For the fourth-straight season, the Nationals are at least three games under .500 to begin the year.
Slow starts have become the norm in Washington, where the hometown club has endured a slew of injuries that have contributed — along with an-and-down rotation and power-deprived offense — to an 8-11 record that puts the Nationals in fourth place in the NL East. Inconsistent play has already paved the way for trade speculation, most notably around star pitcher Max Scherzer.
Scherzer, 36, is in the final season of the seven-year, $210 million deal he signed with the Nationals in 2015. He’s been the lone source of consistency out of the Nationals’ rotation so far this season, posting a 1.80 ERA and 0.720 WHIP over his first four starts. If Washington were to fall out of contention before the July 30 trade deadline, Scherzer would be one of its most enticing trade pieces even as a rental.
Yet July 30 is still three months away. Not to point out that the Nationals started 19-31 before going on to win the World Series in 2019, but the Nationals started 19-31 before going on to win the World Series in 2019. It was different last year, when 19 games represented approximately one-third of the season. MLB is back to a full, 162-game campaign this season and Washington isn’t even 12% through it. Entering play Monday, the Nationals sit just two games out of first place in the NL East.
There are troubling signs about this team, such as its -24 run differential that stands as the second-worst in the majors behind only the Detroit Tigers (-37). The Nationals’ lack of home runs has been all the more glaring thanks to the poor production from Josh Bell (.446 OPS) and Kyle Schwarber (.530). On the pitching side, Patrick Corbin (0-3, 10.47 ERA) has yet to string together consecutive strong outings.
Early injuries have plagued this roster. Juan Soto is on the 10-Day Injured List with a shoulder strain. The rotation is down both Stephen Strasburg (shoulder inflammation) and Jon Lester (COVID-IL) while Wander Suero (oblique), Will Harris (hand) and Luis Avilán (torn UCL) are missing from the bullpen. All of those players with the exception of Avilán are expected to return with the next few weeks. Trea Turner exited Sunday’s game after being hit by a pitch in the elbow, though X-rays came back negative.
Even if the Nationals remain hovering around .500 into the middle of the summer, there’s still no guarantee Washington would consider trading Scherzer. The organization has only pulled the plug on a season once since 2012. That was in 2018, when the Nationals stood pat at the trade deadline before executing a few waiver deals in August. Principal owner Mark Lerner would have to set a new precedent if he decides to sign off on a fire sale — particularly one that includes a player of Scherzer’s caliber.
Then there’s the question of an extension, which remains a possibility even as Scherzer pitches without a certain future. When asked at the end of spring training, GM and President of Baseball Operations Mike Rizzo didn’t rule out extending Scherzer before he hits free agency. However, there had been no substantive talks to that point and Scherzer said in 2019 it was up to the team to initiate them.
“He will not become a free agent without us at least discussing what each other wants,” Rizzo said.
For now, the Nationals are focused on climbing into a playoff position. They are relying on Scherzer as much as ever, skipping the fifth spot in their rotation this week so that he can start Tuesday’s series opener against the Toronto Blue Jays. Trade rumors are going to persist as long as the club’s record is on the wrong side of .500 (just look at 2019), but a lot needs to happen before the Nationals ship their three-time Cy Young winner out of town.