The Washington Nationals have started the season 16-25 and are already eight games back in the ultra-competitive National League East.
Injuries have riddled their roster, forcing some almost unrecognisable line-ups. Juan Soto, Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon have all missed games, contributing to a team OPS+ of 83 (100 is league average).
The teams with a worse OPS+ are: Giants, Tigers, Blue Jays, Reds, Indians and Marlins.
The pitching, as you’d expect with their rotation, has been good. A team FIP of 3.95 is only bettered by seven teams.
The bullpen was a problem in 2018. It was still seen as a weakness in March 2019. Again, there have been injuries. Baseball Reference’s Wins Above Average has the Nationals bullpen ranked 23rd in the Majors at -1.1 – that’s only marginally better than the Royals and Orioles and worse than the Rangers.
Washington’s relief corps have blown seven saves and own a Majors-worst inherited scored rate of 43%.
Not scoring runs and having a dodgy bullpen isn’t a great formula for success.
Injuries take a lot of the blame for Washington. As do drops in production from Adam Eaton and Yan Gomes. Matt Grace, Anibal Sanchez, Jeremy Hellickson and Wander Suero have struggled mightily on the mound after good years in 2018.
Addressing the bullpen struggles is relatively easy. Several teams that are out of/slipping out of contention have relievers that will be on the market. The Giants, for instance, have Will Smith, Tony Watson and Sam Dyson who could all help the Nationals. Trading for reinforcements is an option if the Nationals can stay near .500.
The offence is trickier. Eaton is walking just 7% of the time, a significant drop from his 10% mark in 2018. Gomes is really struggling, with a measly 3.4% barrel rate and expected batting average and slugging numbers in the bottom 8% of the league.
Brian Dozier’s .618 OPS in 2019 is less surprising after a challenging 2018. He was a good upside signing, but .192 expected batting average and 28.1% strikeout rate doesn’t suggest a bounceback is on the horizon. More plate appearances for the red-hot Howie Kendrick should be a priority. Kendrick is Washington’s best non-Rendon hitter this season.
While Trea Turner’s absence leaves a sizeable hole in the Nationals line-up, some of these issues were predictable. Wilmer Difo playing everyday was always a problem, and it only took one middle-infield injury for that to happen. Dozier was a gamble.
Improving the bullpen seemed a priority in the winter. With the East so tightly fought this season, being proactive could have turned some of those blown saves into victories, changing the shape of their season.
It is easy to look back on the offseason with the benefit of hindsight. Dozier was potentially a shrewd move, and Patrick Corbin completed an elite front three, while Kyle Barraclough and Trevor Rosenthal was meant to bolster the bullpen. Anibal Sanchez, off the back of a good year in Atlanta, looked a solid fourth starter.
The reality has been a disappointing April and May in the capital. Depth is lacking in the rotation, offence and bullpen. Sean Doolittle, Rendon, Max Scherzer, Corbin and Stephen Strasburg are among the very best in the game, but the Nationals need a lot more from the rest of the roster if they are to be anywhere near contention in the summer months.