What Can The Nationals Do?

The Nationals have not played very well in the second half. This isn’t news. Since the break, they have an 8-12 record and have been outscored by 11 runs. This isn’t a soul-crushing stretch by any means, but when your competition is red hot, a stretch where you’re only scoring 3.65 runs per game can certainly seem soul crushing. The interesting question to me is what the Nationals can do about it? Are they content to just wait this out and take the patient approach that eventually their hitters will snap out of it, or is it time for action? Actually, let’s rephrase that — what actions can the Nationals even take?

We know that the Nationals have a great pitching staff. Their bullpen unit is solid. The core unit they’ve relied on the most the past 30 days — Aaron Barrett, Casey Janssen, Felipe Rivero, Tanner Roark and Drew Storen — has done pretty well. The worst xFIP- among those pitchers for the past 30 days is Rivero’s 114. For the season, the highest belongs to Janssen at 108. Perhaps there isn’t enough reliability in that group, especially given Storen’s playoff experience. So to that mix they have added Jonathan Papelbon. Potential problem addressed.

The rotation is even better. It hasn’t quite performed up to its lofty praise, and a large part of why is Doug Fister, who simply has not been very good this season. His 4.24 xFIP over the last 30 days isn’t that bad, but there’s not that much time left for him to right the ship, and the Nationals have a better current option available in Joe Ross. As such, they’re set to move Fister to the bullpen when Stephen Strasburg returns from the disabled list tomorrow. Problem addressed.

The offense though, has been a bigger bugaboo. For the season, their 101 wRC+ has been just fine, ranking 11th. But if you look at the team statistics, you see that only five hitters have been above that 100 threshold — Bryce Harper, Denard Span, Yunel Escobar, Clint Robinson and Anthony Rendon. And what Span, Robinson and Rendon have in common is that they’ve only suited up for half a season or less — Robinson because he is a part-time player, and for Span and Rendon because of injury.

One of those good hitters, Robinson, is now a man without a home. He had been manning first base and left field with Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman out of the lineup, but with them back he is back to a bench/spot start role. Zimmerman, who is heating up since his return at the end of July — he popped two homers in his first seven games back — will require those prescribed rest days, so Robinson can help some at first. The outfield is a different story.

Werth came back at the same time that Zimmerman did, but instead of lifting the team up, he has helped dragged them down. Over the last 30 days, the team’s wRC+ has cratered to 89, leaving them 25th in the game. The team has six players who have posted at least 20 plate appearances and a wRC+ of 24 or less — Danny Espinosa, Tyler Moore, Wilson Ramos, Dan Uggla, Jose Lobaton and Werth. That’s, uh, an issue. Werth’s performance has been particularly troubling. He missed the standard two months with his wrist injury, but just getting back in the lineup isn’t always the final step with wrist injuries. He may be a non-factor down the stretch. And there has been a double whammy of sorts in taking out one of the to-date productive hitters in Robinson and replacing him with the non-productive Werth.

There is also an unproductive hitter in center in Michael Taylor. That’s not to say Taylor hasn’t filled in admirably for Denard Span. He has. It’s just that his main contributions come on the defensive side, where he grades out well by UZR, DRS and Inside Edge. Span is set to begin a rehab assignemnt next week, and could be back by the end of the month.

So let’s look forward three weeks. By the beginning of September, the team may be close to 100%, with Lobaton/Ramos at catcher, Zimmerman at first, Rendon at second, Escobar at third, Desmond at short, and Werth, Span and Harper in the outfield. So, perhaps there is nothing reasonable they can do. But if Werth and Desmond continue to be sieves at the dish, then perhaps it’s time to do something unreasonable. Just what would it take to land Justin Upton, Carlos Gonzalez or Jay Bruce, if they sneak through waivers? (Well, Gonzalez should fly through, if he hasn’t already.) It would surely rankle Werth if he were replaced by anyone, but it’d be less so if they land a big bat.

As for Desmond, perhaps it’s time to see Trea Turner. General manager Mike Rizzo poured cold water on that idea the other day, and emphasized that “you have to take slow and careful increments in trying to get better.” The obvious problem with that solution is that time is running out on this season, and the Nationals really have no reason to care about Desmond beyond this season, with him set for free agency after it.

Perhaps these aren’t the team’s biggest problems. Perhaps, as we have heard this week from both Jeff Passan and Jon Heyman, manager Matt Williams is the team’s biggest problem. That’s harder to judge, but it’s certainly plausible.

The Nationals have become relevant because of the slow and careful steps that Rizzo and his talented front office have taken. And they have addressed two (potential) problems already in acquiring Papelbon and moving Fister to the bullpen. But their window is closing — Jordan Zimmermann is set to be a free agent, and Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman seem to have new aches and pains each year. Washington probably isn’t going to fade out of contention in the next month and a half, but if they want to leapfrog over their competition, perhaps it’s time to take a stupid risk like bowling over the Rockies for Carlos Gonzalez or promoting a rookie with barely a year of pro ball under his belt or even firing the manager. Because as a wise man once said, it’s the stupid risks that make life worth living.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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8 years ago

Desmond is at least showing signs that everyone wants to ignore. IN the 20 games since the break, he’s at .250/.311/.515.

8 years ago
Reply to  Jeff

Definitely showing signs of being at least some of his old self. But he has also struck out 34.7% of the time during that span, so there’s that, too.