If they rally to reach October, minus out-for-the-year Stephen Strasburg, their postseason will be graded on a curve. As bad deals go, that’s as good as they get.
The whole world will be in a 7-billion-person race to erase all memory of our distressing, deflating 2020. The eventual end of the novel coronavirus pandemic will bring rejoicing — and hope of a fresh start — everywhere.
That’s good, because the current Nats have plenty to forget. After their no-title-party-for-you spring, it’s likely that all of D.C. will view next season as a well-deserved do-over.
Let Gerardo Parra throw out the first pitch?
How can a 60-game season with seven-inning games in endless doubleheaders caused by positive-virus-test cancellations have the impact of a real failure to defend over a normal six-month season? It just can’t.
But that doesn’t mean the Nats are not failing quite badly so far. No matter what genuine excuses they possess, they should be better than this.
The Houston team the Nats beat in the World Series lost Gerrit Cole (free agent) and Justin Verlander (injury). Yet with Lance McCullers as the No. 2 starter, Ryan Pressly as a last-ditch closer and several rookie relievers, Dusty Baker, managing at 71 in a pandemic, has them at 19-15.
In a sprint year, motivation matters a lot. The Astros have it. Do the Nats?
Any fan who wants to see a full-blown post-title hangover can watch the Nats who, in recent postgame interviews, often seem reduced to brief, perfunctory, avoid-the-pain answers and glum, resigned expressions.
How often can you repeat that the second-best starting staff of 2019 is now the third worst in MLB? How often can you point at the ERAs of Strasburg (10.80 in only two starts), Austin Voth (7.99), suddenly-looking-his-age Aníbal Sánchez (6.90) and Erick Fedde (4.71), plus the absence of Joe Ross, who decided not to play?
Their record is a combined 2-12. That’ll explain most of 12-21.
The rest can be attributed to a broken wrist to starting second baseman Starlin Castro, the sight of Sean Doolittle (9.64 ERA) searching for his lost fastball, a quick fizzle by rookie Carter Kieboom and a couple of unexpected blown saves by World Series hero Daniel Hudson.
Others, like Eric Thames and Victor Robles, have been mundane, but no more than you would expect in the first five weeks of any year. A hot week and they’re fine. Add some unfocused defense, and there you have it: the blahs.
If the Nats, especially General Manager Mike Rizzo, thought they had a realistic chance to reach .500 (and probably the playoffs), rather than just a puncher’s chance, they would probably have traded for an innings-eating starting pitcher. They did not. That’s telling.
But if the decision-makers were disgusted with what they’ve seen so far, or thought that trade-able walk-year vets such as Adam Eaton, Asdrúbal Cabrera, Kurt Suzuki, Doolittle and Sánchez had no place in their future, they would have been dealt, no matter how little they brought back. That’s telling, too — about the Nats’ continued optimism for 2021. All of them now have fond D.C. memories. All were nervous about a home next season. Now, some are likely to return.
The operative assumption is that Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Strasburg will be themselves in 2021. According to orthopedists I’ve contacted who have done hundreds of carpal tunnel syndrome surgeries, Strasburg should return to full form in plenty of time.
If that proves true, this is a team with fixable pitching problems — sign one back-end starting pitcher and one decent relief arm — and a surprising amount of hidden good news. The bullpen work of Tanner Rainey (1.26 ERA) makes him seem a potential long-term fixture. The maturity of second baseman Luis García, at 20 the youngest player in MLB, hints that the Nats have filled an everyday spot.
Of more impact, Trea Turner (.377) and Juan Soto (.367) lead the majors in batting average. They may provide the equivalent of the Soto and Anthony Rendon back-to-back combination in future lineups. In his past 154 games entering Tuesday, including October, Soto has jumped a level as a slugger, with 44 homers and 121 RBI as well as a .304 average.
Turner, 27, has made a similar leap in overall value in his past 154 games. For a shortstop, he’s now at superstar level, slashing .313/.367/.527 with 124 runs, 47 doubles and 26 homers, plus 39 steals. That means Turner can hit first, second or third, which gives big roster flexibility. The Turner-Soto duo at 1-2 is scalding now. But they would work at 2-3 or 3-4, too, allowing Robles — a major physical talent — a chance to blossom in one of the top two spots. By 2022, the fates may demand a top four of Robles, García, Turner and Soto.
All this implies that the Nats’ only expensive free agent get for next season may be a power bat at first base or corner outfield.
Teams that win the World Series often have flat follow-up years. But history also says it is the two-year window after titles that matters most — that is, if the team culture is intact and that championship confidence is unbroken.
What is at stake for the Nats in September? Maybe they sneak into the playoffs, despite all of their problems. But more important is regaining their energy and focus — social distancing and empty parks or not — while grasping that a team with stars such as Scherzer, Corbin, Turner and Soto, and with a now-adequate bullpen, should be competitive.
“No excuses” is central to keeping windows open.
Nats followers, and the sport itself, are likely to forgive this team its fade after what may be the all-time long-shot comeback title — a push that lasted for 129 straight contests with barely a game of low pressure.
But the Nats should not go easy on themselves. Their play has been homely. The way Voth, Fedde and Sánchez have been “afraid of the bat” — making their modest but adequate stuff play down, not up — has let them and their team down.
Except for the Los Angeles Dodgers, there’s not a team in the National League that would scare the concession vendors of the ’27 Yankees. The Nats used to know how to have fun and raise Cain at the end of a season. It’ll be tough, but maybe they still have a little of that in them this year.