Are The Nationals Prepared?

Opening Day did not go as planned for the Washington Nationals.

Can you imagine, back in the day, say, 2019, if you woke up on Opening Day to the news that a team, any team, had placed 10 guys on the injured list?

Welcome to 2021, Nats fans.

Somehow, even losing nine players to COVID-19 protocols (plus Will Harris to a blood clot) doesn’t seem quite as dire as last season’s opening day when Juan Soto entered the protocols. This year, the Nationals definitely benefited from having their star player on the active roster:

Soto tested positive, but he was asymptomatic and had no trouble re-acclimating upon his return (like, none at all, he posted a 201 wRC+). On the other end of the spectrum, Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez had the scariest brush with COVID last year. He missed the season when COVID turned into myocarditis. As of yesterday, he’s back, thankfully, but many other people in the world haven’t been so lucky. To sit here and speculate about the on-field consequences of Washington’s Opening Day outbreak is, in many ways, besides the point.

Nevertheless, as distressing as the situation may be in in the real world, it’s just as bizarre a situation in the baseball world. The Nationals saw a third of their roster hit the injured list in the blink of an eye. The particular players involved made the situation all the more bizarre. Here’s the list: Jon Lester, Josh Bell, Kyle Schwarber, Brad Hand, Alex Avila, Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison, Yan Gomes, and Patrick Corbin. The good news is that Hand, Mercer, Gomes, Corbin and Avila were re-instated today. More on this in a bit.

What’s interesting about this particular collection of players is that six of the nine have yet to appear in a regular season game for the Nats. GM Mike Rizzo saw all his offseason work undone in a single night. Even Josh Harrison had to be re-signed as a free agent. Clearly, these were players acquired because Rizzo believed they addressed a need. Those needs are now…un-dressed?

It’s well within the realm of possibility that the Nats have to make do without some of these guys for more than just the week of protocols. Spencer Turnbull tested positive on March 20th, and he’s just now nearing his return. Conservatively, we can estimate a three and a half week recovery period for him.

How naked are the Nationals left without these nine players?

Let’s use THE BAT X projections for their accuracy in assessing hitters and ZiPS for their playing time with some back-of-the-napkin math to see if we can get an idea. Given the roster moves made today, the presumption will be that Bell, Schwarber, Harrison, and Lester were the four who tested positive. Given that they are going to be the most affected, lets’ focus on that quartet: each of whom were added via offseason action by Rizzo.

Position players are likely to recover more quickly from their time away, so for the sake of this mental exercise, I’m going to presume that each of Schwarber, Bell, and Harrison miss 14 games, or 8.6 percent of the season. I’ll also assume that once returned, they play at the same basic rate as had been initially projected.  This whole incident is, in fact, one of those elements that can’t be forecast prior to the season. Trying to predict the effect of an event using projections that the event undermines is not a necessarily statistically or even logically sound process.

Let’s do it anyway.

Nats Playing Time Adjustments

Assume those back on the active roster today can hit the ground running. The Nats migt want to plan to have lost roughly one quarter of one WAR from the delayed start for Schwarber, Bell, and Harrison. Of course, this doesn’t take into account the added value from their replacements. THE BAT X actually thinks not having Harrison will be a benefit to the Nats. Still, let’s take a look at the expectations for their replacements over a two-week span.

Zimmerman, Stevenson, and Perez were all going to be on the roster regardless, but they are pushed into regular roles. If we bump up the replacements’ plate appearance count to soak up all 125 PA’s from the departed starters, and they would be expected to produce .097 WAR. That amounts to a .161 drop in WAR.

That’s not exactly a rounding error, but it’s not a death knell either. It’s certainly possible that by playing above expectations or by making adjustments during the year that the Nats can make up this margin.

The pitching side is where the Nats will be the most prone to a COVID hangover. It was certainly a relief that their biggest stars in Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg avoided the protocols, it might not matter because their third most important pitcher was Patrick Corbin. Luckily, Corbin has been cleared as well, but he’s not yet back on the active roster. They will take a little bit more time to get him back up to speed.

This is huge for the Nats, but it doesn’t exactly put them in the clear.

In many ways, the Nats are a three-man pitching staff. That’s not literally true, of course, nor is it really even symbolically true. But historically, that’s been the team’s way of doing business.

In 2019 when the Nats were, for awhile, one of the worst teams in the league and then, for a longer while, the best team in the league, Scherzer, Strasburg, and Corbin accounted for 76% of their total pitching fWAR and 81% of their total bWAR. In and of itself, that’s insane. But it’s also helpful in illustrating how very rickety the club’s hopes for contention are, even with potential MVP candidates Juan Soto and Trea Turner on the roster.

THE BAT X projects the Nats’ three-headed monster in the rotation to account for a conservative 59% of their total WAR on the pitching side. Corbin not only needs to return as soon as possible, but he needs to be on his game. That’s not necessarily how the human arm works. Pitchers are fickle, mechanics are difficult to repeat, velocity is difficult to maintain.

One thing is for certain, the Nats don’t have a viable in-house replacement for Corbin. Maybe they can replace Lester if you’re bearish on Lester and bullish on Erick Fedde or Austin Voth.

Consider me in the opposite camp. THE BAT X likes Voth more than Lester, but unlike THE BAT X, I’ve seen them both pitch. Voth has not looked at all ready to step into the rotation. If Fedde’s performance in his first start of the year is any indication, he’s not either. Neither have been, historically. It’s simply difficult to imagine – nay, to expect – two 28-year-olds with spotty records to make a leap simultaneously in a moment of great need.

When it comes to Corbin — and Lester and Hand, for that matter — the concern extends far beyond the 14 games or three and a half weeks that it takes to recover. The concern is that they’ve not been subjected to a life event that has changed their trajectory for the 2021 season. If anyone can think of a reason that it will change them for the better, feel free to raise your hand.

The Nats gambled that their three aces would be enough to carry them back to contention. It’s not the first time they’ve bet on a flimsy proposition upended by a lack of depth.

This is what the Nationals are.

As much as they are the team that won the World Series in 2019 on the backs of incredible pitching performances, grisly veterans, and some star performances from all-world players (Rendon, Soto, namely), they are also the team that can fall apart when one big piece goes down.

That’s the good and the bad of Nationals baseball. That’s been their identity under Mike Rizzo.

If in 2019 you woke up to the news that nine Nationals were placed on the injured list on Opening Day, you’d assume their season was sank. In 2021, there’s no reason to think that’s not the case.

Of course, there is a counterargument. It’s a simpler argument that Nats’ fans will understand: 19-31. After all, as we now say in Washington, bumpy road lead to beautiful places. Bumpy road, check.

TC Zencka

TC Zencka contributes regularly to Pitcher List, and MLB Trade Rumors. Come say hi on Twitter.

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