Welcome to the everyday struggle of a last-place, rebuilding baseball team. This is where we discuss how many more starts to give to pitchers who are getting shelled every game, and which scuffling, powerless hitters we think are going to maybe, hopefully bounce back. The Nationals are playing badly, and a majority of their players are substandard, so some roster shuffling is guaranteed. Let's pick three players who might be playing themselves off of the worst team in the NL East.
If the Nationals players were on competing rosters, most of them would have already lost their roster spot by now. It would be hard to see players like Alex Call or CJ Abrams stick around with a competing roster given their current performance, but they've been good enough to earn everyday jobs with the Nats. The 'leash' on every Nationals player is relatively long, by default. There's so much emptiness on the depth chart that anyone with a half-chance of being something can find playing time, especially pitchers. If the ones on the team now prove that they can't get it done, the team should hurry up and get dumpster diving for some new scratch-off tickets.
Chad Kuhl has looked pretty rough so far. He looked pretty rough last year, as well. Among pitchers with at least 100 innings in 2022, Kuhl had the worst ERA of any pitcher... that wasn't on the Nationals. Thanks Patrick Corbin and Erick Fedde. This year he has showed all the signs of a bad pitcher. He walks too many hitters, gives up too many home runs, and doesn't get enough strikeouts. There aren't too many pitchers below him if you ranked every player with a rotation spot.
Kuhl has some upside. Not much upside, but some. He put together a decent season in 2017 with the Pirates and was serviceable in limited work in the following seasons before cratering in Coors last year. His Statcast metrics indicate he is terrible at generating swings and misses and his fastball is both too slow and doesn't have enough spin to be effective. It's possible to survive in MLB with those characteristics but Kuhl lacks the command and control necessary to do so. At age 30, it's doubtful he can make any adjustments that are big enough to stay afloat before his leash really runs out.
Kuhl benefits from a lack of options beneath him on the depth chart. Joan Adon and Jake Irvin at AAA Rochester seem to be in line for some MLB starts at some point but are far from shining super-prospects. Even so, if Kuhl has even a handful of additional starts that are as bad as his first four have been, there's no real reason to keep him around. It's not clear, really, why he got a majors-level deal at $2 million, and he already has eaten up a lot of the slack given to him by that meager contract.
The team is certainly thinking about options to replace Kuhl in the rotation already, and a DFA looms in Kuhl's future. Maybe Kuhl will have a good start or two and stick around towards midseason, but he'd really have to improve to last the whole year. There's simply not enough upside there. The worst scenario, then, is that he chews up playing time until midseason, gets dropped, and then another team picks him up and juices up his fastball/slider combo with some of that magic pitchers' sauce that teams that aren't the Nationals seem to have. We've seen that happen before, but it doesn't seem too likely with Kuhl. The best likely scenario is we drop Kuhl like, yesterday, and Joan Adon or someone pitches slightly better while we eagerly await Stephen Strasburg's certain return to dominance. That's definitely coming soon, right?
Overall, the Nationals bullpen has been fine this season. Among all bullpens, the Nats rank 2nd-worst in strikeout rate. That's bad, but the 'pen has done enough of the other parts of pitching to have a decent combined ERA at 3.57. Anthony Banda has assumed a consistent role because he is the only lefty option and has been less than amazing in his role. The Nationals are Banda's eigth team in a seven-year career that has involved a whole lot of minor league optioning and short stints in the Majors.
Unfortunately for Banda, his career of suitcase packing is a product of his pitching profile. He is a lefty who is just good enough to pitch in the back of a MLB bullpen but has never been any better than just that. He is destined, then, to be picked up and used by a club when useful and discarded when a marginally better player becomes available. Now that Banda is 29 and out of minor league options, he will be surfing a current of DFAs, contract purchasings, waiver claims, and what have you. Of course, that assumes that the Nationals eventually decide to DFA Banda.
Should the team DFA their only lefty? Well, yes. See above, about Chad Kuhl's relative age and low-ceiling-ness. Banda throws a high-velo, low-spin fastball with an unremarkable slider and changeup that he doesn't succeed with. He gets a decent amount of whiffs but is extremely hittable. Going with a righty-only bullpen sounds bad but if the next righty up is better than Banda it's beneficial overall. Hey, the Astros don't have a lefty right now, maybe we should be like them! If you gave the Astros the choice between Anthony Banda and one of their lab-created sweeper-throwing cost-controlled bullpen Mechagodzillas, they would politely leave Banda on the waiver wire. Or maybe not so politely, knowing them.
There are dozens of relievers in MLB every year who break out, srike a bunch of guys out, and become solid assets for their team. Anthony Banda is not one of those players. It's time for the Nationals to identify some players who can actually be useful to their long-term goals and give them a chance in the majors.
This one hurts. I want to disagree with this placement, but it is deserved. Dominic Smith has been awful so far in 2023, and has struggled going back to all of 2021 and 2022 as well. Smith has zero - count 'em, zero - extra-base hits this season. As a 1B/DH limited player, (we're not going to talk about outfielder Dominic Smith) it's pretty much impossible to get by without at least average power, never mind zero power entirely. As a player with no options on a one-year deal, the team will need to consider what to do with Smith this season.
I was high on Smith coming into the season, expecting a return to stellar play for the erstwhile MVP vote-getter. That was clearly wishful thinking. Smith has already dropped down the lineup and will no doubt cede starts at first base to Joey Meneses when facing lefties to move a more potent righty into the DH spot. If Smith cannot perform in the next few months, the team may as well cut bait.
The only things the Nationals can get from Dominic Smith, other than some intangible veteran presence, are assets in a trade or reasons to re-sign him for 2024. He will regress to a higher mean of performance and provide more than zero XBHs, but that's not enough for him to be worth the at-bats at first base. He would really need to step up and start mashing to be valuable to the organizational goals in any form. Smith and his $2 million contract come with a minor-league option and the chance to re-sign him in arbitration, so an expedition at AAA, where he spent 54 games last year, could be in his future.
Behind Smith on the depth chart are Matt Adams and Wilson Garcia at AAA, which is another way of saying 'there are no options behind Smith on the depth chart'. Without Smith the team could move Joey Meneses to first and play anybody at DH, which could mean more at-bats for Stone Garrett and Corey Dickerson, or maybe something like Luis Garcia at DH. It also opens the door for call-ups like, say, Carter Kieboom or Nomar Mazara. Again, there isn't too much to be excited about. The team nevertheless needs to get working to squeeze maximum production from their barren depth chart, whether it means leaving Smith playing through his struggles or sending him down and rolling the dice with someone that hopefully isn't a 34-year-old Matt Adams.
All stats via FanGraphs