Washington Nationals not out of the race yet

Despite horrible bullpen management from manager Matt Williams, loads of injuries and underperforming players, the Washington Nationals are just 5 games out of first place in the lousy NL East. Mangameslost.com estimates that Nationals players have missed 877 games due to injury this year, 4th most of any team.

Fangraphs gives the Nationals a 24.1% chance of winning the division, with the New York Mets naturally at 75.9%. Of course, neither team is going to compete for the wild card, as the only reason the Nats still have a shot at the playoffs is because the Mets (who also have been ravaged by injuries) aren’t that great either.

To say that Bryce Harper has carried the Nationals offense is an understatement. The combined fWAR for Nationals batter this year is 11.9. Harper currently has a 7 fWAR. Replace Harper with an average player and the Nationals have the second-worst lineup in the majors.

Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon have absolutely fallen off of a cliff, with injuries being a big factor. Rendon produced a 6.6 fWAR last year, and in 171 plate appearances this year he’s at -0.2. Zimmerman, who used to be an elite third-baseman, has put up a 0.1 fWAR at first (323 PA).

Depth is a huge problem for the Nats’ offense. They have no decent backup position players and their pinch hitters are hitting .172 in 151 plate appearances this season, dead last in the NL.

They’ve already bolstered their roster this week by calling up shortstop prospect Trea Turner, ranked 12th overall by MLB.com. Pundits are calling this a surprise but I don’t see why. He hit .322/.385/.471 last year in AA and .314/.353/.431 so far this year in AAA, and his 6.3% walk rate and 20% K rate imply that the 22 year old is ready to contribute at the major league level. He certainly didn’t have anything left to prove in the minors, and the Nationals need all the help they can get right now. At the very least he will provide an actual backup for Ian Desmond (or replacement, but I doubt they’ll do that) and can be used as a serviceable pinch hitter/runner.

Denard Span looks to come back within a week and will give their lineup a much-needed jolt of energy, provided he has actually recovered from his injuries. Span was incredibly important to their lineup, his .304/.367/.430 line with a 123 wRC+ easily made him the second best hitter on the team.

Don’t think his injury meant much? Well, the Nationals were 46-37 when Span went down with back spasms. Since then, they’ve gone 14-24.

Span’s return allows the Nats to pull Jayson Werth from the lineup and move Michael Taylor to left. In 203 PA, Werth has been abysmal, posting a -1.3 fWAR and 54 wRC+ while playing terrible defense in the outfield. Werth has easily been the worst outfielder in the MLB this season. He’s so bad that his WAR matches Hanley Ramirez’s despite having half as many plate appearances. The sooner he’s out of the lineup, the better.

Something they might not be able to fix is Matt Williams’ bullpen management. On paper, the Nationals bullpen is pretty good. Their 3.60 ERA is 13th in the league. Yet they have blown 14 saves and converted only 34, while having 73 bullpen meltdowns, 9th most in the league. These numbers don’t make much sense until you look at what Williams is doing with his relievers. Just 2 days ago, his mismanagement cost them yet another game as the Nationals predictably blew another seventh-inning lead against the Rockies. I don’t see how he can continue to screw up with a bullpen that now contains Drew Storen (2.22 FIP), Jonathan Papelbon (3.15), Blake Treinen (2.77), Casey Janssen (3.46) and Felipe Rivero (2.77).

The upcoming schedules for both the Mets and Nationals are very easy. The Mets have the fortune of playing the Phillies 10 times and the Marlins 6 times while the Nats have 10 games against the Marlins and 6 against the Phillies. The Mets and Nationals play each other 6 times. The Mets may be losing Lucas Duda, and nobody knows what David Wright will look like when/if he comes back. In many ways the Nationals and Mets are very similar. They both have been hit hard by injuries, have terrible lineups, and are teams that nobody wants to see in the first round of the playoffs where ace starting pitching can easily decide a short series.

This season has been a disaster for the Nationals and yet somehow they are still in the race. Nearly all of their injured players are going to be back, and now is the time to stop making excuses and win the division. Many things are lost for the Nationals, like Ryan Zimmerman and his horrible contract, but the NL East is still there for the taking…at least this season.