The Washington Nationals have a problem. The Braves and Phillies have arrived ahead of schedule, as we know. The Nationals enter play Thursday in third place behind those two clubs, seven games behind the Braves and five-and-a-half games behind the Phillies.
While the Nationals have trailed in the NL East for much of the season, their FanGraphs playoff odds have dipped below 60% (59.4% as of Thursday afternoon) for the first time this season.
While the Super Teams are taking care of business in the American League, the NL field remains more open. And at the moment, the Nationals are the only preseason division favorite, the only so-called preseason Super Team, with playoff odds below 89.9% and division odds less than 50% (43.5%). With their loss to Red Sox on Wednesday, the Nationals fell below .500 (42-43).
While teams often go through struggles and sluggish periods in the marathon that is a 162-game season, we’re now more than halfway into this season and the Nationals have never gotten on track. It appeared that Washington might be getting right about a month ago as they moved back into first place and held a half-game lead in the division on June 10. But they fell out of first place on June 12 and haven’t been back, losing 16 of their last 21 games.
As you can observe in the following playoff-odds chart, no team’s playoff stock has dropped like the Nats’:
A large part of this is tied to injury with stars like Stephen Strasburg and Daniel Murphy having been on the disabled list. According to Roster Resources’ “roster effect” rating, the Nationals have lost more value to the disabled list than any other team this season.
Through June 29, the Nationals led the NL in games lost to the DL (772), and they were second in the majors to the Rangers (832), according to Man Games Lost.
Part of it has been inconsistent performances like that of star Bryce Harper. Still, the Nationals haven’t dealt with adversity and injury — or enjoyed the same level of quality depth — as well as, say, the Dodgers. The Nationals entered the season with voids, some they have addressed by jumping out in front of the trade market to acquire Kelvin Herrera. But at catcher, they’ve done nothing and rank 29th in positional WAR there. (J.T. Realmuto would help.)
The Nationals seem to be aware of their predicament and aware of the urgency of the moment: they held a players-only meeting detailed by the Washington Post’s Chelsea Janes after their shutout loss Wednesday to the Red Sox, their fifth loss in a row.
Not a single player hovered at a locker. Not a single cough echoed from the showers. When reporters entered the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse Wednesday after a 3-0 loss to the Boston Red Sox — their fifth straight defeat, the seventh time they have been shut out in their past 22 games, the one that sent them under .500 in July for the first time in years — it was barren.
One by one, players in half-buttoned jerseys, hair matted with sweat, ambled into the clubhouse from somewhere in the back near the training room. Their manager had not been in there with them. The players called the meeting. The veterans rounded everyone up. No one was willing to say exactly what happened or who said what, but the overarching message was clear.
A handful of veterans corralled their teammates, who assembled in the back. ….
The keynote address came from Max Scherzer, which should be no surprise. In a clubhouse full of quiet veterans with a propensity to stay levelheaded, Scherzer is the one man who often channels competitiveness into emotion.
What’s failing the Nationals? Just about everything, but particularly pitching recently.
Over the past 30 days, they rank last in the majors in pitching WAR (-0.5), ERA (5.02), and FIP (4.95).
Of the 18 pitchers to appear over the past month for the club, nine have turned in below-average performances, according to ERA-.
But run production has also been stagnant.
Over the past month, the Nationals rank 13th in the NL in runs (103) and 11th in wRC+ (91). And that’s with Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon raking. Harper has posted a 93 wRC+ and Murphy a 36 wRC+ since returning.
The good news is Strasburg is expected to return around the All-Star break. The Nationals need him to pitch like an impact, top-of-the-rotation starter in the second half. Joaquin Benoit and Koda Glover could perhaps return in the second half. Ryan Zimmerman might begin a rehab assignment this weekend. The club hopes Murphy continues to gain strength and timing after missing much of the first half.
The glass-half-full position is that just getting healthy could solve many of the club’s production issues. Just getting Harper and Murphy to perform more like their usual selves could supply major second-half boosts. FanGraphs predicts the Nationals to go 43-34 the rest of the season and for the Braves and Phillies to regress, forecasting the Braves to win the division by a game over the Nationals and two over the Phillies. FanGraphs predicts the NL East to be the closest division race in the game.
While the Nationals figure to be better in the second half, they might have already dug themselves into too great of a hole. Washington is no longer just competing for a division title; they must mostly be concerned with grabbing at least a Wild Card spot. They are by far the Super Team most in danger of missing the playoff cut.