The Nats are losing a lot of games. Bryce Harper’s slump kept me up for several nights last week. But even bad pizza is still pizza, and even the worst One Direction song is still an absolute banger. The Nats are doing poorly and yet they still bring me joy. Watching games, listening to games, even seeing score notifications on my phone while I do homework: all of these experiences deliver small moments of simple gladness.
Daniel Murphy’s prolonged absence from the Nationals’ lineup, which thankfully concluded on June 12, was quite possibly the biggest reason for the team’s status as a sleeping giant. Yes, I realize the club sits well over .500 thanks to a 26-12 stretch after a 11-16 start, but the squad undeniably receives a super boost with the return of one of MLB’s finest sluggers – if that slugger can return to his 2016-17 form, a notion that is in doubt.
When Max Scherzer signed a 7-year, $210 million contract with the Nationals prior to the 2015 season, the move was universally seen as a great move that could take an extremely talented team into the stratosphere.
This was kinda, sorta supposed to be the weekend.
The Nats had started the season slowly, ran rampant across May, and flew down to the ATL in first place in the NL East, primed to extend a lead that shouldn’t have taken two months to grab.
Continue Reading Is The Best Still Yet To Come?
Usually, there’s a pretty clear picture of all the prospects in the minors that the Nationals can call up if they need to. When a reliever gets the call, usually there’s a feeling of “I’ve heard of that guy before.” But Justin Miller? He came out of nowhere. The only thought when he came up was “Who?” Now we seek to answer the question: Who the heck is this man?
Continue Reading Where the Heck Did Justin Miller Come From?
Last month, I dove into the Nats’, a period that ended with Washington sitting below .500, performing well below expectations and nursing injuries. The latter is still true, but the team managed to put together an outstanding month of May as numerous replacements performed well above expectations, leading to a 19-7 record. The other key to this surge: outstanding starting pitching and a much, much improved bullpen. And the injured troops are steadily on their way back, at the perfect time.
Let’s dive into the numbers.
All stats are through May 31, courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com.
.312 OBP – 10th in NL
.439 SLG – 5th in NL
101 wRC+ – 6th in NL
12 stolen bases – 8th in NL
What sticks out here? Power. The Nats led the National League in homers for the month of May with 41, leading to a 41-point improvement in team slugging over the month of April. Bryce Harper unsurprisingly led the team with 10 dingers, while Matt Adams was not far behind with 9. Next on the list is Mark Reynolds, who has taken 6 balls out of the park in just 14 games (47 plate appearances). Talk about a big May addition. I have no idea what the Nats are going to do when Ryan Zimmerman comes off the disabled list, because carrying three first basemen seems counterproductive. One or two big power bats could end up on the bench – or one of Adams and Reynolds could be traded out of town.
Anthony Rendon has rounded into form since coming off the disabled list, posting a 137 wRC+ in 22 games in May. Wilmer Difo, as I’ve discussed previously, continues to make outstanding contributions, posting a 121 wRC+ and providing spectacular defense. And of course, there’s the welcome debut of one Juan Soto, who has posted a .333/.415/.500 line in his first 41 Major League plate appearances. With Michael Taylor continuing to struggle (51 wRC+ in May), Brian Goodwin set to return and Adam Eaton making his way through rehab, the outfield is going to be log-jammed very soon, just like the first base position. My guess as to how the Nats handle this: Taylor only starts against lefties, with Goodwin rotating in against righties to give Eaton some rest as he returns from another extended absence.
One last thing: I can’t wait for Daniel Murphy to come back.
171.0 IP – 1st in NL
2.26 ERA – 1st in NL
2.81 FIP – 1st in NL
9.95 K/9 – T-2nd in NL
2.47 BB/9 – 2nd in NL
0.63 HR/9 – 1st in NL
Here’s where the Nats made their hay in the month of May (sorry, I had to). I mean, wow. Literally first or second in every category here.
This is an appropriate time to admire just how fantastic the Nationals’ rotation has been over the years. Having four pitchers that you can rely on for stable production in Scherzer, Strasburg, Gonzalez and Roark means the Nats are never truly out of any pennant race if all of them can get locked in at the same time. That’s exactly what happened in May. The offense was solid, but the Nats are not even sniffing first place right now without the rotation going all scorched-Earth for an entire month.
Yikes – I didn’t even mention Jeremy Hellickson. Like Mark Reynolds, Hellickson is a veteran who sat around waiting for an opportunity in spring training and is now contributing healthily to a contending team. In five May starts, Hellickson posted a 1.30 ERA backed up by a 2.69 FIP, with a ridiculous 0.65 BB/9 and a 0.65 HR/9. I highly doubt this will keep up, especially when I see the .246 BABIP against, but five starts worth of elite production out of Hellickson is something I never expected.
Now, one standout May number for each of the Nats’ big four:
– 63 strikeouts in 40.2 innings for Max Scherzer. Just give him the Cy Young already.
– Just 3 home runs allowed by Stephen Strasburg in 32.1 innings, after surrendering 7 home runs in 39.2 innings prior to May.
– 1.47 ERA for Gio, who continues to find a way to strand runners and limit damage.
– 0.26 HR/9 for Tanner Roark. The crafty veteran may give up his share of runners, but limiting the long ball goes a long way to him being able to pitch late into games.
3.13 ERA – 6th in NL
3.47 FIP – 3rd in NL
9.26 K/9 – 3rd in NL
2.74 BB/9 – 2nd in NL
0.91 HR/9 – 6th in NL
This is where the Nats saw the most improvement from the first month. The bullpen finally stabilized, cutting way down on home runs and walks given up. Much like the lineup, contributions were made from unlikely places.
Justin Miller and Tim Collins have made a combined 8 appearances and registered just 15 outs, but it feels like more than that. Miller is a journeyman who has somehow K’d 5 of the 8 batters he’s faced. Collins provides another lefty option beyond Sammy Solis, who was again relied on heavily in May, with 14 appearances. The duo helped bridge the gap to Brandon Kintzler and Sean Doolittle, as has Wander Suero, another call-up that pitched to a 2.70 ERA in 10 innings this past month.
Speaking of Kintzler and Doolittle: their top-notch performances made up for the absence of Ryan Madson, who has now returned to the ‘pen after a DL stint. Brandon somehow navigated through a .432 BABIP for the month to post a 2.65 FIP in 10.2 innings. As for Doolittle – total dominance. In May, a total of 2 runs given up in 12.1 innings, which both came in his lone blown save of the year on May 19 vs. the Dodgers. On the season, the bespectacled beast is second in reliever WAR. It’s about time the Nats had the closer position figured out before the trade deadline.
With Ryan Madson’s activation from the DL, Trevor Gott got the short end of the stick and was sent back to the minors. The Nationals are due to get the cavalry back from the DL very shortly and will activate a number of important, formerly injured players. With all these players to add back to the roster, who should get the ax to make room?
The players believed to be returning soon are Brian Goodwin, Daniel Murphy, Matt Grace, and Adam Eaton. That means two outfielders, an infielder, and a reliever should be sent back to the minors.
There are a number of relievers the Nats can choose from, the most likely candidates being Tim Collins, Justin Miller, and Wander Suero. The Nats can go a few different ways with this decision, depending on how they want to balance the bullpen. Grace is a lefty, and Collins is the only one out of that selected group who is left-handed, so that would be a natural replacement. He has, however, been effective in his limited appearances this season. In 2.2 innings over 5 games, he struck out three batters, walked one, and allowed zero runs. He has also had a few Tommy Johns, which could be a factor in his workload down the stretch.
Justin Miller is a relatively under-the-radar pitcher who could easily be sent down, but he’s also performed well in a limited amount of time. In 2.1 innings over 3 games, he struck out five, walked none, and given up zero runs. There’s a lot unknown about him, but if you look at his numbers, his career ERA is 4.86, so that could be a reason for demotion. It has also been two years since he’s pitched in the big leagues, and he could be turning a new leaf. We just don’t know.
Wander Suero is the youngest of the three, and perhaps has the biggest upside. Unlike Collins and Miller, this is his first go-around in the bigs, and there is a lot of potential for him to grow. On the flip side, maybe it means he needs more seasoning in the minors. He has pitched pretty well in the big leagues. In 10 games, he has a 2.70 ERA with 8 strikeouts, 4 walks, and a WHIP of 1.30. Pretty solid, especially for a player of his age. Suero would probably not be my pick to take off the roster, but he’s on the list. Admittedly, I don’t know anything about contract situations and who has an option so this decision could be taken out of their hands due to that.
The easiest decision to make is in the infield: when Daniel Murphy comes back, Adrian Sanchez leaves. I like him and he’s a great guy to have on the bench, but there’s no question here. The rest of your infield roster consists of Matt Adams, Wilmer Difo, Anthony Rendon, Matt Reynolds, and Trea Turner. Sanchez plays the middle infield and third, he’s the natural person for Murphy to replace, and that’s what’s going to happen. Murphy will slide back into the lineup, probably splitting some time with Difo as he gets back into game shape. See you next infield injury or for September call-ups, Adrian.
The outfield is sticky. On the one hand, the first decision is quite easy. No matter whether Goodwin or Eaton comes back first, they’re booting Andrew Stevenson back to the minors. He’s a good kid, but there’s just no room for him. And when the second guy comes back…the Nats are probably going to have to send Juan Soto back to the minors. Soto has been superb, and he’s really provided a spark, but he’s young, and, like with Stevenson, there’s just not enough room in the outfield. His call-up was completely unexpected anyway, and he’ll tear up the minors and become even better. I don’t like it, but it’s what I see has to happen. The silver lining is that if he’s in the minors, it means Eaton is back and healthy, and Spanky is perfectly capable of setting the table and providing a much-needed spark in the lineup.
It’s going to be difficult to say goodbye to some of these guys, as they’ve done yeoman’s work while the regulars had the plague, but this team is getting close to being healthy, and they’re finally going to be in top condition and ready to explode.
Until proven otherwise, the Nats’ bullpen will be “the thing.” Sure, the bats have gone cold in October, and Max Scherzer inopportunely tweaked his hammy last year. But the Bryce Harper Era for most fans will be defined by the bullpen. And Pete Kozma. Even now it’s a sore subject.
This year the bullpen (as a whole) has been league average, though that’s mostly inflated by a dominant Sean Doolittle than the result a collection of league-average-or-above arms. What’s worse is that peppered across the league are former Nats ‘pen arms who have found new, productive life on other teams. Craig Stammen is killing it for the Padres? A.J. Cole* is getting outs for the Yankees?? Drew Storen is still in baseball??? (Just kidding on that last one).
To drown our sadness, let’s play a game.
The Nats have used 14 bullpen arms this year, with yearly contracts that total approximately $29 million. Altogether, these pitchers have accumulated 1.2 WAR (eight have posted negative WAR, making Pablo Sandoval a more valuable reliever than more than half of the Nats pen). Using current and former Nats arms, can you build a better eight-man bullpen for the money?
So go ahead, choose your fighters and let us know, in the comments or on Twitter, how your bullpens stack up.
*We’re counting Nats A.J. Cole and Yankees A.J. Cole as two different pitchers. Why? Look at the numbers and tell me that’s the same guy.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this, but the first couple weeks of this season were unpleasant. The Nats didn’t do so hot. They lost more games than we’re used to losing so early, and while that did make the wins more enjoyable, it wasn’t particularly good for my anxiety as I eyed the standings and divisional matchups and read all the reporters’ tweets about how the team was underperforming.