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August 26, 2008
And the Underwhelming
Is the honeymoon already over in Washington? Despite a brand-new ballpark and a team that has been in town for just four seasons, the situation in DC appears stagnant. The Nationals are finishing up their fourth sub-.500 season since the move, and doing so with an anonymous, low-upside roster that features more injury cases than anything else. They recently failed to sign their first-round pick, a devastating blow for a development system that ranks in the bottom handful of the game. The Nats are 8-15 in August, a month that featured a 12-game losing streak. The team is an absurdly bad 17-43 since June 15, 10-25 since the All-Star break.
The key culprit is an offense that is not just the worst in the game: it's one of the worst since the 1993 expansion. The Nationals are averaging 3.70 runs per game, a figure that would be the fifth-lowest-and by a fair amount-in 16 seasons, since the overall level of offense jumped up in 1993:
Team Year R/G Dodgers 2003 3.54 Tigers 2002 3.57 Marlins 1993 3.59 Tigers 2003 3.65 Nationals 2008 3.71 Diamondbacks 2004 3.80 Padres 2008 3.80 Devil Rays 1998 3.83 Giants 2008 3.84 Brewers 2002 3.87
Averaging 3.71 runs per game the rest of the way would leave the Nationals with just 599 tallies, making them just the fifth team to fall under 600 in a non-strike season in that same timeframe:
Team Year R Dodgers 2003 574 Tigers 2002 575 Marlins 1993 581 Tigers 2003 591 Diamondbacks 2004 615 Devil Rays 1998 620
The Nationals are actually a better bet than that to miss the 600-run mark, as the team they're currently fielding isn't even as good as the one they began the season with. Nick Johnson and his .415 OBP have been missing for a while, and Elijah Dukes and his 800 OPS have missed all but two games since early July; both are unlikely to return before the tail end of the year. Willie Harris' fluke season has made up some of the gap, but the team misses Johnson. With him, they averaged just over four runs a game through May 13; since then, they're at 3.57 runs per game.
You've probably noticed that two other teams from the current season are in the top 10 in fewest-runs per game in the last 16 seasons-the Giants and Padres. There are mitigating factors there; each team is scoring at least 3.8 runs per game, on pace to clear 600 runs with some room to spare, and both the Giants and Padres play in excellent pitchers' parks, which makes their offense appear worse than it actually is. The Nationals have the worst team EqA in the game at .240, while the Giants are at .246, and the Padres .254. The Nats are in danger of joining another exclusive club: recent teams posting a sub-.240 EqA:
Team Year EqA Twins 1999 .235 Diamondbacks 2004 .238 Tigers 2003 .238 Angels 1999 .238 Devil Rays 1998 .238 Marlins 1993 .238 Blue Jays 1997 .239 Dodgers 2003 .240 Tigers 2002 .240 Royals 2001 .240
Any way you slice it, the 2008 Nationals are one of the worst offensive clubs since the 1993 expansion. It's a perfect storm of young players having subpar seasons (Ryan Zimmerman, Lastings Milledge, Kory Casto), injuries (Johnson, Zimmerman, Dukes, Dmitri Young), young veterans stagnating (Austin Kearns, Wily Mo Pena), and a dearth of farm-system products available that might fix the problems. Jesus Flores was a pleasant surprise, but even he is at .264/.307/.414 now. This isn't an unlucky team; it's the end product of the wasted years at the end of the Expos era combining with poor player development since the move to Washington.
What's scary is that the Nationals' future is this group of players. Their top prospects have all stagnated this season, and a system that looked to have some hope over the winter, ranking 14th in Kevin Goldstein's list, is now down its 2008 first-round pick and staring into the abyss. Are Chris Marrero, Michael Burgess, or Justin Maxwell going to be any better than the current crop of first basemen and outfielders disappointing Beltway baseball fans?
The Nationals simply don't have enough offensive talent to compete in a tough NL East. Whether by trading for it, signing it, developing it, or creating it in a lab, they're going to have to find an offense if they're to have any hope of keeping the attention of their new city.