Nationals

As Nats look like buyers, Castro’s struggles are glaring

Nationals
Starlin Castro

Over the last year and a half, no position on the Nationals’ roster has endured more scrutiny than third base. For 14 years, the Nationals went into every season counting on either Anthony Rendon or Ryan Zimmerman filling the spot. Now, Rendon suits up for the Los Angeles Angels and Zimmerman is a part-time first baseman.

Washington’s recent play has vaulted the team into playoff contention, putting the Nationals in a position to consider buying at the trade deadline rather than sell. If they are going to double down on their 2021 club, third base is the most natural position to upgrade.

In the 18 months since Rendon left for the West Coast, the Nationals have started seven different players at third. Entrenched there now is Starlin Castro, who prior to this year had played only 45 games at the position as a major leaguer. Yet while Castro has proven to be a capable defender at third, his bat has been a liability.

Entering play Tuesday, Castro is hitting .248 with two home runs and a .625 OPS in 74 games. The Nationals as a team haven’t hit for much power this year and Castro has embodied that with a .326 slugging percentage that ranks 135th out of 143 qualified hitters. His lack of long balls wouldn’t be a problem if he was reaching base at a solid clip. However, Castro carries an OBP under .300 while striking out (61) nearly three times as often as he walks (21).

Despite his struggles at the plate and some off-the-field family problems that forced him to take a couple days away from the team, Castro has done his best to remain positive as he prepares to hit free agency this offseason.

 

“I just try to keep my head up and continue to grind out, continue to play hard, continue to get better every day and try to help, the most I can, help my team to win,” Castro said on a Zoom call on Tuesday last week.

That comment came after he had one of his biggest hits of the season, a go-ahead RBI single in the ninth inning of Washington’s 13-12 win over the Philadelphia Phillies. He’s heated up a bit recently, going 11-for-33 with five doubles and three walks over his last nine games. But even that stretch has seen him strike out nine times with no home runs.

The Nationals’ offense ranks 26th in runs per game and 23rd in homers. They’re going to need to upgrade the lineup somehow and there’s no other natural choice. Trea Turner and Juan Soto are superstars. Kyle Schwarber is in the middle of a torrid home run tear. Josh Bell is heating up while Josh Harrison has been a solid contact hitter. Victor Robles is under contract through 2024 and plays strong defense in center field. Yan Gomes has been an above-average catcher.

There are targets available on the trade market. Arizona Diamondbacks slugger Eduardo Escobar (17 homers, .779 OPS) is an ideal target. He’s a free agent after this season and plays for the last-place Diamondbacks, virtual locks to sell at the deadline. If the Nationals are willing to shift Harrison over to third, they could acquire Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Adam Frazier (four homers, .874 OPS) or the Detroit Tigers’ Jonathan Schoop (15 homers, .798 OPS).

Nationals manager Davey Martinez has stuck by Castro all year, promising a return to form for the 31-year-old.

“At the end of the day, he’s gonna have his 175 hits,” Martinez said Tuesday. “I’ve said that all along. He’s gonna hit his .270, .280 [and] drive in 70, 80 runs.”

To reach those numbers, Castro would have to accumulate 108 hits and 40-50 RBIs while hitting about .300 over the Nationals’ final 86 games. Though not impossible, it’s unlikely Castro produces at that level. For the Nationals to go into the playoffs with a lineup that rivals other contenders, they may need even more than that.