Why the Nationals are more likely to be sellers than surprise contenders after another poor 50-game start

The Nationals ended May with a five-game losing streak, which meant that at the 50-game mark, they were sitting a pretty terrible 21-29. They were seven games out and sitting in last place in what’s so far been a mediocre NL East. 

So far in June, though, the Nationals have won both games. 

And that just makes one travel down memory lane, right? A bad 50-game start followed by the Nationals getting hot? Where have we seen that before? 

Why, 2019, of course! Famously, the Nationals were 19-31 through their first 50 games that season. They would win nine of their next 11 games to right the ship and were above .500 for good by June 30 (42-41). They would win 93 games before the late comeback in the wild card, the shocking upset of the Dodgers in the NLDS, the sweep of the Cardinals in the NLCS and the seven-game thriller over the Astros in the World Series. 

It happened before, so why can’t it happen again? That’s the sentiment that should be heard from the clubhouse, front office and fan base. 

I’m not in any of those places, though, so I’m gonna call it like I see it. It ain’t happening with this group. 

Offensively, their due to see more power from Juan Soto, and he’s starting to rebound, but it’s hard to find much else that’s going to move the needle a ton. Trea Turner has been better than he was in 2019. Anthony Rendon has been replaced with Starlin Castro, who is hitting .253/.305/.325 and won’t likely be much better moving forward. Kyle Schwarber is exactly what he’ll likely be all year (.238/.326/.446). Josh Bell has a terrible line right now (.208/.272/.396), but it’s not all that different from what he did last year and he was bad in the second half in 2019, too. There just isn’t a lot, aside from a possible Soto power barrage, that points to some massive positive movement in the cards here. 

It’s not a bad offense, but it is below average in runs per game (22nd in the majors) due to a lack of power and there aren’t indicators that this could turn around with them becoming a powerhouse. 

Things are worrisome in the rotation. Max Scherzer is still himself and that’s great. Patrick Corbin’s numbers were ruined by his first two starts, sure, but he’s still only pitching to a 4.14 ERA if we throw those out. Corbin has allowed opposing hitters to slash .297/.346/.497 against him in his last seven starts. He’s not close to being an ace anymore. Joe Ross (5.40 ERA, 1.41 WHIP) has been bad and there aren’t really any indicators he’s set to turn it around. Jon Lester still has enough guile to put together FIP-defying outings, but he’s a back-end starter at this point. And Stephen Strasburg is hurt for the second time this season. He’s made seven starts since the 2019 World Series and has put together a 5.74 ERA, 5.65 FIP and 1.46 WHIP. 

Remember how hard the Nationals rode their three aces to the World Series title? They have one ace, one below-average starter and one on the shelf now. 

The bullpen has been roughly average. If anything, there are some concerns around closer Brad Hand (peripherals indicate good luck on run prevention, walks are way up, strikeouts are way down, etc.). 

This simply isn’t the same group as 2019, when there truly were reasons to believe they’d get things going. 

If you’re into that sort of thing, the Nationals have played one of the weakest schedules in the majors to this point, too. 

Now, if the Nationals do end up flailing between now and July, some difficult questions will have to be answered. 

Scherzer is a free agent at the end of the year and surely contending clubs would cough up some quality prospects to rent his services for the rest of the season. Hand — if he works things out — and Daniel Hudson also hit free agency after the season and nearly every contending team looks for bullpen help. Schwarber has a mutual option for next season if anyone is seeking lefty power. Surely they wouldn’t trade Turner, but he’d probably get the most back if they are looking for a quick reload. He’s only signed through next season and he’s 28. The hunch is they’d keep him and try to extend him, but who knows? 

For now, though, the Nationals have some time to cling to the hope that history is repeating itself. They got through the first 50 games and now it’s time to flip that championship switch. It’s possible! Belief is a powerful thing and they surely have it. I just don’t. Not this time around. 

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