September 21, 2019

While the division slips away, day dreaming about opening day

The Washington Nationals are hard to watch right now. They aren’t hitting nearly enough. The bullpen gives up runs on a nightly basis, failing to protect leads or allowing insurance runs to make comebacks impossible. Even the stalwart starting pitchers are struggling post- All-Star break. Defensive miscues abound, mental mistakes are staring to creep in and, all the while, the manager is starting to make panic moves like having a .300 hitter bunt a runner over to third with no outs in the first inning. It’s getting ugly.

So… let’s pause from this for a moment and distract ourselves, shall we? Regardless of how this season eventually shakes out, there will be big changes on the field. There may be big changes off the field as well, but that depends on the next six weeks of baseball and that’s what we’re trying to forget for a moment.

We know the Nats aren’t re-signing Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann or Doug Fister. I think it’s safe to assume that — with all of his injury problems this year, and especially since it’s a chronic back injury — Denard Span will be allowed to walk as well. Several other contracts will expire, such as “fourth outfielder” Nate McLouth and several members of the bullpen. This team will look significantly different on opening day, 2016.

Purely looking at in-house solutions as replacements at this point, Mike Rizzo has set the Nats up pretty well. Michael Taylor was destined to be in center field in 2016 all along, so he’s gotten on-the-job training for the full-time spot this season. He remains a work-in-progress and will likely never be prototypical the top-of-the-order leadoff/center fielder Rizzo usually covets, but he looks like a potential 20-20 No. 7 hitter and difference-maker on defense.

Fortunately for the Nats, Rizzo found his leadoff hitter of the future — and replacement for Desmond to boot — when he insinuated himself into that three-way trade with Tampa Bay and San Diego last winter. Trea Turner has been nothing short of exceptional this season in the minors. At three different stops (AA-San Antonio, AA-Harrisburg and AAA-Syracuse) he’s hit .321/.370/.459 with 28/33 steals, 22 doubles and eight home runs so far.

The rotation gets a little tricky. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and presumably Joe Ross all return. That leaves a spot open, and the most likely in-house candidate is A.J. Cole. Cole has been okay at Syracuse (3.69 ERA, 1.266 WHIP, 5.9/3.3 K/BB ratio), but hardly spectacular. Lucas Giolito is still just 20 years old and has only made four starts at AA-Harrisburg so far.  Austin Voth might make some noise in spring training, but the 23-year-old would be a long-shot to make the opening day rotation.

The Nats could very well transition Tanner Roark back into the rotation for 2016, or possibly look outside the organization for a veteran stop-gap in the fifth rotation spot. In the pen, Matt Thornton, Casey Janssen and David Carpenter are all free agents.

So, just based on organization players, the pitching staff would look like this:

Starters: Scherzer, Strasburg, Gonzalez, Ross, Roark
Relievers: Craig Stammen (hopefully), Sammy Solis, Aaron Barrett, Blake Treinen, Felipe Rivero, Drew Storen, Jonathan Papelbon

Where does that leave us with the lineup? Using just players in the organization, the opening day roster could look like:

LF Jayson Werth
CF Michael Taylor
RF Bryce Harper
3B Yunel Escobar
SS Trea Turner/Danny Espinosa
2B Anthony Rendon
1B Ryan Zimmerman
C Wilson Ramos/Jose Lobaton

We have to assume the Nats will re-sign Clint Robinson as a backup, but after that, things get murky. Do they retain Tyler Moore? Do the depend on Wilmer Difo as a backup or allow him a full season in Syracuse? It would appear that several bench spots will once again need to be addressed outside the organization.

Of course, the biggest question marks with the roster involve Werth and Zimmerman. Werth is signed through 2017, Zimmerman 2019. Because of their contracts, they have to be in the lineup and produce. Their numbers in 2015 will be written off to the injuries, and rightfully so. But the Nats can’t succeed if either of them fail to return to career norms next season. They just have too much invested. The organization needs to have a solid, concrete “Plan B” in place should either player continue their decline.

This team should be good enough to contend again next season, but there’s a stark realization that the Nats have a lot invested in two injury-prone and declining players and they can’t afford to leave themselves open (as they have the past two years) when those players miss significant time with injury or ineffectiveness. Their margin of error is razor-thin, as they have proved in this wildly inconsistent and disappointing campaign.

But that’s what we were trying to forget about.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press and is a copy editor for the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, WA. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

Comments

  1. I got my Jayson Werth chia pet the other day – the beard is coming in full and green. But I was astounded to be reminded that the Nats acquired him in 2010 and he still has 2 years to go on his contract. But to your point about Werth returning to a career norm. First, it was crazy for the Nats and the punditocracy to automatically presume that a 36 year old would return exactly to form after undergoing off season shoulder surgery. Second, even if Werth returns to “career norms” next year, the Nats are only looking at 23 HRs and 86 RBIs – which are Werth career averages. But of course, he’s averaged under 20 HRs/year with the Nats and only cracked more than 60 RBIs twice. All that for a $21 million/year starting outfielder. Next year might hurt more than this disappointing year.

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