June 26, 2017

Is THIS the Season the Nationals Finally Get Over the Hump?

April 25, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

No doubt the New York Mets will find it easy to look beyond an early season sweep by the Washington Nationals at Citi Field last weekend. But the games still count and seven wins in a row are seven wins to the good regardless when they come. The early season results suggest that the Nationals may have enough this year to go farther into the post-season than in prior runs, but do they really have enough finally to get over the hump?

There are several tells that cannot be overlooked in the first few weeks of the season for Washington. The most obvious ones are the resurgence of Ryan Zimmerman and the return to MVP form by Bryce Harper. They may be the best slugging tandem in baseball at the moment, each with seven home runs and near the top in every offensive category in the National League. The rest of the lineup is none too shabby either with Daniel Murphy able to hit behind them and Adam Eaton and Trea Turner setting them up. The Washington offense is scoring 5.11 guns per game, third in the National League.

As good as the hitting is, the starting pitching is even better. Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg are their own tandem of excellence, but it is the new and improved Gio Gonzalez that could propel the Nationals forward in 2017. Gio has pitched to a 1.35 ERA and is averaging almost seven innings per start. Both figures area a stark departure from his disastrous 2016. With Joe Ross back and Tanner Roark to round out the rotation, they are the second best group in the NL, averaging 1.7 WAR, behind only the Cardinals starters according to Baseball Reference. Subtract the throw-away start by Jeremy Guthrie, who allowed ten earned runs and retired only two batters in his start against the Phillies, and the Nationals have the best pitching in the league.

Then there is that last piece; the one the Nationals never do much about: the bullpen. During the second week of the season, opposing teams were like wolves looking for the stragglers at the end of the herd.  When will Dusty Baker pull his starter so the eating can begin? Blake Treinin failed in his audition as closer, unable to get his 97 mph sinker over the plate consistently. Joe Blanton and most everyone else looked wobbly at times. Even Harper and Zimmerman could not bail them out.

But Sean Kelley and Koda Glover have found new resolve. Kelley had three saves and Glover two during the seven game win streak and have provided late inning stability that GM Mike Rizzo has to hope will last.

The bullpen has been a consistent Achille’s heel for Rizzo. The many memorable meltdowns by Drew Storen and Jonathan Papelbon outnumber any comparable achievements by others. After being outbid for Mark Melancon and Kenley Jansen during the off-season, the Nationals signed Joe Blanton as their primary addition to offset the loss of Melancon from their 2016 playoff run. The proud retort to doubters was that Washington had plenty of internal candidates. Kelley and Glover are what has emerged from the mix, but can they make it work for the long summer months?

After the Kansas City Royals won the World Series in 2015 on the strength of their late inning arms, the rest of baseball has sought to emulate their success. The Yankees had first Betances and Miller, then Betances and Chapman. Cleveland went out and got Miller to augment Cody Allen and they went to the World Series on the strength of their pitching. On the NL side the Cardinals and Dodgers have succeeded with late-inning relievers who could torch the opposition. The Washington front office has too often failed to learn that fundamental lesson on building a winner in the second decade of the 21st century.

The question is whether it is a fatal flaw? Koda Glover has the stuff to be a dominant closer and Shawn Kelley has a bulldog mentality that has made him a perfect bullpen arm for several years. They are not enough? If Washington is not going to squander one of the best teams in either league, they will need to add at least one more solid relief pitcher between now and July 31st.

The good news is that the Nationals have a lot of what other teams want when they start looking to build for the future. The Hagerstown Suns may be the best minor league team among the Washington affiliates and they are powered largely by a four-man outfield that features too many young prospects for old Municipal Stadium–where Willie Mays once roamed–to hold. Juan Soto is living up to his meteoric rise in 2016 when he went from largely un-noticed to become the fourth best prospect in the Nationals organization. His gaudy slash line of .400/.466/.564 says all that is needed. He may be better than Victor Robles if he can stay healthy longer than Robles has been able to do in his most recent seasons.

Then there is the very raw project known as Daniel Johnson whose .955 OPS indicates that he is learning quickly. Blake Perkins is a speedy center fielder currently hitting .357 with seven steals and Nick Banks still has plenty of upside after leading Team USA in hitting last year. Rizzo raided the cookie jar to get Adam Eaton, but hopefully he can find a closer in a deal that will not similarly diminish the team’s future.

Daniel Robertson is off to a good start for the White Sox who have the best bullpen in the AL so far. It is not certain that the Nationals will need to bring in a proven closer, but should look to add a quality arm that can take some of the pressure off Glover and Kelley. Chicago would be a good place to start the search, but their price has been high. The Oakland Athletics have been frequent trading partners for Washington and Ryan Madson would probably come cheaper than Robertson. Both the White Sox and Athletics could be interested in young high-upside outfielders.

Rizzo added Rzepcynski and Melancon last season in deals before the deadline. He is going to need to pull at least one more fairly big rabbit out of that old magic hat if the Nationals are going to be playing late in October of this season.

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