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Can the Washington Nationals Save Their Season?


Before the 2015 season began, the Washington Nationals were the closest thing to a sure bet to make the playoffs. In fact, it wasn’t even close. The same team that had won 96 games in 2014 and cruised to an NL East crown was returning virtually the same roster, except for the notable addition of former Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, who was presumed to become the new ace in a rotation full of stars. The lineup would also remain constant, albeit with the promise of an extra year of development from Bryce Harper and better health from many of its top contributors. The Nationals were projected to win at least 90 games, while their divisional foes were marked for .500 seasons or worse, with the Braves and Phillies looking especially hapless. Yes, it was supposed to be the year of the Nationals, and the regular season appeared to be a pointless exercise.

And yet, here we are with just a bit over a month to play, and the same Washington Nationals stand 6.5 games behind the first-place Mets in the East, 10 games off the second wild card spot, and increasingly hopeless in what was supposed to be a sure path to October. Fangraphs currently lists Washington’s playoff hopes at a meager 15.5%, below teams like the Rangers and Twins, who were actually supposed to be pretty bad. With every Mets win and/or Nationals loss, the hopes of bringing a title back to the nation’s capital fade away, and the mystery of Washington’s contention window continues to grow.

But, as they say, hope is the last thing that dies. With 37 games left to play, not all is lost for the Nationals, who are finally fielding the roster they thought they’d have before 2015 even began – one that remains among the most talented group of players in the majors. Even with the long odds and grisly projections, we have seen stranger things happen in baseball, so what do the Nationals have to do in order to get back on track? Can they salvage what once was a promising season? Today we take a look at what’s ahead for the Nats and the rest of the NL East, a division that appeared to be a foregone conclusion back in April.

Rescue the Underachievers

It is well known that any playoff team needs a ton of talent and a healthy dose of luck to go through the grueling season of major league baseball. That has been made very evident to the Nationals, who have had to endure a seemingly endless stream of injuries and regression from some of its best players from last season. To wit, here’s a simple, yet chilling, year-to-year comparison.

Player

2014 WAR

2015 WAR*

Anthony Rendon

6.5

0.3

Jayson Werth

5.0

-1.3

Denard Span

4.0

1.4

Ian Desmond

4.0

0.5

Ryan Zimmerman

1.2

-0.2

Jordan Zimmermann

5.3

2.6

Stephen Strasburg

4.4

1.9

Gio Gonzalez

3.1

2.4

Doug Fister

1.4

0

*through August 26th

This means that this particular group of players, who also happens to command some of the payroll’s biggest salaries, have combined for 7.6 WAR just a year after going for a very nice 34.9; Rendon, Werth, Span, Zimmerman, Strasburg, and Fister have had injury issues, but they have been mostly lousy when they’ve been on the diamond, regressing badly after a year in which they were some of the primary reasons for Washington’s runaway title.

If there should be any reason for encouragement, it should come from the fact that the Nationals finally have all their pieces healthy and in position to fill the lineup as it was originally conceived. In the second game of their home series with the Padres, Washington’s lineup looked the part of a powerful roster, even if it came in yet another disappointing loss.

Just a year after being baseball’s best offense in terms of WAR, the Nationals have fallen to 20th, but even that can be misleading. Bryce Harper’s league-leading 7.3 WAR makes up more than half of Washington’s 13.0, leading us to wonder if Harper’s MVP candidacy will falter due to the lack of proper support around him. With Harper cooling off after the All-Star break, it will now be up to his disappointing teammates to pick up the slack and deliver over the final stretch of the year.

The pitching staff has held its end of the bargain and stands at fifth in the league in terms of WAR and FIP, so the key will be to score enough runs to make a serious attempt to get back on track. The recent call-up of prospect Trea Turner shows the team is willing to try anything to give its middling offense a boost, even if simple regression could be even more helpful now that the Nationals appear to be healthy.

Trust in the Mets

It may be a cruel way to put it, but the Nationals can at least take solace that the team they are chasing is the Mets. While we can discount previous collapses and treat 2015 like a whole different animal, there is no way to deny that the New York franchise is capable of pulling off some of the most improbable feats in this very unpredictable game.

Even as they now look like world-beaters, not so long ago the Mets were in the familiar position of the bizarro Cardinals – a team so weird that any kind of story could be believed of it. Before their current 18-6 run that has put them firmly at the top, the Mets were 52-50 and were fresh off botching the Carlos Gomez trade that made Wilmer Flores cry in front of the whole world.

As much as the Nationals have been unlucky, the Mets have seen their fortunes reversed in a big way. Their flurry of young arms has helped endure some injuries, the year-long ban of their incumbent closer led to finding an even better one, and even the Gomez fiasco turned into the team landing Yoenis Cespedes, who has been a revelation in a previously moribund offense.

The luck of the Mets doesn’t stop here, though, as they now are poised to have the easiest remaining schedule in all of baseball. The only non-Washington team the Mets have to face that presently has a winning record is the Yankees, who are actually fading fast in the AL East. The rest of the calendar includes a bunch of Phillies, Braves, Marlins, and out-of-division series against the Red Sox and Reds. The Mets are a combined 26-11 against these NL East rivals (including an 11-1 thrashing of Philadelphia), so their chances look pretty good from here on out. The return of Steven Matz will help create a six-man rotation to ease the burden on the team’s young pitchers, also establishing New York in an enviable position: being sure that almost every day they’ll have the better starting pitcher on the mound.

The only consolation for the Nationals is that they’ll have the second easiest slate from here on out, with the same bunch of games against the weaker part of the NL East. However, they also have to prepare to visit St. Louis and host Baltimore for 3-game sets, which sounds a lot harder than what the Mets will have to endure.

In the end, the September 7-9 and season-ending October 2-4 series between the Mets and Nationals could end up being the real deciding factor. It has gotten so serious for Washington that they recently tweaked their rotation to ensure that Scherzer, Zimmermann, and Strasburg will be the ones to take the mound on their home series against New York. It also wouldn’t be surprising to see Scherzer appear on short rest as the season winds down and the team finds itself in position to catch the Mets.

The Aftermath

Manager Matt Williams must be aware that his job is on the line, and anything other than a deep playoff run is all but certain to drive him out of town. In many ways, 2015 is looking a lot like 2013: a season in which the Nationals were universally hailed as the best team in the NL only to have a disappointing season fueled by injuries and regression.

It may be very hard to dig out of this hole, but if any team has the talent to do it, it has to be Washington, who goes 5-deep in quality starting pitchers, owns a top-5 bullpen, and now finally has the offense it had originally built for the long run.

If it doesn’t work out the way it was intended for Washington, it will lead to an offseason full of tough decisions. Span, Zimmermann, Desmond, and Fister are becoming free agents, while Stephen Strasburg will certainly carry a big raise in arbitration and could potentially be gone after 2016. It could very well be that the super team built by the Nationals goes for naught, which is why these last 5 weeks of the 2015 regular season are of the utmost importance.

While nobody envisioned this particular scenario, there is no turning back for the Washington franchise and its hopes to take advantage of some of its special generational talent. With the Mets looming as the new power in the East, the final stretch of the season will be interesting, to say the least.



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