Pain. As we reach the quarter point of the season, the Nationals have hit their first real rough patch, losing four of six to teams that are a combined 12 games under .500. The Pirates, who have the second-worst offense in MLB, scored 20 runs over the three-game series. The Braves were one of the most power deficient offenses in the league—especially so without Nat-killer extraordinaire Freddie Freeman. Atlanta hit six home runs in their two victories before Strasburg dealt them the Ace of Spades and shut them down over 7.2 IP. For all the good the Nationals have, there are some cracks in the foundation. For the starting pitching, the bullpen, lineup, and bench, we will look at the areas of concern, and how significant they are.
The lineup is cooling—which is to be expected. Bryce Harper is just one for this last 20, with no walks and six Ks. The Ryanaissance has calmed, as Ryan Zimmerman has gone three for 17. Daniel Murphy was the only one to hit well against Pittsburgh. Anthony Rendon has cooled, just 5 for his last 27, albeit with 10 walks. However, the lineup is still one of the most potent in the Majors, leading in just about every major statistical category. Zimmerman is a streaky hitter, Rendon a slow starter. Murphy and Harper will continue to rake.
But, there are still some issues. Both circle around the Adam Eaton injury (some jackass wrote about how he was going to fix everything…). Trea Turner has struggled since Spanky went down, hitting just .171/.216/.280, striking out 22 times in the 20 games since. His peripherals are all the worst they have been in his career, including the minors and his 2015 cup of coffee. His BABIP is down over 100 points from last year. Michael Conforto went through a similar sophomore slump and never broke out of it, until this year. Turner is showing signs of breaking out of that slump. He has been hitting the ball better lately so he may do it. His K rate is down to 18% over his last 10 games, and he has hit safely in three of his last four, with two multi-hit games. But his offense is still a concern.
Michael A. Taylor, on the other hand, has done very well since Eaton’s injury, slashing a robust .319/.356/.536. However, his K rate over that stretch is still 36.5%. His stat-line is driven by an incredible .500 BABIP. He is essentially June 2016 Danny Espinosa. When he comes back to Earth, it won’t be pretty. All of his peripherals, save BABIP, are about the same to years past. He is hitting the ball a little harder, but not enough to justify his gaudy statistics. While I expect Turner to rebound, I expect Taylor to fall off. Even in the 8th slot of the batting order, he could become a major issue.
The biggest concern with the starting pitching may have been alleviated as I wrote this piece. Joe Ross returned from his AAA hiatus to shut down a Mariners lineup featuring some big bats in Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, Jean Segura, and Robinson Cano. Most importantly, after a mid-game dip in velocity, he was sitting 91-93 in the 8th, with a very good slider. He also worked an effective changeup. It’s just one start—but it was very promising to see. Ross blocking that revolving door, allowing Jacob Turner to be the swing-man from the bullpen, will be a big lift to both the tired rotation and beleaguered bullpen.
In addition to the 5th starter woes, Tanner Roark has not been himself. His last two outings, he has given up 11 ER over 9.2 IP against less-than-stellar offenses in Pittsburgh and the Freeman-less Braves. Most notably, his signature swing-back fast ball has not been swinging back. He is getting hit harder than his horribly mismanaged year in 2015: Hard% in 2015 was 26.3%, this year it’s 28.6%. More importantly, he is not getting his trademark weak contact. His soft% is down to just 16.2%, from 23.1% last year. With Gio Gonzalez’s regression over his last four starts: 1-3, 4.63 ERA, 6.55 BB/9, 2.7 HR/9, OPS against .935, it is imperative Roark recovers his 2014 and 2016 form. As it stands right now, we have Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg and pray for rain.
Ok, let’s start with who isn’t a concern: Killer Koda Glover. Glover has only given up four ER this year, which came in three of his 15 appearances. Since returning from the DL, he is unscored upon, walking 1 batter, while striking out 4 over 4.1 IP. His strikeout of Nick Markakis on his way to a four-out save to end the Nats’ four-game skid was gutsy. He is the Kloser.
The rest of the pen is downright scary. Shawn Kelley, since returning from the DL, has not done well. He blew a save against the Phillies on May 14th. He has not thrown less than 20 pitches in any appearance, reaching 31 against the Braves, dodging a bases-loaded jam in a close game. In 3.1 IP, he has walked 5 batters.
Enny Romero is enigmatic. His 100-MPH fastball is rare for a left-hander. While he has controlled his walks, walking 2.7 per 9, he is giving up 11.1 H/9, and batters are enjoying a .853 OPS against. That fastball is so tantalizing, but the results aren’t there. If he had options, he’d be in AAA right now.
Over the last month, Blake Treinen has a .467 BABIP against. He has controlled his walks too, issuing just two while striking out 11 over his last 9.1 IP. However, there is that unsightly .975 OPS, 5 doubles, and a home run. I want to say he is close to turning it around, but then he has games like he did against the Pirates where he gives up a pair of doubles, allowing both inherited runners to score.
Joe Blanton is on the DL, he still served up two home runs.
Matt Albers is starting to regress, posting a 3.68 ERA in May. The biggest concern with Albers is him allowing 75% of his inherited runners to score in May. Perez is a mediocre LOOGY with a 1.271 OPS against, turning every RHB he faces into Zimmerman. He’s been just okay against lefties, who are hitting .718 OPS against. This bullpen in currently unwatchable.
There is some light on the horizon. Mike Rizzo has publicly acknowledged the bullpen is terrible so there will be moves. Sammy Solis is still on the DL, but he was just sent to West Palm to start working and his return could come in the next fewweeks. His injury could be the reason behind his struggles. Trevor Gott has found something at AAA where he’s given up just one ER in May. He has a 2.88 FIP, a 16.4% line drive rate, and a 57.4% GB rate. He is getting more than two groundballs for every flyball. Most importantly, he’s dropped his walks to 1.86 per 9. He will be up soon if he continues this pace. Erick Fedde transitioned to the bullpen but is off to rocky start there with a 6.75 ERA. But, he has given just four hits over four IP, while striking out seven. Fedde seems to struggle in a new role or environment before settling in, as he did in both his promotion to Potomac and Harrisburg. This ‘pen will see at least four new additions: Gott, Fedde, and two proven relievers, possibly a closer if they aren’t sold on Glover in that role.
This area might rival the bullpen in ineptitude, especially from the right side. Homerun (Chris) Heisey has become Automatic Out Heisey. In 15 PAs as a pinch-hitter, he’s 0-14 with one walk and six strikeouts. It reminds me of the drop off from Chad Tracy in 2013. He was a good backup and decent pinch hitter in 2012, and completely awful in 2013. Wilmer Difo is just 1 for 8 as a PH with a walk. He is a solid defensive replacement, posting 1.4 dWAR per Fangraphs. He is a contact hitter who strikes out only 18.3% of the time and is probably the second fastest player on the team behind Turner. His BABIP is low at .235. He’s still young enough to rebound and his BABIP will rise—especially with his speed. He doesn’t have much power, but he can turn a walk into a double very easily. It would not surprise me if Heisey was replaced. He’s a good guy, a Dusty favorite, a clubhouse “glue” guy, which are nice, but it’s about production—if he doesn’t produce, he’ll need to be upgraded.Tags: Adam Eaton, Blake Treinen, Bryce Harper, Chris Heisey, Daniel Murphy, Enny Romero, Erick Fedde, Gio Gonzalez, Joe Blanton, Joe Ross, Koda Glover, Matt Albers, Max Scherzer, Michael A Taylor, Mike Rizzo, Nationals, Nats, Ryan Zimmerman, Sammy Solis, Shawn Kelley, Stephen Strasburg, Tanner Roark, Trea Turner, Trevor Gott, Washington Nationals, Wilmer Difo