This time last year, Nationals fans were watching implosion after implosion after implosion coming from the bullpen—leading to the worst reliever ERA in the majors. Mike Rizzo, doing what he does best, went out and formed The Law Firm of Kintzler, Madson, and Doolittle. The second half of 2017, the Nats bullpen was one of the better in the majors. After the season, he also convinced Brandon Kintzler to eschew more high-profile closer roles, and return to DC for a chance at a title. How much better has 2018 been?
About two-and-a-half weeks ago, fellow TNB writer Nathaniel Brose thoroughly detailed Trea Turner’s increased selectiveness at the plate. Like many of us, she was waiting for Turner to start hitting. Trea has been getting on base all year — he has failed to reach base in only six games in 2018. Coming into play on the on April 11, he was slashing a paltry .195/.340/.268. He had just one extra-base hit in that span too, a home run.
Well, here we go — the 2018 MLB season is upon us! The Washington Nationals are once again heavy favorites to win the NL East, as the rest of the division, while improved, is not ready for prime time. The Nationals are stacked—they boast one of the best lineups and rotations in the Majors. They have a very deep bench, and an underrated bullpen. Will the Nationals win a third consecutive division title? Will it matter in October? It begins…
After Dusty Baker‘s firing, Barry Svrluga wrote a column for the Washington Post analyzing the Nationals’ decision to not retain him —and what it means for the next manager. In his article, Mr. Svrluga states the Baker departure is both surprising and understandable. Baker was somewhat of a polarizing manager. He is lauded for his handling players and the clubhouse—a dimension this team sorely needed after Matt Williams ham-handed approach. However, his in-game decisions, particularly in the playoffs, are dubious. While the players love him, there are a few decisions that are objectively questionable:
The Nationals are cruising to their fourth division title in six years. Most importantly, they have played well with an MLB-high 12 men on the disabled list. On the night Jayson Werth and Max Scherzer came off the disabled list, they clown-pounded the white-hot Marlins. They followed that up by completing the sweep with Vintage Strasmas: Stephen Strasburg pitching a complete-game shutout in which he also homered. Trea Turner is back and running all over the bases. This team is getting healthy, and game one against the Marlins is a reminder of what this lineup can do when healthy. Regular season success is nice, but the playoffs is what matters. Thomas Boswell put it so eloquently, as emblazoned on the walls of the Hall of Fame:
“Baseball is really two sports — the summer game and the autumn game. One is the leisurely pastime of our national mythology. The other is not so gentle.”
Another trade deadline has come and gone, and Mike Rizzo did what he does best: bolster the Nationals roster without selling the farm. While teams like the Cubs, Dodgers, and Yankees made major moves, the Nationals made less heralded moves that fix the major issues with this team: bullpen and bench outfielders.
…Hey-na, hey-na, the bullpen’s back!
With the addition of Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson, the bullpen has started to take shape and has been very effective. Two of the Nats most reliable starters faltered on this recent road trip — Max Scherzer surrendered five runs in the first two innings, on back-to-back-to-back home runs to lead off the game. Yesterday, Nats fans everywhere collectively held their breath as Stephen Strasburg left after just 51 pitches with some forearm stiffness. What happened next will blow your mind!
The Washington Nationals have followed up each division-winning/disappointing playoff loss season with an even more disappointing campaign. 2013 and 2015 were ravaged by poor performance, injuries, and a lack of overall depth. 2012 saw injuries to Jayson Werth and Michael Morse; Bryce Harper was a rookie. While we were relatively healthy, our bench was outstanding — “The Shark,” Roger Bernadina posted a career best 1.7 WAR, hitting .291/.372/.405. He was one of the best pinch-hitters in the league that year. Along with Bernadina, Tyler Moore had an .840 OPS; Chad Tracy posted a .784 OPS; post-deadline pickup and current Nat-killer Kurt Suzuki had a .725 OPS. All of them provided valuable, quality at-bats off the bench. They would all crater in 2013, as no one off the bench with more than 50 plate appearances had an OPS higher than .625. They did not have the depth to make up for injuries to Werth and Harper and the struggles of starters like Adam LaRoche. 2015 brought a mirror of 2013, with a struggling bullpen and horrible string of injuries that would see the opening day lineup together for just two games. They got a very good year from Clint Robinson annd a late season surge from Matt den Dekker, but they did not have enough to make up for injuries, under-performances, and Matt Williams.
Once again, Anthony Rendon does not get the recognition he deserves. He is arguably the best third baseman in the league. He does everything well — hitting, fielding, throwing, baserunning. Part of the problem is there is no player less likely to self-promote than Two Bags. In the epic 23-5 drubbing of the Mets, he went 6-for-6 with three homers and 10 RBI, but in the post-game interview, he praised the pitching, flat out denying Dan Kolko any self-praise whatsoever. Joe Ross failed to complete 5 innings that day, giving up 5 ER on 7 hits and two home runs. His interviews have become him dodging any questions from MASN Dan that have anything to do with patting himself on the back. Getting snubbed from the All-Star Game probably matters less to Rendon than any other player. He simply is not the baseball rat that Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer, Daniel Murphy, Stephen Strasburg, or Ryan Zimmerman is. Since Anthony in unwilling to do it, this space at The Nats Blog will do it for him.
With a nine-game lead, a potent offense, one of the best pitchers in baseball, a stout rotation following him (Tanner and Ross’ struggles notwithstanding) it’s a fun summer to be a Nationals fan. As we laugh at every Mets goof, gaffe, and idiotic mistake after idiotic mistake, we are ignoring the looming specter of the real challenger in the NL East: The Atlanta Braves.
Get ready for that annoying chop played 64 times an inning. The Freeze is cool now, pun intended, but get ready to hate him too. The Braves have many of their pieces in place already, and have more coming…a lot more.