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Don’t count out the Nationals just yet

Talk of selling sounds somewhat premature.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Remember when the Nationals should have started selling? That was a funny, brief moment when the team was sitting at 25 wins and 33 losses to start the month of June, with a projected win total of ~82 wins per FanGraphs. Since then, the team has won 13 of 19 in the month of June, and now their projected win total has jumped about three wins, and their postseason odds have climbed to about one in two. They still trail the Braves by a decent amount, though.

Yet you can’t look at this month as a fluke, or something that should be seen as a detour from “selling,” something they probably shouldn’t do other than (maybe) one exception. Here’s the difference between up to June 1st, and after then:

Nationals before and after June 1st

Statistic Until June 1st After June 1st
Statistic Until June 1st After June 1st
ERA- 109 90
FIP- 95 98
Hard%+ 88 94
wRC+ 92 108

By every metric, the team is pitching better overall and hitting the ball (fairly) harder, yet that’s still a cause for concern. Their divisional and playoff odds have seen a slight rebound:

When one looks at that, though, it immediately brings another thought to mind, going back to the exception to the “rebuilding” rule: Anthony Rendon.

Rendon is hitting at a .317/.412/.648 clip, and ZiPS projects that he will finish the year with 5.8 WAR, meaning he’s worth about, say, two wins from the trade deadline until the end of the year. Those two wins are likely vital if they look to win the division or even a wild card spot, and forfeiting that would essentially be wishful thinking that the rest of the team could pick up the slack.

Yet the question remains, and it has been spoken about with regards to Max Scherzer: is it worth doing that to solidify a young core that is still going to be useful for a good half-decade?

Another reason they slumped offensively was the lack of Juan Soto for a couple of weeks in May due to a back spasm, and how he’s hitting .353/.429/.576, which is Rendon-like enough if they plan to sell him. Adam Eaton is hitting .315/.433/.444 in the month of June, and Trea Turner is hitting .273/.349/.532.

The bullpen is also a long-term concern. While Sean Doolittle has a 2.35 ERA this month and has received a bulk of the high leverage innings this year, the following pitchers in order of inLI are definitely not the sort I’d trust in a pennant race: Wander Suero (5.74 ERA, 4.07 ERA projection), Kyle Barraclough (6.39 ERA, 4.63 ERA projected), and Tanner Rainey (2.93 ERA, 5.07 ERA projected).

In the path where they try to compete one can’t imagine they go without another reliever, even considering the positive regression likely in store for Suero and Barraclough; the fact is, they would need at least another 3.50 ERA projected reliever to be viable moving forward.

Lest I forget Scherzer, who has been otherworldly. He has allowed three (!!!) earned runs this month over 29 innings coupled with 44 strikeouts, and even Stephen Strasburg is destined for a ho-hum four-win season.

So while I stand by the title, obviously, it still needs to be qualified a hair. The team is performing better this month, causing their playoff and divisional odds to tick up non-trivially, and they have enough talent in a weaker division to justify trying to go for it or even standing pat.

The flip side are the concerns, like the back-end of the rotation and bullpen, and long-term considerations like whether it’s worth getting a prospect package for Rendon and extending their contention window further beyond, say, 2022. Those are the decisions that can often make or break a decade for a franchise, and I don’t envy the choice. Yes, it’s better to be in it than out of it, but being kind of in it is sometimes the absolute worst.