The 2019 MLB season has already seen a fair share of teams that had slow starts right the ship early in May. The Chicago Cubs have the best record in the league since their 2-7 start, and the Boston Red Sox have climbed all the way back to the .500 mark (with a plus run differential) after numerous questions about their starting rotation and ace Chris Sale.
Other teams have continued to surprise, as the Arizona Diamondbacks were second in the National League West (as of May 8) despite losing Paul Goldschmidt and Patrick Corbin, with the San Diego Padres nipping at their heels behind a torrid start from their pitching staff.
The National League East has been mostly as advertised, but the Washington Nationals are among the most disappointing clubs in baseball early in 2019. With manager Dave Martinez in his second season at the helm, the Nats have stumbled out to a 14-22 start after a 7-3 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers on May 8.
With a young and extremely promising group of position players complimenting a pitching staff headlined by Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Corbin, the Nationals were expected to once again compete for a division title. But the team has been anything but competitive in lieu of injuries and poor performances, and now their manager is in serious jeopardy if things do not turn around in a hurry.
So much for that “great” offseason
For months on end, the story in Washington was about the imminent departure of former franchise superstar Bryce Harper. The Nationals and general manager Mike Rizzo had been aggressive in offering Harper a 10-year, $300 million deal in November, but that was as far as those negotiations would go.
Yet in spite of Harper signing with the Philadelphia Phillies, the Nats seemed to have one of the most productive offseasons of any team in baseball. They signed Corbin–possibly the best free agent pitcher on the market–to a lucrative deal and improved at second base and catcher by adding Brian Dozier, Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki.
Washington also addressed some of their bullpen needs, locking down Kyle Barraclough after he was traded to the team last October and signing former Cardinals flamethrower Trevor Rosenthal. With dominant left-handed closer Sean Doolittle in tow, the Nationals looked to have a legitimate back end to their bullpen very capable of locking down games.
The players the Nats acquired this offseason have not necessarily been bad, but they have hardly been stellar either. Dozier was hitting below .180 as of May 8, and Yan Gomes–although he was hitting .267–had just a 92 OPS+ while rating as a below-average defensive catcher.
Rosenthal hit the Injured List after an atrocious start in which he gave up 12 runs in just three innings of work. And Anibal Sanchez was 0-5 with a 5.15 ERA in seven starts.
Corbin–who was 2-1 with a 3.71 ERA and 10.3 K/9–is actually tied for the rotation lead in ERA+ (121, along with Stephen Strasburg), an inherently positive sign for the rest of the season. And Barraclough has been tremendous in the setup role.
Still, it feels like the newly-acquired players have yielded fairly mixed results thus far.
While the New York Yankees have had plenty of guys step up and fill holes in the midst of numerous injuries, the Nats have had a tough time adjusting to star players getting injured.
Washington lost star shortstop Trea Turner to a broken wrist in just fourth game of the year. Subsequently, management made the ill-advised decision to call up prospect Carter Kieboom to replace Turner.
Kieboom had gotten off to a hot start in Triple-A, but was completely overmatched against big-league pitching. The 21-year-old hit just .128 with a .491 OPS in 11 games as Washington’s shortstop before getting sent back down to the minors.
To make matters worse, Kieboom committed four errors and was already rated as one of the worst defensive shortstops in the game in his first taste of MLB action. The Nationals rank 25th in the big leagues with 27 errors this season, and are 27th as a team in terms of defensive fWAR.
Anthony Rendon was among the best players in baseball through the first 19 games of the season, but he too would fall victim to injury. In response, the Nationals went 5-9 in his absence, scoring just 3.5 runs per game during that stretch.
And on May 7, Juan Soto went on the 10-day IL with back spasms, an injury that has haunted hitters even when they return feeling “healthy.”
Bullpen woes continue
While Barraclough and Doolittle have been tremendous, the Nationals have hardly had any reliable arms in the middle innings. The Rosenthal experiment was a disaster, and Joe Ross’ move back to the bullpen has been equally ill-fated.
Matt Grace and Wander Suero look good from an advanced metrics standpoint, but they have failed to get outs in big spots. Grace had a 6.75 ERA as of May 8, and Suero had a 7.07 for a Nats bullpen that ranks 17th in the bigs in terms of fWAR.
Unfortunately, bullpen issues are nothing new for Washington fans. The Nats ranked 25th in bullpen fWAR in 2018 and 17th in a 97-win 2017 season. Only with the starting rotation off to a slower start and the lineup not scoring as many runs, these struggles have been amplified so far this season as Washington has a -23 run differential.
As previously mentioned, Nats pitchers have hardly been helped out by one of the worst defenses in baseball this season. Still, Washington needs to get contributions from their bullpen in high leverage spots, otherwise Martinez will continue to ask too much of the starters (especially the top three).
Lack of confidence?
Sure, former Washington manager Dusty Baker was fired–as many other managers and coaches have–for failing to win a playoff series. Still, he had a reputation as a player’s manager and a winner in the bigs.
Martinez, on the other hand, remains fairly new to managerial exploits, and there were plenty of rumors last season that he and Harper were often not on the same page. Then there is this:
Nationals under Dusty Baker in 2017: 97-65
Nationals under Dave Martinez total: 96-100.
— Joe Posnanski (@JPosnanski) May 7, 2019
Of course, Martinez does not make decisions behind the scenes. He has to manage with the personnel he has on the field. Still, it is not hard to wonder whether or not there is a real sense of urgency for a manager whose only real taste of winning came as a bench coach with the Chicago Cubs in 2016.
In a division where the Phillies and Braves seem likely to get better as the year goes along, the Nationals cannot afford to climb into a big hole. Washington must find a way to turn things around despite their injuries, or their manager could pay the price.