WASHINGTON -- Monday’s off-day comes at an excellent time, giving us a chance to step back and consider what the Nationals have just pulled off.
It’s worth repeating: Through 50 games, the Nationals had bottomed out at 19-31. In the 80 games since, they have gone 54-26, the best record in baseball for three months. They’ve played at a 109-win pace over that time. They just finished off the best 80-game stretch in club history.
Yes, they may have buried themselves in the National League East race with that sluggish start. At no point during this run have they pulled any closer than four games out of first place in the division, and they woke up on Monday still trailing the Braves by six games. That’s a nod to how talented and exciting Atlanta has been this season, and these two teams still play seven games against each other (three in D.C., four in Atlanta) in September. Sign me up for that.
Meanwhile, Washington has given itself a four-game cushion for the top spot in the NL Wild Card race and a 5 1/2-game advantage to appear in the game at all. At 73-57 with a +107 run differential and 97.7 percent playoff odds, according to FanGraphs, they sit comfortably in position for October, and if they can get past the one-game toss-up (potentially at home with perhaps the best pitcher in the world on the mound), they could be one of the most dangerous teams in the bracket.
But as we take stock of what the Nationals have accomplished, there are still plenty of question marks (although a lot fewer calls for anyone’s job) to iron out over the final 32 games, making this the perfect time for a Nationals Inbox.
Re: [Matt] Adams -- what’s his status when [Ryan] Zimmerman comes back? Because that’s about to happen, right?
I got this question, or some version of this question, most often this week, with Ryan Zimmerman’s return from the injured list appearing imminent, perhaps as soon as Tuesday against the Orioles.
Nationals manager Dave Martinez has been vague on his plans when Zimmerman returns, particularly whether he will return as the starting first baseman or whether he will enter a platoon with Matt Adams. Martinez says he likes the fact he will have options and he will likely remain careful with Zimmerman, who has been through two bouts with plantar fasciitis this season. But I don’t really expect Martinez’s tune to change drastically.
If Zimmerman is healthy and active, I’d bet he will be penciled in as the everyday first baseman more times than not. I know some fans are frustrated that this has not been a strict platoon, and while I partially agree, I do think there is some life left in Zimmerman’s bat. Adams has been at about league average, batting .244/.290/.517 with a 99 OPS+, 0.5 fWAR, while being vulnerable against lefties. Zimmerman, who turns 35 next month, hit .302/.326/.419 before getting hurt again in his brief 11 games after his first IL stint. He’s gone 6-for-16 with five walks in his Minor League rehab stint.
What Martinez needs to be careful of is making sure Howie Kendrick is not lost in the shuffle. He’s the bat the Nationals need to keep healthy and in the lineup as much as possible. But getting Zimmerman back will help the Nats, even though his playing time should be monitored. Adding another good hitter to a bench that’s been somewhat short-handed all year could be beneficial.
Do you think [Sean] Doolittle gets save opportunities as soon as he's back from the IL or will they ease him back in with a few lower-leverage situations?
I’d take Martinez at his word here. He has said repeatedly that Sean Doolittle will be his closer when he returns from the IL. Doolittle might feel like he needs to earn his way back into that spot, but unless he returns and is still clearly not right, I think he’ll get a chance to close out games for the Nationals again.
Also, check out what reliever Daniel Hudson, who is filling in as the closer while Doolittle is sidelined, said after Sunday’s extra-innings win at Wrigley Field.
"To get where we need to get to, where we want to get to, we need Doo pitching the ninth inning,” Hudson said. “For me, at least, that's my opinion. So we need to get Doo right, and hopefully the time away will help him do that."
If [Anthony] Rendon keeps playing the way he has, is he MVP?
The National League Most Valuable Player Award is actually one of the races I’m most interested in to close out the season, and it speaks to just how good both the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger and the Brewers’ Christian Yelich have been that it’s still virtually a two-man race. But Anthony Rendon, who was just named the NL Player of the Week on Monday, should definitely get some top-5 MVP votes, along with Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ketel Marte.
The 14 games Rendon missed with a bruised left elbow didn’t do him any favors, but a career year in the final season on his contract in D.C. has Rendon hitting .329/.407/.617 with 29 home runs and 5.7 fWAR, the fourth best in the NL. Rightfully, he will get some MVP consideration, but he’s not the favorite to win it, although Martinez took some time to campaign for him on Sunday.
“I’ll make a case for him right now, yeah,” Martinez said after Rendon drove in the game-winning run in extra innings Sunday. “MVP. Gold Glove. My man, Anthony.”
Are the Nats pitchers hitting better than usual this year?
Actually, Nationals pitchers have not been very good as a whole this season compared to their peers.
Their 2019 slash line is .125/.154/.144 for a -29 wRC+ (13th in NL), which is down compared with a league average slash line of .133/.166/.169 and a -15 wRC+ for NL pitchers as a whole. It’s also down from the .145/.169/.184 and -9 wRC+ (fourth in NL) that Nationals pitchers posted in 2018.
Again, as someone who is very much pro-designated hitter, take a look at these unsightly numbers and tell me a regular, professional hitter would not be more enjoyable to watch than someone who is just thoroughly overmatched almost every time. Those numbers are also getting worse each year as pitchers get even better at pitching -- you know, what they’re paid to do. If the best-case scenario is a sac bunt, what are we doing here?
Is there any talk of going with a six-man rotation to give the starting arms some rest?
Martinez mentioned Friday in Chicago that the club is considering using a six-man rotation in order to keep Erick Fedde in the rotation and on a routine, but Fedde was also available out of the bullpen this weekend. The two off-days in the schedule this week already give everyone in the rotation an extra day, so the fit this week might not be perfect, but I’d expect Fedde to get another start at some point through the next turn in the rotation.
Suspected September callups? I’d love to see [Aaron] Barrett pitch in the bigs again and he’s been doing well in the Minors. I’d also like to see Greg Holland too.
This is purely speculation from me here, but I do think both those pitchers have a shot to be included as September callups next week. Aaron Barrett was just named to the Eastern League All-Star team after posting a 2.50 ERA, 61-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 30 saves in 48 games. Holland hasn’t allowed a run in six innings at Double-A Harrisburg. Assuming Zimmerman is activated before September, other potential callups include Adrian Sanchez, Carter Kieboom, Kyle McGowin, Michael A. Taylor, Raudy Read, Austin Voth and Jeremy Hellickson. Lefty Roenis Elias is also working his way back from the IL.