Can The Nats Get Control Of The NL East?

Earlier this week, TheSportsNotebook took a look at surprising NL East contenders in the Braves and the Phillies. A key premise of any long-term race in this division is that the Washington Nationals, the odds-on favorite and winner of four of the last six NL East crowns, won’t kick into high gear and leave everyone in the dust. So with that in mind, let’s wrap up the week with a closer look at the Nats…

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Injuries, most notably to second baseman Daniel Murphy, have defined this early part of the Washington season. Adam Eaton, Matt Wieters and Ryan Zimmerman are also on the disabled list, as are four pitchers, including veteran reliever Ryan Madson. The injuries are a logical explanation for why the most talented team in the division is puttering along at 26-22, three games off the pace heading into the holiday weekend. But they aren’t the biggest long-term concern.

Washington is still getting a vintage season from Bryce Harper (.387 on-base percentage/.537 slugging percentage). They’re top four starting pitchers—Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez are humming along. Scherzer, at 7-1 with a 1.78 ERA is a serious contender to win his fourth Cy Young Award and the rotation as a whole ranks second in the National League in ERA. The back end of the bullpen is in good hands, with closer Sean Doolittle closing 9/10 chances with 2.18 ERA.

There are a couple of everyday players who could hit better, Anthony Rendon at third base (.339/.422) and especially centerfielder Michael Taylor (.249/.311). But at the same time, is new left fielder Matt Adams going to continue his pace of slugging .618? And how long for the big and burly Adams becomes a serious defensive liabiity in the outfield?

Hence, there’s no reason to assume a normal course of action—players returning to career norm performance over the course of the summer is going to substantially move the needle for the Nats. That brings us to this team’s biggest problem and that’s relief pitching.

The bullpen has been the Nationals’ bugaboo for this entire seven-year period of their run. We can take it back to 2012 when they blew a 6-0 lead to St. Louis in the decisive game of the Division Series. The ensuing years has seen the pen be a nagging issue during Washington’s regular seasons and a debilitating one in the playoffs.

Washington’s bullpen currently ranks ninth in the National League in ERA and continues to be the weak spot of the entire team. Madson is expected back in June. He’s pitched very well the last three years and can combine with Doolittle to at least stabilize the end of games.

The return of Madson makes Washington marginally better than the rest of the improved NL East. But if you’re a top-heavy 1-2 betting favorite in a four-team race, “marginally better” isn’t what you’re after. You’re looking to blow the thing open. And if the Nationals depth doesn’t improve, that won’t happen.

This is where Washington is going to miss having Dusty Baker at the helm. Say what you will about his poor playoff record, the man knew how to manage regular seasons and nowhere is that more obvious on the field than piecing together a bullpen. Maybe new skipper Dave Martinez can do it, but he’s very much an unproven commodity in a situation that’s World Series-or-bust.