By: Chris Larson
The Washington Nationals started off this season abysmal and were absolutely horrid for about the first two months of the year. In fact, the Nationals ended the months of April and May with a combined 23-31 record. Some of that was due to underperformance by key players, while some of it was also caused by some of the injuries that the team experienced early on.
For instance, the team lost, shortstop Trea Turner, right out of the shoot on April 3rd with a broken right index finger. Later on that month, the Nationals lost, reliever Trevor Rosenthal, and first baseman Ryan Zimmermann, to the Injured List before losing, third baseman/All-Star Anthony Rendon, to a left elbow contusion on the 30th of April. When the calendar turned to May, the injuries didn't stop as the team placed, left fielder Juan Soto to the 10-Day Injured List with back spasms, and right around the middle of May were forced to put, starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez, on the Injured List with a left hamstring strain.
Simply put, the first two months featured a lot of underperformance by key players for the Washington Nationals along with plenty of injuries to players that looked as though they could be solid contributors on the big league playing field. However, when the calendar hit June and some of those impactful names started to return to the 25-man roster, the team seemed to turn their level of play up a notch and have been on fire ever since.
The Washington Nationals ended the month of June with an 18-8 record, good enough for a (.692) winning percentage, and have a 7-2 record so far this month - a big reason why the organization has catapulted into the race for one of the two National League Wild Card spots. Given the performance of the Nationals over the past month-and-a-half months, it's fair to assume that there will be no selling that occurs in the nations capital. Rather, the Washington Nationals should arguably be all in and focused on doing all they can to bolster their chances of not only securing a postseason birth, but playing deep into the postseason - something that has been a significant issue for the organization over the past handful of years.
When you step back and start to survey the Washington Nationals 25-man roster, the immediate need that comes to mind lies in the pitching arena both in the starting rotation and the bullpen. Starting with the rotation, it's fair to assume that the Washington Nationals will be on the lookout for additional depth to add to the back end over the next two weeks leading up to the 31st. Since there is now one solid Trade Deadline and August waiver trades can no longer happen, the Nationals will be forced to bulk up their starting rotation as much as possible before the final bell rings.
Although, that's not to take anything away from the extreme contributions that Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin have brought to the field so far this season. Granted, each of those three individuals have experienced their own shares of ups and downs thus far, but it's hard to argue that those aren't the Top 3 names in a team's starting rotation among all National League teams. When you add in Anibal Sanchez to the group, he's yet another reliable arm that their starting rotation features, but after that fourth spot things get a little more merkier.
Heading into this season, the Washington Nationals figured that, right-hander starting pitcher Erick Fedde, would figure to be a big part of the starting rotation and while he has been to some degree (3.79 ERA over 40.1 IP w/ a 5.29 FIP and 4.9 K/9), that's a spot that the team could afford some sort of upgrade. In fact, the recently traded former Baltimore Oriole, Andrew Cashner, could have fit the bill nicely. Earlier today, the team called up a reinforcement in, 27-year old right-hander Austin Voth, but like Fedde, Voth has struggled in his small sample size at the big league level. Over 14.2 innings of work or 3 games, Voth has record a (5.52) ERA with a (1.36) WHIP and an Opponent Batting Average Against of (.259).
With Fedde and Voth the two most likely options to hold down that spot down the stretch and come the postseason, it's easy to see why there is a need there for more durability at the back end of the starting rotation and someone that can eat up innings to preserve the bullpen down the stretch. Additionally, as the theme was for the Washington Nationals seemingly every game during the first two months, the bullpen is in need of an additional arm or two particularly someone to pair with closer, Sean Doolittle.
One tremendous fit would be current Detroit Tigers closer, Shane Greene. Greene could be paired with Doolittle and give the Washington Nationals a potent 1-2 punch over the remainder of the regular season and come the postseason, assuming the team clinches a spot and advances to play deep into the playoffs. While the exact asking price for Shane Greene is unknown, it has been reported that it is similar to what the Chicago Cubs traded away to the New York Yankees a few years ago for, Aroldis Chapman. Granted, the asking price will come down the closer it gets to July 31st, which is one reason why the Washington Nationals along with other teams have yet to pull the trigger on a trade, but it will likely still remain steep even if it comes down a bit.
As such, it could be difficult for the Washington Nationals to compete with other contending teams who might have better farm systems, such as the Atlanta Braves, Minnesota Twins, and Tampa Bay Rays, but General Manager Mike Rizzo and his entire front office team, can never be counted on when it comes to a potential trade especially for a reliever. However, one area that the team could deal from is it's middle infield depth particularly at shortstop.
It's unlikely that the Washington Nationals would want to trade away their number one prospect, SS Carter Kieboom in any deal, but their number two prospect, INF Luis Garcia, could be an adequate replacement. Many scouts project Garcia to occupy the shortstop position moving ahead and given that he's in Double-A, it might only be another year or two before he's in the big leagues. Beyond Garcia, the Nationals number 5 prospect, LHP Tim Cate, could perk the interest of the Detroit Tigers along with number 10 prospect, OF Telmito Agustin, and potentially one more prospect within the middle-to-lower levels of the Top 30 prospect list. It's a rich price to pay, but the Washington Nationals will need to do it if they want to finally make it over their postseason hump.
Beyond the starting rotation and bullpen, the Washington Nationals could also afford to add another bat to their lineup. It seems strange that the Nationals would be struggling offensively given some of the talent that occupies their lineup, but going into play today the Nationals rank in the middle of the pack with a cumulative slash line of: .254/.329/.434 over 3,104 at bats. In terms of home runs, the Nationals rank eighth with (126) and ninth in RBI (429).
One potential area that could be upgraded offensively is at shortstop. Heading into play today, among the rest of the shortstops in baseball, the Nationals rank twentieth in OBP (.312), twenty-fourth in slugging percentage (.397), and twenty-first in Isolated Power (.148). Granted, the shortstop position has always been one where teams value defense over offense, but even defensively the Washington Nationals could afford an upgrade the position. From a fielding perspective, going into play today, the Nationals shortstop position ranks dead last in Defensive Runs Saved (-24) among the rest of baseball, last in Ultimate Zone Rating (-9.8), and last in overall Defensive rating (-5.6).
As previously mentioned, the Washington Nationals hold a lot of depth in the middle infield and at the shortstop position in their system with the aforementioned, Carter Kieboom, being the most obvious name. Therefore, the Nationals could always elect to call Kieboom back up to the major leagues and platoon him with current shortstop, Trea Turner, or potentially even use Turner as a trade chip to get something even greater. Turner, who is currently 26 years old, is under control through the 2022 regular season, but could net that significant piece to try to get the Washington Nationals over their playoff drought.
Of course, no one really knows if the Washington Nationals would truly want to part with shortstop, Trea Turner, and give the full-time job to their number one aforementioned prospect, Carter Kieboom, on a daily basis or enact in a platoon situation with Turner and Kieboom at that position, but this is likely one scenario that the Nationals front office is carefully looking at as they look for ways to improve the offense and potential names to target on other teams. It's part of the fun that every front office around baseball goes through this time of year, as they try to put together the best 25-man roster for down the stretch and more importantly, that ever-enduring postseason run.
Regardless of what the Washington Nationals end up doing between now and July 31st, a lot of credit has to go out to the Nationals 25-man roster and the entire coaching staff for the significant turnaround from the first two months of this season and for helping the team to find itself back in the playoff chase. While that is certainly significant and important to acknowledge, what the Nationals end up doing over the next two weeks is even more important and going to determine the fate of how they do in August, September, and more importantly the postseason. It's going to determine if the Washington Nationals are truly serious about earning a World Series ring or if they are serious with just staying content with getting knocked out, in the early rounds of the postseason, as has been the case over the past handful of seasons.