Slow Start Threatens What Could Be Nationals’ Last Great Chance

It’s hard to tell how a team is going to perform in April. No end-of-season awards, no postseason positions, and no eliminations from playoff contention are handed out on April 30. Still, it’s hard to ignore when a star-studded team with high expectations like the Washington Nationals is struggling this mightily.

The Nationals are 12-16, languishing in fourth place in a surprisingly competitive National League East division, six games behind the New York Mets. They are just 3-7 in their last 10 games after Sunday and have posted a saddening 4-9 record in front of their own fans at Nationals Park. It has been a horrific start in the nation’s capitol, especially for a team with pennant aspirations.

How they can buck the trend is a story for another day that you might be able to read from a writer smarter than I am. But, with such a miserable April almost behind them and a tough schedule upcoming (they play the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Arizona Diamondbacks in May), I get the feeling this could be the last run the Nats are able to make for a long time if they can’t turn the bus around.

One thought persists in that feeling, as Bryce Harper (.250/.455/.548, eight home runs, 19 RBIs) enters free agency after the 2018 campaign and very well could be playing his final season for the team with which he won NL Most Valuable Player honors in 2015. In addition, second baseman and former MVP finalist Daniel Murphy — who, by the way, has not played a game this season — will join the Washington right fielder in free agency.

The Washington @Nationals need to put their awful start behind them and succeed in what might be their final year of World Series contention.Click To Tweet

It isn’t just that. Their world-class pitching staff has been more like a middling one, ranking 14th in combined ERA (4.07), 21st in quality starts (11), and 15th in runs allowed (119) entering Sunday. Max Scherzer (5-1, 1.62 ERA, 57 strikeouts) is Max Scherzer, but Stephen Strasburg is 2-3 and has allowed the most home runs in the NL thus far (7).

Oh, their offense. They occupy 15th place in runs (120), 14th in hits (220), 17th in total bases (357), and 15th in team batting average (.239). If you routinely fail to consistently suppress runs, you have to compensate with scoring a whole bunch of them. Rather, the Nationals have scored just 4.39 runs per game, 18th in the majors.

When you combine underwhelming pitching with disappointing offensive production, you get a bad baseball team. It doesn’t help when your division rivals — save the disastrous Miami Marlins — are all ahead of schedule in their plans to contend, exceeding expectations with their tremendous youth.

The Mets are currently the class of the division at 17-9, with the 16-11 Phillies and Braves following close behind. With young guys like the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard and Michael Conforto (both 25), the Phillies’ Rhys Hoskins (25) and Aaron Nola (24), and the Braves’ Ozzie Albies (21) and Ronald Acuna (20) in their division, the future looks considerably tougher for the Nationals.

These teams have the young guns to compete for a while, whereas Washington’s best players are in their late 20s and early 30s, like Scherzer, Strasburg, and Anthony Rendon. Either they’re getting up there in age, or they are impending free agents like Harper and Murphy. The Nats have a decent core of young prospects, but it’ll be a while before their window opens back up.

It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence for those free agents to stay when the team starts the season at 12-16, fourth in the division they won by a massive 20-game margin.

For the Washington Nationals, 2018 is the final year of their championship window. The window would stay cracked if Harper decides to stick around, but with that seeming increasingly unlikely, fans in D.C. better hope their squad gets things turned around fast and make due on their expected pennant contention in 2018. This could be the last chance.

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