WASHINGTON -- The offseason is right around the corner, a time when the Nationals will all be watching the postseason from their personal bubbles, not the ones in California or Texas.
They are 17-28 following Sunday’s 8-4 loss to Altanta. Max Scherzer started, pitched well until surpassing the 100-pitch mark, and left with a loss. He may make only two more starts in the final 16 games. One Friday or even later into the weekend. One the final week. Then he watches the last few games of the season, thinking about what went wrong and the shape of what could be his last season in Washington.
All told, a flood of decisions await Mike Rizzo. He is actively trying to resolve Davey Martinez’s contract status. That is step one, priority one, the thing to come before anything else. Rizzo received a three-year extension a week ago. He wants Martinez to join him.
Second will be revamping the roster. Of the nine hitters in Sunday’s lineup, four of them (Adam Eaton, Asdrúbal Cabrera, Kurt Suzuki and Eric Thames) likely will not be back next year. Luis García has shown he can be a future everyday player. But not next year, unless the Nationals decide to move on from Starlin Castro, which is unlikely or they move García to third base. Carter Kieboom continues to struggle. He could well start next season in Triple-A again. Which would force the Nationals into the third base market if they don’t play García there.
So, of the nine in the lineup Sunday, only Trea Turner and Juan Soto, MVP candidates, are assured of being back to start in 2021. Which is what happens when a defending World Series champion spends the next year chasing other teams and its tail.
The Nationals have flopped. In a year seemingly not built for veteran players, they watched the older portion of their team flounder. Rizzo has run against the baseball grain in recent years by signing 30-somethings to share a workload. It worked until this year, when immediacy replaced steadiness and fresh legs were superior to experienced ones.
“We see that there’s certain players that take to the start and stop of the season differently than others,” Rizzo said Sunday. “I think that you saw the successes that we had in 2019 of having a veteran-laden team that played together through the good times and the bad times. We navigated that 162 plus the playoffs very, very well. I think you saw the start and stop adversely affect those same type of veteran players. Obviously, it’s much more difficult for the veteran players to go through spring training one and two, if you will. The quick ramp-up, it’s a lot more difficult for those players than it is for those younger, 20-, 21-, 22-year-old players. Nothing seems to affect them physically.
“I think that had a lot to do with. Obviously, injuries played a big part of what we’ve been doing throughout the season. I think the reason we had to rely on some of these young players at such a young part of their developmental career was because of the injuries and the uniqueness of this 60-game season.”
Rizzo said Stephen Strasburg’s timeline remains the same: He is expected at spring training 2021 in full health. Next year is the last with Scherzer, Strasburg and Patrick Corbin atop the rotation. A fourth starter is needed. The fifth starter will yet again be selected from the usual jumble of Austin Voth, Erick Fedde and Joe Ross.
Sean Doolittle is among the bullpen free agents. Rizzo said Sunday he saw Doolittle moving toward his former pitching self before an oblique strain cut his season down. He added a larger sample of Doolittle’s recovery would help them determine things during the “offseason autopsy.”
“I saw glimpses of the old Doo,” Rizzo said. “...I didn’t think he was a finished product yet.”
Daniel Hudson, Will Harris and Tanner Rainey will be back. Kyle Finnegan appears to have earned himself a spot. The ubiquitous Wander Suero is also going to be part of the 2021 bullpen. None are left-handed. The team needs help there, whether it’s Doolittle on a much lower contract or someone else.
Overall, this year’s failing is broad. It also comes at an odd time, when the season is filled with asterisks, a dubious champion could be crowned and a team working through a defense could be provided a modest pass by some. Rizzo was adamant at the start of the season their pursuit of the World Series would be as fervent as any other year. If that’s the case, then the mess of this on-field season needs to be viewed through the same lens. They never were able to celebrate. They also were never able to get going.