The Frustration of the Nationals
At leastonce a week the Washington Nationals play a game like they did last evening against the Braves. At least once a week they find themselves in a close, nip and tuck pitcher's duel where whichever teams makes the first mistake is going to lose, and far too often the Nationals are the team that makes that mistake.
In the ninth inning of last evening's contest the Nats became the team to make that mistake. With runners second and third and no outs all the Nats needed was for one of the next two batters to put the ball in play with authority. The main issue with this is that they were facing Craig Kimbrel who strikes out 50% of the batters he faces. Ian Desmond gave it a good show at the plate working the count, but then fell victim to a slider that nicked the outside corner and fooled him badly. That is fine and should be expected against Kimbrel. The problem wasn't Desmond it was the men following him.
Roger Bernadina on the season is hitting an impressive .163/.217/.267 and only has a positive fWAR because of his UZR which is only positive because he catches balls after taking a zig-zagging, upside down and backwards route to them. In other words, Roger Bernadina is not a very good baseball player, and as expected he failed. The next man up, the guy looking to pick-up his teammates, was the walking injury report, Danny Espinosa. Espinosa has played all season with a torn left rotator cuff and since the middle of April has been playing with a broken right wrist. And if it is an indication as to how important having two functioning arms is to hitting Espinosa has hit .160/.190/.267. The only reason Espinosa continues to play is that as bad as he has been, worth -0.6 fWAR, Steve Lombardozzi has been just as bad and is worth the same exact paltry fWAR.
If it weren't for the injuries to Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper Bernadina and one of Lombo or Espi wouldn't be in the line-up, but with those two hurt the bench has been thrust into the spotlight and they have wilted badly. Adding up the contributions of all the men that have been on the bench for the Nationals yields a sterling output of -2.9 fWAR. When the bench was expected to be a soft landing area, somewhere between replacement level and starter quality, and instead it has been a spike filled chasm it exasperates the effects of injuries. The Nationals have no players that can match the production of a healthy Harper and Werth, and those two bats are what the offense needs to get going, but if the bench is not improved and continues on their current pace they will cost the Nats six more wins before the season is over. Already behind the Braves by 5.5 and needing to play over .600 ball to win 90 games still early is becoming too late quickly for the Nationals and they can't keep giving away games waiting for guys to come around.
Having Roger Bernadina and Danny Espinosa still on the 25 man roster was only one of the mistakes the Nationals made last night. The second, and perhaps even the bigger one, was when Davey Johnson brought in Henry Rodriguez in a tie game in the tenth inning. The Nationals couldn't allow a run, and they brought in a reliever who has walked 18.6% of the batters he has faced, and who once the batters get on can't stop them from stealing. It was almost guaranteeing the Braves the victory, and this was a mistake made by a manager who in a recent interview gloated about his blind loyalty.
Davey Johnson is going to continue to use the players that were here last season or the ones he has seen before. He won't give Kobernus a start because he has seen Espinosa and Lombardozzi do well, he wasn't going to bring in Erik Davis over Henry Rodriguez because Rodriguez was here last season, and two weeks ago in San Francisco he did the same thing with Yunesky Maya over Fernando Abad in a tie game in extra innings. The Nationals have passed the point of patience and are treading in the waters of indecisiveness and confusion. Add in the efforts of Maya, Duke, Rodriguez, and Espinosa into the -2.9 the bench has provided and the Nats total roster mistakes have cost them four games. If they continue on this way they will be dragged down even deeper and by the time Harper and Werth are back in the line-up any run the Nationals go on won't be enough to catch any of the four teams ahead of them for one of the Wild Card spots.
The Nationals need to clean up the roster. They don't have enough in the minor leagues to lose all that need to be cut, DL'd, or sent down, but a start would be to DFA Rodriguez, Duke, and Bernadina replacing them with Ryan Tatusko, Corey Brown, and either Micah Owings, Zach Walters, or Eury Perez as an eight man bullpen is completely unnecessary for this team. The next thing to do is to take a risk. DL Danny Espinosa, the wrist and shoulder or too bad for him to play through, and call-up Anthony Rendon and have him learn second on the fly much as Matt Carpenter did for the Cardinals. Matt Carpenter who by the way is leading the major leagues in fWAR by a second baseman. The final move is to wait for guys to get healthy. When Werth returns send Tyler Moore back to the minors to work on some thing and when Harper gets back do the same with Lombardozzi, and last but not least when Christian Garcia returns send Ryan Tatusko or Erik Davis back to the minors, but give them both a chance to show which one it should be.
Do all this gives the Nationals a much different look, but not too different. The best way for the Nationals to win ball games is for the regular line-up to be healthy, but losing four entire games to the bench and the back of the bullpen is unacceptable and changes need to be made, and if none of the changes work out, make more changes. These are bench players here. For many teams the bench is a fluid place of much roster rotation, and the Nats need to cut the fat. They are letting below replacement level players cost them far too many games, and even with replacement level guys they would be better at holding down the homestead until the regulars get healthy. It is now June and the sun is setting on “still early” as the dark night of “too late” rises.