Washington Nationals Slow Start a Cause for Concern

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WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 11: Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals flips his bat after hitting into a double play against the Atlanta Braves in the sixth inning at Nationals Park on April 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

The Washington Nationals were widely picked to win the NL East heading into the 2018 season, and that was not a huge surprise. They won back-to-back division titles in 2016-2017 and have captured the division three out of the past four seasons. Led by a strong rotation and arguably the best player in baseball not named Mike Trout in Bryce Harper, Washington has all the makeup of a post-season contender.

The team did start with a bang, winning the first four games of this season while outscoring opponents by a tune of 29-13. Unfortunately, things can change in a hurry in Major League Baseball. Washington dropped the last two games of a series against the Atlanta Braves before getting swept at home by the New York Mets. The Nationals did win the first two games of a home series against Atlanta, but the offense has cooled considerably. As it stands, there is certainly cause for concern as the season moves on.

Washington Nationals Slow Start a Cause for Concern

Is this the end of Ryan Zimmerman?

Zimmerman has meant a lot to the Nationals and for good reason. He was the first draft selection by the franchise after the team officially moved to D.C. in 2005, and he has been a solid player. Zimmerman has spent all of his career in Washington, posting seven seasons of 20+ HRs. He even experienced a late-career resurgence with 36 HRs in 2017.

The problem for Zimmerman is that he is off to a dreadful start, and it is a start that is eerily similar to the one he experienced in April of 2016. He hit .219 that month with just one HR and would go on to post a 67 OPS+ over 115 games that season. So far in 2018, Zimmerman is hitting just .103 in 13 games with 11 strikeouts. He has one hit in his last eight contests while striking out seven times.

Zimmerman has traditionally hit fourth in the order this season, but it’s fair to question how long manager Dave Martinez can hit him there. He is not serving as any sort of protection for Harper while also hitting terribly in the middle of the order. Zimmerman does have the ability to turn things around and go on a tear offensively, but how long can Washington wait?

Will Trea Turner find his groove?

Turner burst onto the scene in 2016 while showing an impressive ability to hit for power to complement his blazing speed. That year, he finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting while slugging .567 to go with 33 steals. His numbers did come back down to earth a bit in 2017 as injuries limited him to 98 games. Still, there is no denying Turner’s ability to be a difference maker, and Washington is expected to lean heavily on him in the coming years.

Unfortunately, 2018 has not been kind to Turner so far. He is slashing just .200/.322/.260 to start the year while going hitless in three of the last four games. The Nationals are already battling injuries and dealing with Zimmerman’s decline. Having another young star like Turner struggle out of the gate only magnifies everything else. Turner has all the tools, but he needs to start putting things together in order to help out Harper and company.

Can Adam Eaton stay healthy?

The absence of Eaton may be the biggest issue Washington is currently facing. Acquired in a big trade prior to the 2017 season, Eaton has been fantastic in action for the Nationals. In 2017, Eaton started off with 27 hits, 24 runs scored, and 13 RBI over 23 games. The problem is Eaton sustained a torn ACL and would miss the rest of the season recovering from the injury.

In eight games to start this season, Eaton has been fantastic with two HRs, 10 runs scored, and a blistering 1.079 OPS. Unfortunately, he has already landed on the DL and is expected to be out of action until late April. There’s no denying Eaton is a core member of Washington’s team, and the Nationals desperately need him in the lineup. If Eaton cannot return to and stay at the top of the lineup to help Turner, Harper, and the rest of the offense, the season could turn quite sour.

The Bright Spots

Harper is off to a great start, leading the league in HRs (six) and tied for the league lead in walks (16). Howie Kendrick and young catcher Pedro Severino have been solid to start the year, but they alone are not enough to carry the offense with Harper.

The rotation has been fantastic and will likely be called upon to carry the team at times this season. Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg have been fantastic, and Scherzer stands a very realistic shot at winning a third straight Cy Young Award. Gio Gonzalez is also off to a solid start, and Tanner Roark should prove to be one of the better number four starters in all of baseball.

Outlook

There’s no denying the talent in the clubhouse for Washington, but the team currently sits with a record of 6-7 after starting off 4-0. Making that mark worse is the fact that the team has gone 2-5 at home to start the season. Additionally, the NL East looks to be much more competitive than last season. The Mets are off to an incredible 10-1 start, Atlanta is better than expected and 3-3 head-to-head against Washington, and the Philadelphia Phillies are above .500 at 6-5. While there’s plenty of time to turn things around, there are more than enough reasons to be concerned about the Nationals moving forward.

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