Early season observations on the Nats

We are just a dozen games into this 2024 baseball season, and the early results will shed just a little light on the small sample sizes of what stands out. First off, relying on three starts by Patrick Corbin, five save chances for Kyle Finnegan, and three home runs by CJ Abrams and Joey Gallo are a mixed bag to look at. WAR might be a guide to confirm that Abrams, Gallo, and Jesse Winker are your Top-3 position players, and the surprise of the early season is that Trevor Williams is your best starting pitcher by results.

If you used WAR for your good, neutral, and ugly rankings, Tanner Rainey, Corbin, Finnegan, Josiah Gray (15-day IL), and Joey Meneses are the early entrants for concern. We should start with analyzing those five players first.

The Ugly

Rainey — he is a mechanically challenged pitcher who has never been a command and control pitcher. He relied on a sizzling fastball and slider combo with varied success. With UCL surgery in 2022, he returned late in the season last year to pitch one-time and the fastball was tracking at 96.2 mph on average. This year it hasn’t shown up and the fastball is 93.3 mph on average. His expected-ERA as measured by Statcast is 8.36 saying he has been luckier than good. He has introduced a changeup into his repertoire — but it is clear that Rainey is not ready for hi lev at this point and has been used sparingly by manager Dave Martinez in mop-up situations. He has no options remaining but if you DFA him, would anyone claim him? If they did, would you care?

Corbin — Behind the scenes, Corbin’s new pitch mix shows that they are trying something new, and have all but eliminated the slider from his repertoire. Per Statcast, he threw just six yesterday, and you have to wonder if the two sliders in the middle of the plate were just cutters with more break. His 8.44 ERA and 1.940 WHIP in three starts won’t cut it. He only got two strikeouts yesterday with just three swing & miss pitches (from the cutter) of the 46 pitches that induced swings. That means that unless they figure something else out that Corbin is relying on BABIP, and with a 44 percent hard-hit rate yesterday, he was trashed for a BABIP of .402 yesterday. He lacks a putaway pitch. The cutter is good, the sinker is decent, but he needs a vertical pitch from the same arm slot for more deception and increase the swing & miss — and time is running out on him.

Finnegan — based on end-results of four converted saves in five attempts (one blown save), you might think all is well with the anointed Nats’ closer — but a closer look is the same problem as Corbin. Too much contact, walks, and not enough swing & miss and strikeouts. He has been luckier than good which usually catches up with an athlete.

What happened to Finnegan’s split-finger pitch and breaking ball? He suffers from the same problem as Rainey where he has no clue where the fastball will end up. Against Philadelphia the first two batters squared him up and the cooler weather and great defense saved him. On Tuesday in San Francisco, he loaded the bases with no outs, and Houdini’d himself out of it with a comebacker and a double play — but again, relying on all contact for outs and no strikeouts is not a recipe for success in what you want to see from a closer with control issues. Finnegan has a 7.2 BB/9 and a 1.800 WHIP.

My opinion, put Hunter Harvey in the closer spot, and put Finnegan into another role in the bullpen and work with him on the split-finger pitch.

Gray — he had two horrific starts with a combined 14.04 ERA, and then was placed on the 15-day IL with a muscular strain in his forearm. Gray was a subject of a full article of analysis by me, and I think you have to get him back and simplify his repertoire to the four-to-five pitches he throws best — from the start of the game instead of asking him to establish his fastball which has been getting him in trouble. He needs low pitch counts and throw zeroes early in these games.

Brutal assessment by Steve Adams of MLBTR on Gray saying, “I just don’t think he’s very good.” While he has issues, he showed last year that he can be a good back of the rotation starter. Gray has work ahead of him, and so do the coaches.

Meneses — If you saw Meneses in Spring Training, he started off by hitting weak worm burners, then found his swing and was a line drive machine. Unfortunately he is back to hitting weak groundballs, and with a decision coming up on activating Nick Senzel from the 10-day IL, it could be Meneses getting sent to Triple-A and not Trey Lipscomb. All of the goodwill built up in 2022 earned Meneses a pass for last year. After the season, Martinez claimed that Meneses played hurt for most of 2023 which seemed like a convenient excuse with no backing. What’s the excuse now? Meneses is batting under Mendoza with a .485 OPS. That won’t cut it. How much more rope will he get?

Driving in Neutral

Thomas — Yes, Lane Thomas seemed to figure it out for one game to lead the Nats to a victory, but overall, it has Lane with early season inconsistencies and trying to get a footing on his offense. This will need more time, but batting .191 with a .519 OPS is not the answer.

Rosario — When Eddie Rosario was signed in mid-March as a free agent, he did not have much time to prepare for the season. Clearly he has not looked comfortable at all with the bat or glove. He is at the bottom for all players batting just .160 with a .464 OPS.

Young — The Jacob Young effect. He is a havoc wreaker and his defense and speed is his calling card. But they still want him to hit and that .188 BABIP, while unlucky, is probably because he is trying to smash home runs — which is not his game. That 25 percent flyball rate needs to come down and get that line drive rate up.

Lipscomb — Who is Trey Lipscomb? He is a very solid defender when he is making accurate throws across the diamond. His bat is what we don’t know if it will be enough. Who leaves when Nick Senzel is activated from the 10-day IL? Will it be Lipscomb or Meneses? The team wants Lipscomb playing every day. Ildemaro Vargas has been one of the best players in the early season, so there aren’t enough at-bats to go around unless Senzel took on the DH role to leave Lipscomb at third base. His .262 OBP with a .570 OPS won’t be good enough — and lucky enough for him, Meneses has been worse.

Irvin — Last season, most would say Jake Irvin‘s call-up was one of the positives of the 2023 season. He is doing fine in his two starts sans two pitches that really hurt his season. A 3-run home run against the Phillies was just an unfortunate pitch in an 0-2 count, 2-out situation, when he threw a third consecutive curveball to the best hitting catcher in baseball. If that did not happen, Irvin would be one of the shining pieces of the 2024 season. One pitch. One pitch.

The Good News

You can start the good news segment with the fact that the Nats are 5-7 with a good chance of getting near or above the .500 mark this weekend. We knew the starting pitching was going to be suspect in this early season, and credit to Doolittle for really trying to make lemons out of lemonade as the team’s new pitching strategist aka Assistant Pitching Coach.

In total, 18 Washington Nationals players are ranked by FanGraphs in positive WAR with another four at a 0.0 rating. Again, just a dozen games into the season, and the small sample sizes can shift considerably with a good game or two. You can see so far why the National are staying in the mix here.

While you hope that there is a pitching savior like Cade Cavalli to come on the scene and become an ace, that would be a tall-order wish. He is on track to return in June from his UCL surgery a year ago.

In the meantime, you have to hope for Irvin to step up along with MacKenzie Gore. The truth is that the pitching staff improvement is going to come from coaching players up with the current staff that is there. You have to hope that Williams can keep his streak of run-control going — and if you look at last year, he was good with a 4.68 FIP through mid-May before he was feeling the effects of stamina issues.

The team most likely will go into the offseason once again looking for a free agent ace to anchor this starting rotation. Corbin and Williams will be headed to free agency, and there should definitely be a competition for the rotation. Until then, let’s see who steps up in 2024 for this team.

While the starting staff is third from last in ERA, that is really due to the struggles of Gray and Corbin. The Nats have been able to win close games, and hope to return to what worked in the second half of the last season when the team played near .500 baseball based on wreaking havoc on the bases and winning close games. The team is two home runs away from being in the upper half of power teams, and currently rank 19th in OPS which doesn’t measure taking extra bases with steals in which the Nats are first in baseball with 25.

The key for the Nats’ offense is knocking in runs which is where Meneses excelled last year — and unfortunately, not so much this year so far with his two RBIs. The Nats are 18th in baseball in RISP spots with a .245 batting average. The team is 3-3 when Young starts in center field. He is the perfect X-factor to do what the team did in the second half of last year to steal wins.

While the Nats minor league system is try to produce stars for the MLB system, James Wood is knocking on the door in a big way with a gaudy .441 batting average and 1.352 OPS. Dylan Crews woke up on Tuesday from his slumber and has to produce with more consistency than his early-season .685 OPS. Brady House is racking up the hits and batting .381 with an .816 OPS. Robert Hassell III got to a .200 BA, and Yohandy Morales is now a Top-100 prospect on MLB Pipeline and batting .176. Very early season in the minor leagues with a lot of bad weather — but that has not stopped Wood who looks every bit like the No. 1 prospect of all of baseball.

The decision for general manager Mike Rizzo is his pitching depth, pitching pipeline, and when does he start promoting his star prospects to the Major Leagues. In a way, that is a good problem to have.

We will revisit this every few weeks to gain some more clarity on the direction of the team. In all fairness, small sample sizes are more useful for trends than a clear direction.

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