Since 2012, the Washington Nationals have been one of the best teams in Major League Baseball. The Nationals have won four National League East Titles, while never posting a losing record over that stretch. But ultimately for the Nats, they’ve been unable to get it done when it matters the most.
In those four trips to the playoffs, the Nationals have never been able to win a playoff series in spite of the fact that they were in possession of home-field advantage in each of those series. This has happened in spite of the fact that the Nats have one the games best sluggers in outfielder Bryce Harper in the middle of their lineup, while starting pitcher Max Scherzer is anchoring their rotation. And by the way that things are going here in 2018, Washington need not worry about blowing another playoff series.
Through 96 games, the Nationals find themselves with a record of 48-48. The Nationals are in third place in the National League East as this was a division that they were expected to dominate. But instead of dominating the N.L. East, the Nats are looking up at the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves in the standings, while they are 5 games out for the second wild card spot. The Nationals have been lethargic at best all year long which has resulted in them being their own worst enemy.
Dave Martinez is in his first year as the Nationals manager, and the team just has not responded to him. Martinez enjoyed a 16-year playing career in Major League Baseball before he spent the last 10 years as a bench coach for the Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago Cubs respectively. Martinez has a laid back personality which has not been able to light a fire under this Nationals team as every time that they appear ready to get it into fifth gear, the engine backfires.
Key veterans such as first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and second baseman Daniel Murphy have missed significant time due to injuries, but even without their presence in the lineup, the man who is supposed to be Washington’s catalyst has not been.
When Harper was drafted first overall by the Nats in 2010, he was one of the most hyped prospects in Major League Baseball history. Harper was a phenom who was blasting 500-foot homers in high school, and it didn’t take him that long to show that he could also do it as a professional. In 2012, Harper was the National League’s Rookie of the Year, while he was the MVP in 2015. But even though Harper is one of MLB’s biggest names, he has failed to be consistent throughout his career.
When Harper was named as the National League MVP in 2015, he batted .330 with 42 homers and 99 runs batted in. However in 2016, Harper only batted .243 with 24 home runs, while he bounced back last year to hit .319 with 29 home runs. But this year Harper’s average has taken a turn for the worse as he’s batting a career-worst .214. Harper’s home run totals are still high as his 23 are second in the N.L., while he has a respectable on-base percentage of .365. And if Harper isn’t going to hit for average, the struggles of the Nationals in 2018 will continue.
Harper’s struggles to hit for average this year come down to plate discipline as he has become impatient at the plate which includes chasing pitches. Harper is too talented for this as he’s allowing the pitchers to dictate to him instead of reversing those roles, and unfortunately for Washington, this is not something that can be fixed on the fly. Harper’s struggles at the plate have carried over to other facets of his game as he failed to run out a play to first base last week against the New York Mets which was on the heels of Scherzer hustling down the line the night before as if a pitcher is capable of doing that, so should every position player. Martinez had an opportunity to nip this in the bud the following day by benching Harper in order to set an example to the All-Star outfielder and his teammates alike, but he instead opted to merely talk with the slugger, while allowing him to remain in the lineup. And this hands off approach by Martinez will be the reason why the Nats will continue to hover around .500 this year.
Throughout this era of Nationals baseball there has never been a sense of urgency which starts with general manager Mike Rizzo. Rizzo has been the National general manager since 2009, and he’s been the architect of this squad, but the underachieving for this franchise falls into his lap.
Let’s not forget that during the 2012 Major League Baseball season that the Nationals elected to shut down starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg after 160 innings pitched. This was Strasburg’s first year back after he had undergone Tommy John surgery and Washington didn’t want him to exceed that amount of innings. In 28 starts that year, Strasburg was 15-6 with an earned run average of 3.16, while he struck out 197 batters. And as the Nats blew a 2-1 series lead in the National League Divisional Series versus the St. Louis Cardinals, along with a six-run margin in the decisive Game 5, the speculation began to mount about Strasburg being shut down. The questions have continued about this team’s lack of ability to seize the moment, and 2018 could be the last hurrah for them.
There is plenty of speculation that Harper could leave Washington this winter as free agent, and although that Scherzer continues to dominate which includes him being in the running to win his third consecutive National League Cy Young Award, he will be 34-years of age next Friday, and at some point the other show will drop in regards to his dominance. Age and injuries are also catching up to Murphy and Zimmerman, and as the game of baseball continues to change due to free agency as well as the luxury tax, the Nationals title window may have closed without them even knowing it. And this is due to the fact that the Phillies and Braves are each ahead of schedule in regards to their rebuilds as we’re looking at a changing of the guard in the National League East.
But in regards to 2018, the best thing that the Nationals have going for them is that no team appears ready to run away with the wild card race in the National League, while they are still one good push away from battling for another division title. However all of these scenarios would require the Nationals to establish a sense of urgency which doesn’t seem to be the case for a franchise which has established itself as the bridesmaid of this era in Major League Baseball.