What the Heck Happened to the Washington Nationals?

As the MLB regular season begins to come to a close and talks of the playoffs fill the air, it’s hard to not think about last season’s World Series Champions, the Washington Nationals.

Many have heard the Nats’ 2019 story, and it seems to be one that will be cemented in history. After a horrendous 19-31 start, and a 0.1% chance of making the playoffs, the Nats went on a roll. They ended up with a 93-69 record and solidified their spot in the playoffs as the first NL Wild Card. With some amazing performances, and a little bit of luck, the Nats fought their way to the World Series.

The World Series against the Houston Astros was a rollercoaster, with highs like the Nats going up 2-0 in the series, and lows like the Nats falling behind 3-2, on the brink of elimination. But, a similar theme that entire postseason, the Nats came back with a wild comeback in Game 7 to solidify their position as 2019’s best MLB team.

But, the thing about the playoff conversation this year is that the Nats aren’t in it. Unlike last year, this year hasn’t been a Cinderella story. The Nats got off to a similarly horrible start, even hitting their “magic number” of 19-31. The difference? The Covid-19 pandemic shortened the 2020 MLB season to 60 games. Having a .380 winning percentage with only 10 games remaining instead of the usual 112 games didn’t leave them with enough time to recover.

Many of their in-season disappointments, and specifically their record, have to do with some of their front office’s decisions in the off-season. Much of the Nats’ 2019 postseason success came from All-Star 3B Anthony Rendon, who many assumed would get re-signed because of his significant impact. But, with most of baseball thinking otherwise, P Stephen Strasburg ended up winning the World Series MVP, and getting re-signed by the Nats. Rendon headed to the Los Angeles Angels to join the exceptional duo of Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani.

While this was in no way a bad decision—both players are considered top 10 in their positions—the object of the game is to score runs. Even with Strasburg being a fantastic hitting pitcher, Rendon being the 2019 RBI Champ should’ve turned their heads. Especially, with the Nats having a -20 run differential (as of September 24), some extra RBI would be pretty good right now. But, then again, this is all in hindsight.

Something else that made the Nats choosing Strasburg over Rendon a little more sour was the World Series MVP getting injured very early in the season, after suffering carpal tunnel neuritis in his right hand. After two pretty bad starts, Strasburg concluded his season with a 10.80 ERA in 5 IP with a WHIP of 1.80, as he hit the IL and unfortunately never returned. Nats then had to call up Austin Voth, a pitcher with only two previous years of Major League experience, as Strasburg’s replacement. Voth ended up going 1-5 with an ERA of 6.25 (as of September 24), which doesn’t replace Strasburg’s expected numbers.

You can’t predict an injury, so many may look at this event as just unfortunate. But, with Strasburg being 32 and Rendon being 30, and pitchers going under much more physical stress than hitters, Rendon may be less injury prone. No one knows if Rendon would’ve fouled a ball off himself or taken a bad hop to chest, but speaking strictly on what we can infer, keeping the younger player looked like a better long-term decision.

Another loss for the team in terms of players were some of those who opted-out of this season because of Covid-19 concerns: 1B Ryan Zimmerman and P Joe Ross. Zimmerman, even though in his old age, would’ve been great to have this season as he can still add to the lineup. Ross, a pitcher who had some significant trouble in past seasons while recovering from Tommy John surgery, looked like he was finally hitting his stride and returning to the player he was before his injury. But, nevertheless, the players had their valid reasons for sitting this year out. 

Considering these players who opted-out, and those who left because of contract expirations, the Nats were also playing with almost a whole new field. As mentioned in my article Washington Nationals’ Offseason Update & 2020 Predictions, there were many new additions to the team this year. Fans can hope they were still getting used to playing with each other, or adjusting to the new team dynamic.

Regardless, for whatever reason, the Nats aren’t in the playoff picture this year. After last year’s crazy ending, hopefully the pressure didn’t get to their heads. At the moment, though, the Nats are better off working towards a better start next season. Maybe this is the start of a World Series trophy every other year, similar to the San Francisco Giants in 2010, 2012, and 2014. The Nats may not be that same dominant team, but, hey, as long as you get there, right? 

(As long as you don’t pull a stunt like the Houston Astros).