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Even with Juan Soto returning, the Washington Nationals’ offense is still a concern

It’s only a small sample size, but the Washington Nationals offense hasn’t been great so far in 2020...

MLB: JUL 27 Blue Jays at Nationals Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After four days off from regular season games, the Washington Nationals return to action later tonight against National League East foes in the New York Mets.

The break was anything but welcome. It came under troubling circumstances as a wave of positive coronavirus tests for the Miami Marlins added weight to the argument that the 2020 Major League Baseball season carries too much risk in its current setup.

For now, MLB plans to continue. And for as long as there is baseball, Nats fans will at least get to enjoy one simple pleasure this week as Juan Soto is set to return to the team.

Any team would miss a 21-year-old potential MVP candidate. However, with the Nationals struggling to generate offense in the early stages of the season, the hole that his absence left in the batting order has loomed even larger.

Their offensive issues were evident in the Nationals’ most recent series against the Toronto Blue Jays.

Through the first 27 innings of the series, the Nats were only able to muster up two runs. It took a wild Shun Yamaguchi dishing out walks and favorable counts to wake up the bats in the 10th inning of the third game, allowing them to squeak out a 4-0 extra-inning win.

Through their first seven games of the season, the Nationals have scored 24 runs to go with a .244/.306/.398 slash line and 91 wRC+.

Admittedly, those stats aren’t too terrible when you consider that the league-average slash line is .232/.314/.395 and their wRC+ was only 22nd in the majors entering Monday night, though their 3.4 runs per game ranking 25th in the league is a bit more concerning.

The concern though is that the underlying metrics are even worse than the top-level stats.

According to Statcast, the Nationals’ expected batting average of .228 was 24th in the major leagues while their .379 expected slugging percentage came in at 23rd and their xwOBA of .289 was 25th before Monday’s slate of games.

The Nats’ 2.9% barrel-rate, the percentage of balls that have an xBA above .500 and an xSLG of about 1.000, wasn’t much better, ranking at fourth-worst in the league after Sunday’s games.

All of the above stats are based on the results of similar batted balls to those the Nationals have had and, based on the average result of those similar batted balls, calculates what the team’s batting average, slugging percentage, and wOBA should be.

In short, based on the expected stats, there’s a fair argument that the Nats have been a little lucky to even be slightly below average on offense so far in this strange 2020 season.

The biggest hole on offense has been the team’s struggles against right-handed pitching.

So far in 2020, the Nationals have a measly 63 wRC+ against right-handers, the third-lowest in baseball. Meanwhile, against southpaws, they boast a 212 wRC+, mostly thanks to beating up on James Paxton and Hyun-Jin Ryu in their respective starts in Washington.

That’s an area that inserting Soto into the lineup over Taylor will help pay dividends in as the latter has long struggled against right-handers.

However, it’s going to take more than just Soto to turn the Nationals’ fortunes on offense around. While there are plenty of players that they need to step up, most of all, the team needs Howie Kendrick and Eric Thames to get healthy and start hitting at a higher level.

In the shorter season, Kendrick was expected to be in the lineup more consistently and rake against all pitchers while Thames has destroyed right-handed pitching since coming back stateside, but the performance of both players has been hampered by irritating injuries so far.

Having both Kendrick and Thames healthy and raking immediately lengthens the lineup out past the top three and starts to cause opposing pitchers headaches with how to navigate it.

The caveat on all of this analysis is that, right now, it is based on an exceptionally small sample size. In a normal season, even the very best offenses in baseball will go through one or two week-long rough patches where they struggle to plate runs.

However, in a 60-game season, the Nats have already played about 12% of their games. That’s roughly the equivalent of a 19-game offensive slump, the type of slump that can dig a hole for a team in a 162-game season.

When the Nationals saw Anthony Rendon depart for Orange County this offseason, it was obvious that the offense was going to take a step backward in 2020. If the lineup doesn’t start to improve soon, it could be even more of a concern in this abbreviated season...