AP NEWS

Nationals’ early-season struggles can be blamed on plenty of issues

May 9, 2019

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to another exciting edition of America’s favorite sports pastime, The Blame Game!

Today’s contestants hail from the Washington Nationals, whom several prognosticators picked to reach World Series. When we last left the Nationals, they were coming off a disappointing 82-80 season in Dave Martinez’s inaugural campaign as a major-league skipper.

Now in his second year at the helm, Martinez is a favorite to win MDB honors Most Deserving of Blame. Also in the hunt are the Lerners, general manager Mike Rizzo, and the injury bug. Each has played a key role in Washington’s 14-21 mark entering Wednesday, the NL’s second-worst record and the Nationals’ worst winning percentage since September 2011.

Let’s start at the top and work our way down.

The case for ownership: Since buying the team in 2006, the Lerners have done little wrong. Nationals Park gave life to a dead section of town and fans have enjoyed one of baseball’s best regular-season teams recently, winners of four NL East tiles in a six-year span.

Washington has become a model franchise in many respects except concerning respect for its managers. The Nationals might not be in this position if Dusty Baker was retained after going 192-132 for back-to-back division crowns in 2016 and 2017. Instead, he was shown the door for failing to advance past the postseason’s first round.

Davey Johnson, another venerable baseball manager, was pushed out five years prior. In his two full seasons, Johnson went 184-140 and led the Nationals to their first NL East title. But he was deemed expendable and easily replaceable. Matt Williams proved that managing is harder than it looks. The Lerners apparently missed that lesson but Martinez is teaching it anew.

The case for Rizzo: Like ownership, Rizzo has a bunch of A’s on his report card. The Nationals have remained in contention for nearly a decade, thanks to a strong farm system paying dividends with prospects who were kept (Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto and Victor Robles) and prospects who were dealt (Lucas Giolito, Travis Ott and Alex Meyer).

However, Rizzo’s weak spot is as prominent as Achilles’ heel and more visible. The Nationals’ opening day bullpens routinely have collapsed and required midseason fixes. Rizzo is better at patch-ups, but his shoddy construction can’t be overlooked. Relief pitching has been an issue since Drew Storen’s infamous meltdown against St. Louis in the 2012 NL Division Series.

This season is no different. Washington’s bullpen has the majors’ worst ERA (6.57) and WHIP (1.66), and the highest opponents’ batting average (. 283). Such repeated failures wear on a team. None of Rizzo’s offseason remedies have worked so far, another gross overestimation on his part.

The case for Martinez: He seems like a supernice guy. He paid his dues through 16 years as a major leaguer and 10 years as a bench coach. He owns a World Series ring from serving as right-hand man for Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon.

But that experience hasn’t exactly rubbed off. Martinez has been less than impressive through 200 games of calling his own shots. The team’s sloppy play from last season an area of emphasis in spring training has continued. The questions about bullpen management have remained (though he has a slew of unattractive options).

It’s not his fault that his first managerial shot is with a team built to win, offering little room on-the-job training. The Lerners said he was hired was to win the World Series and Martinez embraced the notion. No pressure, right? Baker and Johnson, among the all-time leaders in managerial wins, couldn’t get Washington past the first round. At this point, we’ll be happy if Martinez gets the Nats back to the playoffs.

The case for injuries: Injuries are never an excuse, in the same way that sticks and stones break bones, but words never hurt. It sounds good, in theory, though we know reality is another story.

Any team that plays without four of the top five hitters from its Opening Day lineup is likely to struggle a bit. Trea Turner, Ryan Zimmerman and Soto are out; Rendon just came back. Other key missing pieces include Matt Adams, Trevor Rosenthal and Tony Sipp. The replacement Nationals have failed to make anyone forget about the absent Nationals.

Health is the real wild card in sports, the X factor that can shred hopes for “good-on-paper” teams. Washington has experienced more than a little misfortune over the years with some of its best players unavailable for large chunks of the season. Sometimes the injuries are overcome. Other times they overwhelm. Oh well.

So, those are today’s choices for The Blame Game: ownership, front office, manager, and injuries.

What’s that? You say what about the players? No fair.

That’s cheating!

Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.