The Washington Nationals are the reigning World Series champions, but that hasn't counted for much this season. The Nationals exited the first half of Friday's doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves having lost seven games in a row. Coming into the day, they had the second-worst record (12-23) in the National League, ahead of only the Pittsburgh Pirates — and that by just a game. Their playoff chances were predictably slim before extending their losing streak: Baseball Prospectus gave them just a 4.5 percent shot. While last year's Nats showed why you should never say never, it feels reasonable to count out this year's bunch.
How did the Nationals end up in this spot, where the question isn't whether they'll repeat as champions, but if they'll avoid the league's basement? Allow us to explain, and then let us forecast their chances heading forward.
A disappointing rotation
Entering the season, the sturdiest part of the Nationals roster (aside from Juan Soto) was their rotation. As last October proved, it's hard to beat a team that starts Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin on consecutive nights. Unfortunately, that sentiment hasn't been as true in 2020. Scherzer and Corbin have pitched well, albeit below last year's marks; Strasburg, meanwhile, was lost for the season after starting twice and tallying five innings.
The rest of the Nationals' rotation hasn't picked up the slack. Anibal Sanchez and Austin Voth have combined to allow 82 hits, 49 runs, and 16 home runs in 57 innings. Erick Fedde, who has split the season between the bullpen and the rotation, has a relatively shiny ERA (4.71). His underlying indicators don't suggest it'll hold up: he's given up more than a hit per inning pitched, and he's recorded more walks than strikeouts.
Add it all together, and the Nationals' rotation ranks 27th in the majors in ERA. That's a long ways off from what was expected back in the spring, and then again in the summer.
Pitching and defense tend to have a chicken-and-egg relationship. A good defense can make a pitcher look better than they are, just as a good pitcher can make a slacking defense hold up. In the Nationals' case, it appears that both sides own some of the blame for the fact that so far this season they've allowed the third-highest batting average on balls in play against in the majors.
Additionally, the Nationals have made the ninth-most errors in baseball, and grade similarly as poorly through the lenses of advanced metrics. Public defensive measures are notoriously unreliable, especially in small samples … still, the Nationals rank last in Defensive Runs Saved and fourth-from-last in Total Zone Fielding Runs. Considering their personnel, it's probably fair to label them a below-average fielding team -- and, realistically, that might be kind.
If that wasn't enough, the Nationals' position players have also disappointed at the plate. Washington entered Friday ranked 15th in wRC+, FanGraphs' catch-all offensive stat. In terms of actual runs scored, the Nationals check in a few slots lower, at 20th.
The Nationals have given at least 30 plate appearances to 14 players this season. Four of them have an OPS+ of better than 100: Tea Turner (175), Juan Soto (213), Yan Gomes (115), and Josh Harrison (138), who has done his damage in 39 trips to the plate. For comparison's sake, the Nationals also have four players with an OPS+ lower than 75, including Soto's outfield wingmates, Adam Eaton and Victor Robles.
Along with letting Anthony Rendon depart for the Los Angeles Angels, general manager Mike Rizzo banked on a slew of veteran role players. Starlin Castro and (to an extent) Howie Kendrick have worked out. Asdrubal Cabrera and Eric Thames have not. Then there's top prospect Carter Kieboom, who is now sporting a 43 OPS+ in 107 career plate appearances.
Are better days ahead?
Probably not this season.
One of the obvious fundamental issues with this Nationals team entering the season was their lack of depth. Rizzo has graduated or promoted most of his best prospects over the last several years, leaving them without much to call upon in the case of injury or underperformance. Hence having to ask infielder prospect Luis Garcia, who turned 20 in May and posted a .617 OPS in Double-A last season, to jump to the majors and take over at second base; hence continuing to run Sanchez and Voth out there despite poor results; and so on and so forth.
The Nationals let the trade deadline pass without adding (or subtracting). All Washington can hope now is for some of their veterans -- Eaton, Thames, Robles, etc. -- to figure things out. Even if they do, the Nationals have a tough road ahead. Beginning Saturday, they'll play 10 consecutive games against either the Braves or the Tampa Bay Rays. Their other 13 games will come against the Miami Marlins, Philadelphia Phillies, and New York Mets.
In theory, the Nationals have a chance to gain a lot of ground in a hurry. In practice, based on how they've played to date, it seems more likely that they'll continue their slide to non-contention.