the worst teams in the league at taking the extra base.
Then there’s Davey Martinez, whose questionable in-game decisions and lineup management have put him firmly on the hot seat just over a month into his sophomore season as manager. Pitching coach Derek Lilliquist already got the pink slip last week, and it remains to be seen whether Martinez will follow if the Nationals’ poor play continues.
All of those factors put Washington into a position that offers little hope for a quick turnaround.
While Rendon just made his return from the IL and Soto hopes to be back on Saturday, Turner, Zimmerman and Matt Adams (shoulder) still don’t have timetables for their respective recoveries.
The bullpen has so many holes that there isn’t a simple fix that could be made through trades or free-agent signings. Even Craig Kimbrel, who Nats fans clamored for at the start of the season, would only be a band-aid for the catastrophe that has been the late innings in D.C.
Defense and baserunning improvements are usually addressed during Spring Training and thus often difficult to fix midseason. Despite Martinez’s strong assertions to the media, it appears his tactics haven’t translated to strong play by the team. If his message and coaching techniques weren’t effective during the preseason, how can anyone expect them to work now?
Look, Martinez was put in a tough situation. He was handed one the highest-paid rosters in the league right in the middle of its window of contention after the previous manager was let go because regular-season success wasn’t good enough.
That’s a high-stakes assignment for any skipper, never mind one in his first year.
But the time for making excuses is over. He’s facing a tough stretch over the next few weeks which includes series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets (twice) and Chicago Cubs. If the Nationals are a team to be reckoned with, now is the time to show it.
Will the Nationals finally turn their season around during that stretch? Martinez’s job might depend on it.