NL East race: Are the Washington Nationals still the team to beat?

washington nationalsWashington Nationals fans have been waiting for weeks for the preseason NL East favorite to come around.

Many are now beginning to wonder: what if what we’ve been seeing of late is as good as it gets?

I’m here to calm you down.

Consider, off the top, that Stephen Strasburg (6-6, 3.48 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 1.3 WAR) has been out since June 9, and the rotation just got Jeremy Hellickson (3-1, 3.47 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 0.8 WAR) back from the DL after a three-week stint.

Strasburg just did his first rehab stint at High-A Potomac on Tuesday, and is expected back in the Nats’ rotation after the All-Star break.

Get him back in the fold, and the staff is back at full strength for the first time since early June.

Max Scherzer (11-5, 2.33 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 4.3 WAR) is, well, Max Scherzer. Going to need more, a lot more, from Gio Gonzalez (6-6, 3.72 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 1.3 WAR) and in particular Tanner Roark (3-11, 4.76 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 0.5 WAR), but, hey, full strength, this group is as good as any in MLB.

To the lineup: you’ve got Daniel Murphy (.250/.279/.617, 1 HR, 10 RBI, -0.3 WAR) and Adam Eaton (.316/.389/.800, 2 HR, 14 RBI, 0.5 WAR) getting back to full strength. Eaton is hitting .348 in his last seven games, and Murphy, after an anemic start, is hitting .381 in his last seven.

Bryce Harper (.213/.369/.837, 22 HR, 51 RBI, 1.5 WAR) continues to make no sense, playing basically like a Dave Kingman who walks, but his lack of productivity seems to have been accounted for by 19-year-old Juan Soto (.304/.417/.957, 9 HR, 28 RBI, 1.5 WAR), who famously started the 2018 season in Low-A, Michael A. Taylor (.243/.306/.685, 5 HR, 24 RBI, 23 SB, 1.3 WAR), Mark Reynolds (.297/.370/.965, 10 HR, 25 RBI, 0.8 WAR), who didn’t even get a spring-training invite, and free-agent signee Matt Adams (.283/.355/.899, 13 HR, 36 RBI, 1.2 WAR), who himself spent some time on the DL.

Don’t even assume that Harper gets it figured out, because every time it seems that he has it turned around, he puts up a string of 0-for-3s with a walk or two. Just get what you’re getting from Soto, Taylor, Reynolds and Adams, get Murphy and Eaton more and more into their grooves, and let Anthony Rendon (.279/.345/.856, 13 HR, 41 RBI, 2.8 WAR) and Trea Turner (.270/.349/.756, 11 HR, 37 RBI, 22 SB, 2.9 WAR) do their things, and the offense should be fine.

On paper, anyway. That’s the problem. In their last 21 games, a stretch that has seen the Nats go a miserable 7-14, the offense is averaging 4.24 runs per game, not far off the season average of 4.35 runs per game, which ranks a middling 17th in MLB, middle of the pack.

Thing is, the runs have been getting bunched up. The Nats scored 64 in their seven wins in the stretch, and just 25 across the 14 losses, five of which were shutouts.

No matter what you get out of the rotation when it’s back at full strength, it’s not going to matter if you don’t get more consistent production out of the offense.

And this doesn’t account for the duress that the last five weeks have put on the bullpen, a strength of the pitching staff coming out of spring training, but overworked of late with the starters averaging just 5.24 innings per start over the past 21 games.

Take Scherzer out of that equation, and it gets worse: 4.88 innings per start over that stretch.

For a staff that had been getting 5.84 innings per start beforehand, yeah, that’s significant, roughly an extra inning from the pen per outing.

Strasburg and Hellickson can help there. Better productivity from the offense, honestly, can help there, too, making it less likely that you’d need to pinch-hit in the sixth or seventh when your starter still has some bullets left in the chamber.

The alchemy has just been off. You really haven’t seen the 2018 Washington Nationals at full strength yet, 92 games in at this writing.

That being the context, then, it’s amazing to me that the Nats are still just five and a half back in the East.

The division is still the Nats’ to lose, is where I’m ending with this.

Column by Chris Graham

augusta free press

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