At long last, I’m back to discuss the state of the Washington Nationals. There’s definitely no shortage of topics. The Nationals are 14–20 through the first chunk of the season, eerily similar to last year. The pitching staff hasn’t lived up to its billing (resulting in a coaching change), injuries are mounting, and many players have been placed in roles that never seemed possible entering the season.
But it’s not all bad. The war of attrition could actually pay major dividends as the summer months approach. Even so, the next 50 games could make or break the team and manager Dave Martinez.
The coaching change
I don’t usually place a lot of stock in the changing of assistant coaches, but Washington’s pitching coach post merits discussion. Following Thursday’s 2–1 victory over the Cardinals (a win that saved the Nationals from a four-game sweep), the team cut ties with Derek Lilliquist. Quite frankly, this was a long time coming.
The #Nats team ERA was the highest it had been in the “good Nats era” (2012 until present) last season (4.04), Derek Lilliquist’s first season in D.C.
So far this year, the team ERA is 4.95 (3rd from the bottom in the NL). #OnePursuit
— Stephen Newman (@stephen_newman1) May 3, 2019
The only questionable element of his firing is the timing. After all, the much-maligned bullpen was in the midst of a 16-inning scoreless streak and had gotten its collective ERA below 6.00 for the first time all season.
Nonetheless, there are many reports suggesting that Lilliquist (who was widely regarded as Martinez’s hire prior to 2018) was unable to both communicate with and prepare pitchers throughout his tenure in D.C. While this had often shown up in the bullpen, it most notably reared its ugly head last season with Tanner Roark last season. Unable to command his offspeed pitches, reliever Brandon Kintzler came to his aid, and there were immediate returns. Meanwhile, Kintzler opted to call out leadership — which, in hindsight, was clearly Lilliquist — for not providing a positive environment.
Paul Menhart, who has been in the organization since 2006 as a minor league pitching coach/coordinator, is widely respected within the organization, particularly for his communication. That may seem like a lot of talk, but he seems to also be more willing to visit the mound to discuss strategy with his pitchers — I can’t speak to what happens behind closed doors, and it’s too soon to make that evaluation anyway.
Menhart has also been credited for working with top pitching prospect Wil Crowe, along with re-creating Erick Fedde‘s delivery. Both have recently taken off and could quickly become big-league fixtures.
The injury bug
Now onto the team itself. Productivity hasn’t been great, but the larger problem has been health. The injured list continues to grow, and it just added another name on Sunday.
Matt Adams goes to the 10-day injured list with a left shoulder strain. Jake Noll has been recalled from the AAA Fresno Grizzlies.
Key Nationals on the injured list:
— Jesse Dougherty (@dougherty_jesse) May 5, 2019
The Nationals are now onto their third-string first baseman. Additionally, Jake Noll was their last remaining position player (excluding catcher) on the 40-man roster who wasn’t either on the active roster or injured. In fact, they also only have one more active catcher in the minor leagues, Spencer Kieboom—who, at last check, was 6-for-42 in AA Harrisburg, with a solo extra-base hits (a double).
Michael A. Taylor also underwent an MRI on his left wrist as a result of a diving play on Saturday night.
— federalbaseball (@federalbaseball) May 5, 2019
With four of their top hitters out and Victor Robles getting a day off, here’s what the Nationals were faced with on Saturday.
Nats starting lineup has a .200 hitter .189, .111, and .107 and none of those are the pitcher. The pitcher is batting .300 on the season.
— Talk Nats ⚾ (@TalkNats2) May 5, 2019
Sunday’s lineup wasn’t better, either. Martinez gave Howie Kendrick a day off, leaving just one starter (Kurt Suzuki) with an OPS-plus higher than league-average — Robles was also exactly average (100).
If there’s a bright side, it’s that the Nationals are still within five games of the Phillies for the division lead, and they have reinforcements coming. Anthony Rendon is swinging the bat and expected to return as soon as he’s eligible, which is Tuesday. Juan Soto also isn’t expected to be away for long, and Trea Turner is reportedly ahead of schedule.
Trea Turner just gave his first update in a while. Said he’s “fairly close” to hitting and throwing. Described himself as “a little ahead of schedule.” He’s 4 1/2 weeks into rehab for broken index finger.
— Mark Zuckerman (@MarkZuckerman) May 4, 2019
In the meantime, shortstop prospect Carter Kieboom has received a trial by fire, with very mixed results. He has five hits, four walks, and 16 strikeouts in 43 plate appearances and has had a handful (maybe even two handfuls) of defensive miscues, but he also has two multi-hit games in his 11 appearances, as well as two game-tying home runs. The future is still bright, but what happens to him when Turner returns is still up in the air, although a return to the minors appears increasingly likely. In fact, I think he could use some in-game reps in the minors at other positions, as versatility would dramatically increase his value this season—plus he’ll never be the everyday shortstop in Washington.
As of now, the infield is comprised of Kendrick (who is hitting extremely well, but playing out of position at either first or third base), two rookies (Kieboom and Noll, when he starts), a slugging second baseman with a batting average under .200 (Brian Dozier), and a light-hitting utility man (Wilmer Difo). Needless to say, Rendon’s return — and eventually the other veterans’ — will be welcomed with open arms.
The outfield is simply running out of bodies. With Soto on the IL and fill-in Andrew Stevenson (who left Monday’s game with what appeared to be an oblique injury) unavailable, the unit is down to three healthy bodies, and one is Taylor, who owns an otherwise unplayable .103/.212/.138 slash line while striking out in exactly half of his plate appearances. Even his health is very much in doubt. With no clear solutions in the organization, they may need to add a player.
He may not be the answer, but Matt Kemp was just released today.
— Stephen Newman (@stephen_newman1) May 5, 2019
Rotation, rotation, rotation
We can skip the bullpen. It isn’t perfect, but it’s come a long way recently. If nothing else, Washington now has a clear setup man (Kyle Barraclough) to bridge to Sean Doolittle in the ninth inning, and some of the situational roles are beginning to take form.
The bigger concern may be the underperforming starting rotation, particularly the back end. Anibal Sanchez and Jeremy Hellickson each have an ERA over 5.00, substantially higher than they recorded last season. Trusting them every five days may not be the issue so much as how you manage them is — although that’s subject to change.
Half the battle with Sanchez and Hellickson — and most fourth or fifth starters, for that matter—is that they only give you five or six innings because they typically struggle the third time through the lineup. However, removing them so soon creates a bullpen conundrum that this roster doesn’t consistently have an answer for.
Fedde, who is currently stashed in AA, and Joe Ross each have experience as starters, but are currently being deployed as relievers. It’s logical, considering that the team has five quality starters, but that likely isn’t where they will end up in the near future. More importantly, they have experience “opening” games. It would be unconventional, but I wouldn’t rule out one of them becoming an opener at some point this season. After all, the uncertainty of when you’ll enter a game is one of the most difficult elements of being a reliever. So if Ross or Fedde won’t be groomed as long-term bullpen arms, why force them to play the mind games associated with being one?
We’ll see how everything plays out, but on paper—which clearly isn’t how games are played—it looks like things can only get better for the Nationals.