The Nationals’ 2019 season is a plane nose-diving into a nuclear power plant. It’s a flaming cruise ship hitting an iceberg in the middle of a hurricane. It’s a man jumping out of a plane only to realize that he forgot a parachute who’s then hit by lightning. It’s a sixth Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
And on Thursday afternoon, it reached its low point, as Washington lost its fifth straight game and blew its third straight eighth-inning lead to the Mets, who finished a four-game sweep despite being terminally, violently Mets. The Nationals now have as many losses (31) as the bottom-feeding Marlins to go with the fourth-worst record in baseball. I’m not sure too many fans in D.C. figured that their team would be sharing space in the league cellar with Miami, Detroit and Baltimore, but here they are, a disaster without equal in the majors.
At lot has to go wrong for a team with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, Juan Soto and many more highly competent players to be on pace to lose 100 games. For the Nationals, it’s been the bullpen, injuries, the bullpen, a lack of rotation depth, the bullpen, the bullpen, the middle infield and the bullpen. Washington relievers aside from All-Star closer Sean Doolittle have spent all season spraying leads with napalm: a 7.02 ERA, 10 blown saves, and just two current relievers—Doolittle and swingman Erick Fedde—with ERAs under 4.00.
It’s hard to win any games at all when your relief corps keeps blowing up. For proof, this series against the Mets: The Nationals gave up five runs in the final three innings of Tuesday’s walk-off loss; surrendered six runs in the eighth on Wednesday, all coming off the bats of Adeiny Hechavarria and Rajai Davis; and capped the series by allowing a three-run homer to Carlos Gomez in the eighth to turn a 4-3 lead into a 6-4 defeat.
In the middle of it all is manager Davey Martinez, who seems overwhelmed and ill-equipped to solve these problems. “Sitting next to Joe Maddon for eight or nine years doesn’t make you smart through osmosis,” a veteran scout told me this spring when asked about Martinez’s chops. It would seemingly be a miracle if the trigger-happy Nationals—who are on their eighth skipper in the last 14 years—don’t move on from him, probably sooner rather than later.
Regardless of whether Martinez stays or goes, where do the Nationals go from here? Can their season be salvaged, or will this be the final ride of this core? As things spiral out of control, it’s worth examining the two paths for the Nationals going forward: Tear it down, or try to fix it.
The Case For … Fixing It
And when I say fixing it, I don’t mean firing Martinez, digging up a few random minor leaguers to pitch in relief, and hoping that solves that. Washington’s problems go too deep for such surface moves to make any impact. I mean going all out and making big moves to address the big issues.
Relief help comes in the form of Craig Kimbrel, still unsigned. Rotation depth arrives via Dallas Keuchel, still unsigned. If not those two, plenty of rebuilding teams are probably already looking to sell. Would the Blue Jays part with Marcus Stroman and/or Ken Giles? Could Baltimore’s Mychal Givens help? Maybe the White Sox are looking to move Alex Colomé, or perhaps the Tigers are taking calls on Shane Greene. Or go for broke and see what a package of Madison Bumgarner and Will Smith would cost.
But the pieces of a winning team are still right there. Scherzer, Strasburg and Patrick Corbin make for a phenomenal top three in the rotation. Rendon is one of the best third basemen in baseball and has a 183 OPS+. Soto and Victor Robles are young and talented. Turner is a game-changer when healthy. Adam Eaton, Kurt Suzuki and Matt Adams are functional veteran bats. Doolittle is a top-flight reliever. The Nationals are already building on a pretty solid base.
Plus, Washington is coming off a brutal month, schedule-wise. Aside from the Mets, May featured all winning teams, including the Cardinals, Cubs, Dodgers, Brewers and Phillies. Things immediately soften up this weekend with a four-game set against the Marlins at home. June will feature 15 games against the last-place Reds as well as the White Sox, Royals, Orioles and Tigers, plus six more games versus Miami. There’s a chance to make up ground.
There are many options for the Nationals to fill their largest holes. Get everyone healthy, supplement the core, and there’s still a chance this team could surge to a winning record and possibly a wild-card spot. For all their awfulness so far, FanGraphs still has the Nats projected to finish at 81–81. Not all hope is lost.
The Case For … Tearing It Down
That projection seems awfully rosy, though, doesn’t it? There’s not much to suggest that this Nationals team currently has what’s needed to finish with a winning record or anything close to it.
As good as Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin have been, that’s how bad Anibal Sanchez and Jeremy Hellickson are, and there are no good internal rotation replacement options. The bullpen is way beyond helping with just Kimbrel or anyone else; it needs a full-blown makeover. Turner hasn’t hit since coming back from injury (7-for-32) and hasn’t produced much since 2016. Soto is striking out way more and hitting for less power in his second season. For all his tools, Robles has been below average at the plate and, weirdly, in the field. The lineup is a mess: Rendon, Soto and (somehow) Howie Kendrick are the only regulars with OPS+ figures above league average.
On and on it goes. The list of repairs that need to be made stretches on for a mile. These dismal two months have left the Nationals’ postseason odds at 22.4%, and they’re already 10 games back of the first-place Phillies in the NL East. Even a .500 record would require a 62–50 record from here on out; 90 wins would take 71–41, or a .634 winning percentage—a 103-win pace over a full season. Washington has taken on too much water.
If that’s the case, then the front office and ownership need to do what they couldn’t bring themselves to last summer: Sell. At the time, the Nationals possessed the single-best trade chip available in Bryce Harper, but ownership balked on a trade to the Astros (or on doing anything else at the deadline). Instead, the team missed out on the playoffs, and Harper walked in the offseason, netting Washington only some meager draft-pick compensation instead of the fortune in prospects he could’ve returned had he been traded. In hindsight, that was a blunder.
Learn from that mistake, then, and move Rendon, a free agent at season’s end who would be the best hitter on the market if made available. Likewise, Doolittle would return a ransom in prospects given how many teams need relief help. And it’s drool-inducing to think of what Scherzer could bring back if offered.
The Nationals don’t have to blow it up, but Rendon and Doolittle, at least, represent a good opportunity to make the most out of this mess. Call it a soft rebuild—one that, with the presence of the stars still around, wouldn’t be too long or painful. It’d be a waving of the white flag, and one that would turn off fans for the rest of the year. Then again, it’s not as if the current results are going to keep them coming to Nationals Park.
So as June approaches and the slump deepens, that’s the conundrum that Washington faces: Make one last rally, or officially throw in the towel on yet another disappointing year in the district. It’s not an easy choice, but it has to be made all the same.