In one of the most dramatic turns in baseball, the Washington Nationals just pulled off the dirty dozen trick. They just went from a dozen games below .500 and then back to even before the calendar got to July 1st. No sleight of hand was needed here to make the glimmer of hope reappear. There was no David Blaine magic for this trick rather the team returning to playing good baseball and getting healthy. How much have they needed Trea Turner who has played in almost exactly half the team’s innings this season and sealed the Nats first win of 2019 with a walk-off home run and added another walk-off blast after he returned from the “injured list” with a broken finger that was not 100% healed. The heart and soul of this team in 2019 could be defined by this core of walking wounded players like Max Scherzer playing with a broken nose, Turner with nine fingers, Victor Robles bruised chin, and the improbable return of Howie Kendrick from a blown achilles tendon.
This team is 22-15 since Turner returned from the IL, and as a reminder when a key piece is down, they just lost both games last weekend against Atlanta when Victor Robles was pulled with dehydration. This team needs their core of young players. And don’t look now but the 20-year-old leftfielder is having a better year than last year with a .931 OPS and a .301 batting average, and somehow Juan Soto and the best third basemen in baseball, Anthony Rendon, are All-Star snubs right now. This team goes as far as the havoc wreakers and aces of the starting rotation carry them, and they are doing it with a historically deficient bullpen.
Every team needs an x-factor and general manager Mike Rizzo found him in the form of Gerardo Parra who has singlehandedly won three games for the Nationals including the shocker in Chavez Ravine when he took the Nats from the L column to the W column with a grand slam home run that sent Dodgers fans to the exits. Parra arrived on May 10th batting just .191 and now has an 1.011 OPS in RISP spots. When the situation shifts to Hi Lev, Parra shifts into a higher gear. Much of Parra’s value is in the intangibles, and that is what x-factor players do for their team, and they are hard to quantify.
Then there is Howie Kendrick, and what he has meant to this team is being the glue that holds it all together. If ever a bench bat deserved an All-Star nod, it would be Kendrick. Beyond his .956 OPS is his ability to change games, and the momentum within a game.
The Nationals are 12-2 in Kurt Suzuki‘s last 14 games, and Matt Adams has hit two game changing 3-run taters in the last two games. What is eye-popping about Adams’ impact is that 9-of-his-12 home runs have been absolute game changers this season. His bWE (batting win expectancy) after his home runs turned nine games around including a dramatic walk-off in April. We have seen the batters who hit home runs in low leverage situations, but Adams is turning losses to wins in some of the biggest spots just like Turner and Soto.
“There’s no quit,” manager Dave Martinez said. “These guys are always staying in the fight. If you watch our games all year long, there was always that fight — that extra push.”
With last night’s win, the Nationals became one of only seven team in NL history to go from 12-games under .500 and back to even before July 1st, and the first to do it since the 2009 Colorado Rockies who made it to the postseason!
So this team that The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal was writing about trading Max Scherzer, Rendon, and anything else that was not nailed down, has now gone silent. It now appears that the team tabbed as a “seller” is now a “buyer” as we approach July and the trade deadline. It’s simple what the need is. Fix the back of the bullpen.
“We’ve got time to continue to evaluate before we have to make a decision, before the trade deadline, and we’ll do so,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “We’re going to see what the needs of the team are. We’re going to see where we’re at, what opportunities we have to make any kind of changes. This is our time to evaluate. We’re not at July 1 yet. We’re not at the All-Star break. So we’ll see where we’re at. And together will sit down and have a clearer picture of what we want to do, and how we’re going to act on the 31st.”
Much of the issues have to be attributed to the bullpen that Mike Rizzo assembled with questionable evaluation that has to go back to the due diligence of the Trevor Rosenthal acquisition. The team passed up on their own guy, Greg Holland, to spend more money on Rosenthal who had not pitched professionally for over 1 ½ years since before his Tommy John surgery in 2017. Jay Robertson was the only Nationals employee in attendance at that showcase where Rosenthal threw in front of 40 men armed with radar guns in one hand and charts in the other. The entire showcase for Rosenthal was 36-pitches on that warm day on October 3rd, 2018. The showcase was held at a school, UC Irvine, that agent Scott Boras uses in the Los Angeles area. The former All-Star closer touched 99 mph on the flashing radar guns recording his fastball and high 80s with his slider and changeup. In one of the most impactful decisions of Rizzo’s tenure, he chose Rosenthal over the incumbent Holland who has pitched to a 2.08 ERA with 11 saves and a 1.000 WHIP for a cost of only $3.25 million.
Now Rizzo has to pay dearly to add to the bullpen once again as a buyer in the game of desperation as all teams are looking at what back of the bullpen arms will cost. This is all because Rizzo once again did not get it right in the off-season. Fortunately his acquisition of Tanner Rainey is paying dividends, and Wander Suero and Sean Doolittle are getting the job done most of the time even though the overall stats are not too pretty. Doolittle’s WHIP is now 1.303 which is the highest of his entire career, and his BB9 is doubled what it was last year. Part of the issue is Doolittle is pitching too much, and that is part of the cascading effect of having a questionable bridge from starter to Doolittle.
Being a general manager is a difficult job, and Mike Rizzo has done plenty right and even his acquisition of Brian Dozier is now paying dividends. GM’s sometimes are best judged in hindsight so we will see what the front office can pull off with their own sleight of hand.
This team is far from perfect, but if Mike Rizzo can fix the fixable then this team could become the team that the group at Fangraphs projected in the off-season to win the NL East.