Luckily for fans of the Washington Nationals, baseball has many pleasures even after a team’s hopes for its season are smashed.
On Sunday, the Nats lost for the 69th time — before Labor Day had even arrived — falling below .500 again with a 9-4 defeat to Milwaukee. It’s time to forget the standings and focus on all the other questions about this team.
Lots of flop ballclubs that go from huge division favorites to playoff also-rans before the season’s gun lap begins make for a brutal viewing experience in September. You would think the Nats might be one of them. But they aren’t.
From the skyrocket rise of teenage rookie Juan Soto to the promising class of young relievers the Nats have brought up from the minors to the continued struggles of rookie Manager Dave Martinez with his in-game pitching moves, the Nats are a fascinating puzzle. Huge pieces of a 2019 season that might be quite exciting — or just the opposite — will be on display every day.
In the past month, the Nats’ brass has given up on 2018 and salary-dumped five veterans, including Gio Gonzalez and Ryan Madson on Friday, after the earlier departures of Daniel Murphy, Matt Adams and Brandon Kintzler. Those moves have saved $13 million but gotten back obscure-to-negligible prospects who are unlikely to leave a ripple at Nationals Park. Look ’em up and smack your head: Wow, they got a 25-year-old low-minors catcher who strikes out 36 percent of the time!
The Nats claim they do not know — and even doubt — that the trades have been sufficient to get them under the luxury tax ceiling for 2018.
They better know. And they better get under it. Otherwise those moves were pointless. My intuition is that the Nats don’t want to fib but also don’t want to show their true intention — which is to get under that ceiling so they will get a much better draft pick as compensation if Bryce Harper leaves as a free agent. Why let your fans and Harper know that you’re making yet another post-Bryce preparation?
Clearing the decks of vets and not getting anybody major league-ready in return has one advantage: Lots of Nats can show their stuff in September.
Before the Nats go shopping for expensive relievers, such as Craig Kimbrel or Jeurys Familia in the free agent market, which valuable young bullpen arms, already on hand, should fit in their future, too?
In recent days, with almost every veteran reliever gone or hurt, Jimmy Cordero, Wander Suero, Koda Glover and Austen Williams (two scoreless innings Sunday in his big league debut) have shown they belong in the conversation with more experienced Matt Grace, inconsistent Sammy Solis and valuable reclamation project Justin Miller.
The Nats know their closer for 2019 is Sean Doolittle, who might be back this week. And a free agent setup man almost certainly needs to be added. But how many of the current youngsters might become part of a strong middle-relief core?
“That experience was just awesome,” said Williams, a converted starter who seems transformed by a switch from starter to reliever with a 1.18 ERA in Class AA and AAA this year. Has vicious spike curveball makes his 95-mph fastball play better. Cordero, who touches 99, has a similar package and, so far, no fear of the bat.
For the final 25 games, many eyes will be on Soto because he is locked with Atlanta’s spectacular 21-year-old, Ronald Acuna Jr., in a battle for rookie of the year. Perhaps more important, after a scalding start, Soto finally hit a minor slump recently — one mitigated to the point of near invisibility by all his walks. But in the past week, he has turned blazing hot again, getting two more hits Sunday in his current 15-for-34 streak. After his two-out, bases-loaded two-run single helped the Nats win, 5-4, early Sunday morning, the rookie was asked his feelings in the moment. “I was just trying to do Juan Soto things,” he said.
In two recent games, Soto appeared to be trying to hit the left field foul pole for home runs to the opposite field, as if he were a kid on a sand lot just having fun. One barely went foul, another missed by 15 feet, a third landed 10 rows in the bleachers for a homer and one was a flyout. Can he really do such things?
“He does a lot of things that are ‘next-level stuff,’ ” a veteran Nat said. “They started to change the way they pitched him, but he adjusted.” Fastballs up and in? “Yes, and you see what he’s doing with them.”
On Saturday, two Soto hits on such pitches were crushed with exit velocities of 106 and 113 mph. His stats are back up to a .303 batting average, .417 on-base percentage and .520 slugging percentage. At 19? One more month of such production would make Soto seem less like a teenage fantasy.
On Sunday, Wilmer Difo, who has started every game since Murphy left, hit a home run. That gives him a double, a triple and three homers in those dozen games. “The more I play, the more confident I get,” he said through a translator. “And when I am confident, I can do more of that [hit with power].”
One partial solution to the Nats’ 2019 conundrum at second base might have been walking in a Nationals Park tunnel Sunday. There was Howie Kendrick, striding briskly. Howie, how’s it going with your recovery from that torn Achilles’?
“I’m walking!” Kendrick said in his deep voice, smile beaming. “My goal is to be ready by the start of spring training. They tell me to expect a full recovery.”
One of the key Nationals in the second half has been an unexpected and important surprise — not a rookie but veteran Ryan Zimmerman, who has been 10th in the majors in on-base-plus-slugging percentage since the all-star break. For the past two seasons, among those with 700 plate appearances, Zimmerman ranks 16th in the majors in OPS (.906) between Harper (11th at .935) and Anthony Rendon (18th at .901).
This year, his long injury began with a dive for a Carlos Santana smash in April — just as previous injuries came after defensive dives or headfirst slides.
“I’ve finally gotten it through my stubborn head — stop diving,” Zimmerman, who turns 34 later this month, said Sunday. “I came up as a defensive player. It’s hard to change your reactions. But I need to let five or 10 balls a year go by, not go for great plays.
“I told [Cubs first baseman] Anthony Rizzo, in two years it’d be my 15th season. By then I’ll be a dodo bird. I’m already a dinosaur,” Zimmerman said. “But I want to play a few more years. I think I can.” Then seriously: “When I’m healthy, I hit.”
Ever since the team started selling off players, those who remain have continued to pull out some gritty wins, such as their after-midnight comeback early Sunday morning. For a team that’s dead, the Nats sure do twitch a lot during the autopsy. That’s a good sign. And it needs to continue.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.