What Grade Have The Nats Earned So Far?
June 1, 2018
For the first time since April, the Nats have taken sole possession of first place in the NL East by beating the Orioles. Of course, a few weeks ago, the idea of the Nats being anywhere near the top of the division was laughable, as they were struggling because of the adjustments they needed to make due to the number of starters they had on the DL. Since then, the Nats have gone from being 5 games under .500, to going on a 21-6 run to be 10 games over, despite having nearly half of their projected Opening Day roster on the DL. To judge the first third of their season, I’ve given each position group a letter grade.
The Nats went into the season lauded for their outfield depth, and many even thought that they should trade one of their extra pieces for pitching or catching help. Instead, the Nats were struck by a barrage of injuries (Adam Eaton, Brian Goodwin, Victor Robles, Howie Kendrick, Rafael Bautista), and are down to their 6th starting left fielder of the season. That 6th-stringer, however, is top prospect Juan Soto, who played so well in the Minors that he rose through 2 minor league levels in little more than a month. Once utility man Howie Kendrick went down with a torn achilles, Mike Rizzo decided to promote the 19-year-old, who rewarded him by promptly becoming the youngest player to hit a home run in the MLB since 2012. Despite the recent boost provided by Soto’s arrival, the Nats two other starting outfielders, Michael A. Taylor and Bryce Harper (who’s entering one of the most anticipated free agencies in history) have struggled at the plate. Harper is hitting below .240, albeit with 18 home runs, most in the NL, and Taylor finally has risen above the Mendoza line (.200), while striking out at an unbelievable rate. For the Nats to get their offense rolling, they will need more production from their outfield, which will hopefully occur when Adam Eaton returns from his ankle injury that kept him out for more than a month.
Infield (and catchers): B
The outfield isn’t the only part of the team that has been struck by injuries. Multiple starters in the infield have not been able to play for large chunks of the season. Daniel Murphy, perhaps the Nationals best hitter last season, has not played this season while recovering from microfracture knee surgery he had over the offseason. At the same time, Ryan Zimmerman, who revitalized his career last season, hit the DL a couple of weeks ago after tweaking his oblique. The Nats missed a few weeks of production from Anthony Rendon when he went down with a hairline fracture after fouling a pitch off his toe. The Nats still have received solid performance at 3rd and 2nd base from Wilmer Difo, a utility man who has hit well and provided exceptional defense. Trea Turner, the Nats shortstop, started the season slowly but has since heated up, on pace to become the National League’s starting shortstop in the All Star game, which will be held in DC for the first time ever. Matt Wieters, the Nats starting catcher, went down a few weeks ago with a hamstring tear, and had surgery on it soon afterwards. He’ll be out for a while (probably at least until August), but Pedro Severino has provided a steady presence behind the plate with excellent defense. Between Wieters and Severino, the Nats have been the best in the NL at throwing out would-be base stealers.
Starting Pitching: A+
The main reason the Nats are still afloat, and only a few games out of first place in the NL East, is the incredible performances they have received from their staff. Besides AJ Cole, who was traded to the Yankees after a few starts, everyone in their rotation has been nails. Max Scherzer has been far and away the best pitcher in the National League, and has become the early front-runner for the Silver Slugger award, given to the best hitter at his position in the league. He is off to his best start ever, and one of the best in history, given that he became the fastest ever to 100 strikeouts by doing it in 63 innings. He is on pace for more than 300 K’s! Stephen Strasburg, while not as good as he was last season, especially during the 2nd half of the year, has still been solid, while battling some control issues. Tanner Roark has returned to his 2016 form, despite his poor win/loss record, and Gio Gonzalez has been excellent, picking up right where he left off last season with a 2.10 ERA. Of course, the addition of Jeremy Hellickson at the end of Spring Training has paid massive dividends, as he has been one of the best 5th starters in the league. Davey Martinez has been careful not to let him go more than twice through the order, and it has worked out very well, despite providing additional strain on the Nats weaker middle relievers. If it wasn’t for the stellar work of their starting rotation, which leads the NL in most significant categories, the Nationals would have had to dig themselves out of a far larger hole.
The Nats bullpen has been their weakest link this season, relinquishing leads and letting close games get out of hand at the beginning of the season. However, the back end of the ‘pen, the Law Firm of Kintzler, Madson, and Doolittle, who Mike Rizzo acquired at last year’s trade deadline, has been solid. Really, Rizzo just needs to touch up the middle of the ‘pen, which is a far more manageable task than a full-scale reboot, like last year. He already got started on that by calling up Justin Miller from Syracuse, who has been excellent in his appearances. Davey Martinez’s biggest problem may be that he can’t keep using his best relievers at the rate that he currently is. If he doesn’t ease up on their workload and trust the rest of bullpen, most of his best pitchers will be burned out by the end of the season.
Much of the Nationals’ original bench has been pressed into emergency starting duties this season, leaving the cupboard pretty bare when it comes time for a pinch hitter. Matt Adams was signed as a replacement for Adam Lind, and has absolutely crushed right handers, while providing better-than-expected defense during his starts in left field. As it was previously mentioned, Wilmer Difo has been excellent, and provided proof that he’ll be ready to assume the starting second base job next year, when Daniel Murphy is gone. Along with the rest of the team, the bench has also suffered injuries to key contributors, specifically Brian Goodwin and Howie Kendrick. Due to savvy signings by GM Mike Rizzo, like Mark Reynolds, who has been on fire since joining the Nats a few weeks into the season, there has been enough depth to cover for the injuries that has reduced the Nats into sending out the “Sky Chiefs” starting lineup.
The Nats play game 2 of a 4 game series against their closest competition, the Atlanta Braves, tonight. Make sure to watch to see if the Nats can stretch their lead over the rest of the division.