This time, there’s no coming back from 19-31.
Washington’s record reached that mark for a second straight season over the weekend. But unlike last year, Washington doesn’t have enough games left in the season to overcome such a poor start. Despite Tuesday’s doubleheader sweep over the Philadelphia Phillies, the Nationals (23-32) are all but eliminated from the postseason, a field that was expanded for this year’s shortened season.
In a year that was supposed to be about defending their title, the Nationals failed to gain any sort of positive traction from the very beginning of the season. Instead, they’re now likely to be in line for a top-five draft pick — ESPN reported Tuesday that the 2021 draft will probably be based on this year’s standings.
With the regular season in its final week — Washington’s last game is Sunday — here are the five main reasons why this year was a bust for the Nationals:
⦁ Strasburg leads long list of injured Nationals: Look, injuries can be a lame excuse for why a team didn’t achieve success. But in this case, they’re impossible to ignore. Stephen Strasburg, who made just two starts before being shut down with a wrist injury, was a loss that the rest of the starting rotation couldn’t overcome. Washington’s infield depth — losing players like Starlin Castro (wrist) and Howie Kendrick (hamstring) — affected the offense. Washington’s bullpen also wore down as the year went along, losing Sean Doolittle, Seth Romero and more recently, Tanner Rainey.
According to Spotrac, the Nationals have had 16 players who have been on or are currently on the injured list this season — which ranks 10th in MLB.
⦁ Starting rotation regressed: Last season’s starting rotation was the foundation of Washington’s run to the World Series. That wasn’t the case this year.
Beyond Strasburg, Washington’s back end of the rotation was a mess. Austin Voth (7.17 ERA entering Tuesday) hasn’t been a reliable fifth starter. Anibal Sanchez regressed heavily — going from a 3.85 ERA to a 6.80. Even aces like Max Scherzer (3.67) and Patrick Corbin (4.76) weren’t as sharp as past seasons.
As a whole, Washington’s starters entered Tuesday ranked 27th in ERA (5.54) and had given up the second-most home runs (53) this year, according to FanGraphs. Opposing batters were hitting .296 off them, also the worst in the league. Those numbers last year? Washington ranked as the second-best in ERA, fifth-best in homers allowed and fourth-best in batting average.
⦁ Bullpen unraveled: Earlier this season, it looked like general manager Mike Rizzo had finally fixed the bullpen. Will Harris was signed to a three-year, $24 million contract to be a steady set up man for closer Daniel Hudson. Rainey dramatically improved, helping overcome Doolittle’s shaky start. And at long last, there was depth — even finds like Kyle Finnegan turned out to be nice surprises.
But the bullpen unraveled as the season progressed. Harris missed time with a right groin strain and wasn’t the same when he returned. His 1.72 WHIP — walks and hits allowed per inning — is his worst mark since his rookie season.
Doolittle and Hudson also turned out to be problems. Doolittle’s velocity was down almost throughout the season, a problem for a pitcher who relies primarily on his fastball. When it appeared the problem might be fixed, Doolittle then went on the injured list with a season-ending quad injury. Hudson, meanwhile, has the fifth-most saves, but leads the National League in blown saves with five.
Washington placed Rainey on the IL last week.
⦁ Infield depth turned out to be overrated: When Washington lost star third baseman Anthony Rendon in free agency, the Nationals were confident they could replace his production thanks to the depth of their infield. They had experience with veterans like Castro, Kendrick, Trea Turner, Asdrubal Cabrera, Eric Thames and Ryan Zimmerman.
That depth was tested even before the season began when Zimmerman pulled out due to concerns of playing during a pandemic. The others? Of those five, only Turner has had a stellar year — hitting a career-high .967 OPS (on base plus slugging percentage).
The others have been a disappointment. Castro appeared in only 16 games. Cabrera didn’t sustain a hot start. Kendrick dealt with nagging injuries. Thames’ batting average is just .205.
⦁ Young players didn’t take off: Juan Soto is the exception. If the 21-year-old hadn’t missed the first few weeks of the season because of a positive coronavirus test, Soto might have been the leading contender for the NL’s MVP. He entered Tuesday ranking first in batting average (.348), on-base percentage (.477), slugging percentage (.674) and OPS (1.151) in the NL.
But elsewhere on the Nationals’ roster, Washington’s younger prospects failed to step up. Outfielder Victor Robles entered Tuesday hitting only .233 this season and only three home runs. That’s a sharp decrease in production from 2019 when Robles hit .255 and 17 homers.
Third baseman Carter Kieboom’s struggles, meanwhile, were well-documented in 2020. The 23-year-old, tapped to be Rendon’s replacement at third, was sent to Washington’s alternative training site at one point and is hitting .202. On Monday, he exited Washington’s win in the sixth inning after a pitch hit his wrist during an at-bat.