The July 31 non-waiver trading deadline is barreling down on borderline-competitive teams, forcing them to self-identify as contenders or rebuilders. While some teams that still view themselves as buyers are delusional, the Nationals are still very much alive. Though they presently have a losing record, sit five games behind the Braves in the loss column in the NL East, and are a distant eight games behind the wild card leaders, they still have a 20-percent chance of making the playoffs. General manager Mike Rizzo is rumored to have taken an aggressive approach to the trade market, and with Bryce Harper on the comeback trail, Stephen Strasburg theoretically unlimited down the stretch, and the Braves' own weaknesses, reinforcements could pay big dividends.
The problem with the rumors isn't that Rizzo is willing to make moves at the deadline to help them stay in the race, but that he seems to be targeting starting pitchers, a curious preference given the nature of the team's struggles. Before the buying and selling is over, the Nationals will have to have their own chicken or the egg existential debate: Is the team struggling because their pitching isn't good, or does their pitching just appear to be inadequate because of the shortcomings of the offense and defense?
If Rizzo is chasing pitchers as rumored, his answer is obvious. But I'd argue that the Nationals don't have much of a pitching problem at all, and that their real problem has been a combination of weak offense and several players playing out of position regularly, which breeds poor defense. While improving one's pitching is never a bad idea, if it comes at the expense of fitting the roster with the pieces it truly needs, the Nationals may come up short of the postseason regardless.
Though Strasburg, Ross Detwiler, and especially Dan Haren, have received the bulk of the criticism this season, they aren't the team's biggest problem. Nationals' starters have allowed an average of just 3.9 runs per game this season, the fifth-best mark in the NL. They've also gone deep into their outings, throwing three complete games, and have the sixth-highest quality-start percentage in the league. When you factor in the relievers, the Nationals' pitching staff is striking out 20.4 percent of batters they face (which is better than the Braves), while walking just 6.6 percent of batters, which is just behind the Cardinals for best in the league (and impressive when you consider that Adam Wainwright has more wins than walks for the Cardinals this season).
Nationals pitching has allowed more extra-base hits and a higher percentage of balls in play than league average, but that's partially exacerbated by a compromised defense. Though the team is fifth in the league in runs allowed per game and sixth in park-adjusted ERA, when you use a stat like Fielding-Independent Pitching (FIP) to boil away the defense, they jump up to second place on the circuit, trailing only the Cardinals.
Stephen Strasburg (Greg Fiume)
Their biggest defect, though, really boils down to run support -- Nats pitchers are giving up 3.9 runs per game, while the offense is scoring just 3.5 runs per game. While the pitchers haven't been perfect, the lack of contribution from the offense makes it easy to see why they are losing more than winning.
Maybe Dan Haren is what this pitching hunt is all about. Haren has been having an awful season, leading the league in earned runs and home run allowed and is now on the disabled list with shoulder stiffness. Perhaps Rizzo is looking for Haren's replacement to save face for the $13 million mistake that he has been thus far, and the deadline would provide a good opportunity to provide stability to the rotation. But given their internal pitching depth, unless the trade options are inexpensive and come without trading away much value, the Nationals really have to take a closer look at the offensive and defensive problems that are breeding some of the pitching shortcomings.
Bill James once said that most of what we perceive as pitching is actually defense. The Nationals have been testing this proposition nightly with players in the wrong positions nightly. In Sunday's game versus the Colorado Rockies, the Nationals were fielding Anthony Rendon, Steve Lombardozzi, and Jeff Kobernus all out of position. Rendon is a third baseman who is learning second base on the job as the replacement for a struggling Danny Espinosa. Lombardozzi and Kobernus are utility infielders who moonlight as outfielders since Bryce Harper is on the disabled list and Jayson Werth has been battling illness and injury.
While the Nationals have a strong outfield when the starters are all healthy, it's inexcusable that a team that wants to contend doesn't have a better backup plan than putting weak-hitting infielders in the outfield regularly. This season, the Nationals have had an infielder in the outfield for roughly 19 percent of the outs made on defense. While that kind of shape-shifting makes sense for some teams (I've advocated that the Rangers stick Jurickson Profar out there) as a way to keep lively bats in the lineup, Lombardozzi, Kobernus, and actual-outfielder Roger Bernadina all have an OPS+ below 75, so that's not what the Nationals are trying to achieve.
Rendon is a liability at second for now, but he's hit so well the Nationals have to play him. Since the rookie rejoined the team on June 5, the Nationals have gone 8-9, hitting .248/.308/.390 in those games. You can break that down into .369/.397/.538 from Rendon (who has played 16 of 17 games) and .233/.295/.371 from everyone else. Rendon is the offensive catalyst for a struggling team, but he has a history of ankle injuries, and his .937 fielding percentage, if he continued to make errors at the same rate, would be the lowest in the majors at second base since 1916 (120 games minimum).
Anthony Rendon (Drew Hallowell)
Rendon stands to get stronger there the longer he plays the position (he's got a good glove at third), but the Nationals aren't in a position to bear the cumulative bad defense of two or three players out of position nightly. They have roughly an average strikeout rate (7.7 per nine innings versus a league average of 7.5) and have been slightly below average at converting balls in play into outs (.692 versus .695 league average), but that doesn't account for the sheer numbers of balls their fielders don't even get to -- Nationals fielders have accepted the fewest chances of any team in the league. That's a situation that will expose a bad defense (and make pitchers look bad) quickly. While I don't think the pitchers will resign en masse if Rendon is the everyday option at second, they probably should if there's not an attempt by the front office to get a better backup outfielder -- preferably one who bats right-handed -- to improve the team's offense.
It's hard to fathom, especially given that they were in the top three in the NL in OPS+ last season, but if the Marlins didn't exist the Nationals would have the worst offense in the league. Their OPS+ is 84 (which is abysmal when compared to last season's 103) and their .291 on-base percentage is also second to last in the league. They don't walk, and aside from being league average in power (with a .142 isolated power), there aren't a lot of joys when discussing their output. The biggest culprits for their struggles can be put into three buckets: Injuries, underperformers, and those out-of-position utility players that aren't contributing on either side of the ball.
Bryce Harper, who led the team in home runs and OPS+ before colliding with the wall at Dodgers Stadium, has now missed 30 of the Nationals' 74 games, and his production is missed desperately. Ryan Zimmerman, the team's second-best hitter also spent time on the disabled list, and even though Jayson Werth is hitting when he's in the lineup, he's been too banged up to make much of an impact, and has missed over 30 games with an ankle contusion, a thigh strain, illness, and a groin strain.
Then there are the underperformers. Kurt Suzuki hasn't done much behind or at the plate, and their biggest offensive free agent signing, Denard Span, is striking out more and walking less than he's ever done in his career (but hey, at least he's healthy). For the past two seasons, the Nationals had an outstanding second baseman in Danny Espinosa, who is a switch hitter, a defensive wizard, and had good power for the position. Unfortunately, he was recently optioned to the minors to reconnect with his swing after attempting to play through a wrist injury and hitting .158/.193/.272. The good news is that Rendon was waiting in the wings to provide a much needed boost at the plate; the bad news is that even Ian Desmond seems exciting this season when compared to his peers.
Still, with the Braves struggling to get their offense sorted out between dysfunctional Upton brothers and Dan Uggla's eye problems, there's still a good chance that the Nationals will be able to catch up with a few upgrades. Harper will be back soon, and after resting his shoulder, perhaps Haren provides more value than he has thus far (alternatively, he's been bad enough that any pitcher the Nationals try in his spot -- apparently Taylor Jordan will get the first crack -- almost can't help but be an upgrade). It's interesting to watch a young franchise that's relied mostly on homegrown talent approach a trade deadline in a buying position... and the team will be even more interesting to watch if the front office doesn't screw it up by trying to fix things that aren't broken while avoiding the things that are.