For the Washington Nationals, today’s off-day may also be a shoving-off day for some lackluster players. The team has just finished a 1 for 5 road trip against the O’s and Braves, culminating in a being a game under .500 and 6 1/2 of the Braves. With 105 games left in the season, nothing is decided-but 1/3 of the way into the season there are a lot of problems with the team.
The Nationals finished May with a 15-12 record, The Braves 16-13. Very similar records, with the Braves playing (and splitting) two more games than the Nats. The pivot game of this weekend’s series featured a 2-1 loss in 10 innings, a game that a mildly better offense might have won. With a second win in Atlanta, the outlook on this Monday would be different-and if wishes were nickels I’d be rich. Point being, however, the Nats and Braves are fairly evenly matched despite this 6 1/2 game hole.
Time is not against the Nats yet, but this task will get tougher by the day. The Nationals need for a few things to happen, and to make a few things happen, if they want to get back into this race. Here, at the back-end of Spring, are some late Spring Cleaning suggestions for the Washington Nationals. Starting with…
- Get Healthy Bats: Not much they Nats can do about this one, but it is the biggest problem they have. During our Get To Know A Nat segments you may have picked up on a theme that the only real danger to the team was injuries to starters. Well, this is danger Will Robinson. Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos are all not playing (tho Jayson is due back Tuesday). Ryan Zimmerman has also missed time and Danny Espinosa is playing with a torn rotator cuff and broken wrist. (I’m not a doctor but I don’t know he can do that or the team can let him.) This is a self correcting problem, hopefully, as the Nationals will get these guys back throughout the year. Over the next two weeks Harper and Werth will be back and that will greatly improve the offense on its own.
- Get Healthy Arms: All of the above is just the hitters by the way. Missing Ross Detwiler-who looked near unstoppable in most of his starts this year-has really put a strain on the bullpen. The Nationals don’t have a reliable sixth starter, as they say and so missing one starter is a tough spot for them. Missing two, if Stephen Strasburg’s pulled muscle is an even bigger issue. Stras had begun to light it up until he was pulled from the second inning against the Braves on Friday night. Hopefully this is no more than one start he misses (and less than that would be fine too). Of course, Ryan Mattheus punching a locker and missing six weeks is a huge strain on an already taxed pitching staff, and if he wasn’t such a good pitcher I’d think about cutting him as soon as he got back for that idiot move.
- Cut Some Dead Weight: If the Nationals were a completely healthy team so far this year I think they’d be about 3 games better in the W column right now. That said, that wouldn’t be enough and that’s because there is still room for improvement once everyone comes back. A third of the way into the season you may not have seen everything a guy can/can’t do, but you may have seen enough. As such, there are some really unhelpful players on the Nationals roster right now.
First to go is Zach Duke who offers nothing to the Nationals. In 20.2 innings he’s given up 30 hits and 22 earned runs. It’s really hard to give up more runs than innings you’ve pitched-he’s awful and on Sunday when the Nationals had a chance to keep it close he gave up two runs and got just two outs. Mike Rizzo earlier this year said he wasn’t going to sign a lefty reliever just because he is left handed. Well he shouldn’t keep one on the roster for the same reason either.
Second, despite my defending him as “not that awful” yesterday, is Henry Rodriguez. It’s true he’s not as bad as everyone claims, but it’s also true the Nationals likely don’t trust him much more than the fans do. Until Saturday night the Nationals hadn’t been bringing him into games at points which really matter. He was almost exclusively pitching in games that were lost already. With Mattheus on the DL for 6 weeks, the Nats can’t afford to have a closer that sits around waiting for bad stuff to happen. They need a guy who can enter the game and help the team, not just save better arms for the next day. If he had options, you could demote him-but he doesn’t. He’ll need to be DFA’d and, with a little luck, maybe resign with the team on a minor league deal. He’s got the raw end of it given his injury last year, but the Nats don’t have room for projects on a team that is supposed to e playing a lot better than it is.
While I wouldn’t fire one of these guys, I would send either
Roger Bernadina or Tyler Moore down to AAA. Their platoon hasn’t been helpful at all, their defense isn’t great (Shark makes a lot of spectacular catches because he often has to make up for making a bad first step) and both are really struggling at the plate. You’d have to wait until at least Jayson Werth gets back on Tuesday to do this so you’re not relying on too many new players. EDIT: Shark is actually out of options, so like H-Rod he would need to be DFA’d and the Nats would risk losing him. THat makes Tyler Moore the more likely demotion candidate by far. Thanks to @szul for catching the error.
When Harper and Werth or both playing, you can also put Danny Espinosa on the DL/send him down to AAA as well. Do I think Danny Espinosa is a washed up terrible player who can’t play? Absolutely not. I think he’s an injured guy doing an amazing job with the hobbled body he has. That said, he’s not getting better. His body, or his brain, is preventing him from turning the corner at the plate like he should have by now. I’m willing to believe this is a health problem versus a “he’s hit his ceiling” problem, and I hasten to add that Steve Lombardozzi is only about 30% better than a hurting Espi…but he’s still 30% better at this point. So shift Lombo to 2nd for the time being, and get Espi out of there for a bit to see if he can get whatever he needs to get right, right.
Lastly, I might give the captain of the Goon Squad Chad Tracy the boot as well. He hasn’t played well in his limited playing time this year, and frankly the rest of the bench hasn’t either-so I’m not buying the veteran leadership thing with him this year. Tracy is a good guy, but it might be a good message for the rest of the team that people need to step up a bit. Last year the bench was a key for the Nationals in stretches without starters. This year they’ve been flat. The boss may have to fall on his sword for this one.
- New Blood: Last year, as I wrote above, the key to the Nationals playing well through injuries was a young, hungry bench that contributed to the team. This year’s bench has been brutally unhelpful and it’s time for some new guys to get chances.
Nathan Karns has done well for a rookie in his first two starts this year, and when a Stras and Det are cleared to play again I think he’d make a good long reliever to replace Duke. Erik Davis showed his stuff yesterday against the Braves and he too has pitched more than one inning at a time. Christian Garcia will be getting his chance soon enough as well, as he is finally coming of the DL. He could fill in for the hurt Mattheus or a soon to be replaced H-Rod.
The Nationals also need some young bats. Corey Brown is an option for a guy who’s already on the 40 man and has had some big league experience. He’d be a good replacement for Shark/T-Mo in the outfield bench. Letting Jeff Kobernus bat around a little more is also not a bad idea. Lastly, Anthony Rendon was just brought up to AAA specifically to learn second base. When the team thinks he’s ready to give it a go in the bigs they will bring him up. (he’s made 2 errors at second base in seven games this year…so probably some work yet to do). He offers a much better bat than Lombo and possibly even a healthy Danny Espinosa.
Even with all these changes, the real key to the Nationals getting better is getting healthy. Although the drops and adds might help the Nationals bench come through in tough times, you can only ever expect so much from replacement players. Still, the Nationals need a better system for treading water while waiting to get a few of their star level players back.
We’ll see if the Nats come through with some serious changes between now and Tuesday night’s game against the Mets.