The Nationals were the beneficiaries of an otherworldly run of power from Kyle Schwarber in June. Schwarber’s hot streak has been well-documented, but to put it in brief, Schwarber hit 16 home runs after June 12th to finish with the second most home runs in June all-time. Better yet, in that 19-game stretch, the Nationals went 15-4, putting the team back over .500 and firmly in the conversation for the NL East crown. They are 2.5 games behind the Mets entering play on Saturday.
But it’s July now, and the Nationals have a stark new reality to confront. Schwarber left yesterday’s game with a hamstring injury and was placed on the 10-day injured list today. Manager Dave Martinez called the injury “significant” and said that he’ll be out for more than a 10-day injured list stint, per Todd Dybas of Inside the Clubhouse (Twitter links). That’s not a death knell for the Nats, but it is a crushing blow for a team that’s long been one of the most top-heavy teams in the league.
The Nationals not only lack the depth to cover for significant injuries, but there’s very little by way of system depth to shore up those weaknesses via trade. Case and point, Trea Turner is day-to-day after jamming his finger on a triple, which forced the team to use catcher Alex Avila as their starting second baseman the next day. But this isn’t just a clerical misunderstanding or bit of ill-timing that left the Nats temporarily short-handed in the infield. Their dearth of ML-capable infielders is such that they immediately turned around and traded for Alcides Escobar from the Royals.
That the Nationals have any kind of question for which Escobar is the answer should be a tell-tale giveaway of their current circumstances. Escobar hasn’t played in the Majors since 2018. He hasn’t reached base at a better than .300 OBP clip since 2014. He has never slugged over .400 SLG for a season.
For the optimists out there, he does have a capable glove, the Royals won a World Series with Escobar at shortstop, and he posted a league-average bat over the past two seasons in Triple-A. For six seasons from 2011 to 2016, Escobar averaged 1.82 rWAR/1.83 fWAR per season. That’s not star quality, but it’s a capable Major Leaguer.
To return to the cup-half-empty crowd, those years were firmly in Escobar’s physical prime, and at 34 years old, he’s well beyond that. He averaged -1.45 rWAR/-0.2 fWAR in his final two seasons in the Majors, which to reiterate, was three seasons ago.
Granted, it’s not clear right now what the Nationals’ plan is for Escobar. He is on the active roster, but it’s anyone’s guess how long he stays. It wouldn’t be a shock to see Escobar find a home in DC, as other unlikely roster castoffs have in the past — guys like Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison, and Gerardo Parra.
In the short term, Humberto Arteaga had his contract selected, and he started at short yesterday. Arteaga is another Royals’ castoff. Arteaga was the Royals’ 20th-ranked prospect by Baseball America in 2013, and he’s never at any level posted a better than 93 wRC+. Just as quickly, he’s been designated for assignment. If he goes unclaimed, however, the Nats may need Arteaga again.
The caveat to the Nats’ shortstop problem is that it doesn’t seem like Turner will be out for long. For a couple of days, Arteaga or even Escobar are fine stopgaps. But if Turner’s injury extends to a stint on the injured list, the Nats might consider turning to one of two top prospects: Luis Garcia or Carter Kieboom. The sheen has worn off these two, but they still hold tremendous promise, and they’re both raking in Triple-A. The problem is that neither profiles as a shortstop. Garcia has started 25 games at short in Rochester, but he’s been dealing with injury concerns of his own.
Garcia — who is still just 21 — is the Nats’ sole in-house option that has some chance to hold the line in the case of a Turner injury. That said, there’s no replacing Turner, who has been among the most productive regulars in the game with 3.6 fWAR, tied for sixth-most among qualified position players in the Majors.
Returning to left field, the Nats are going to have a similar problem filling in for Schwarber. Gerardo Parra was the immediate replacement, and beyond him, only Josh Harrison has experience in the outfield. While playing with a four-man bench and a hobbled Turner, Harrison is essentially the emergency backup at every position.
He’s also a decent counterpoint to skepticism of the Nats’ strategy to trust trusted hands. Harrison was all but out of the league after back-to-back putrid seasons with losing teams in the Pirates and Tigers, the latter of whom released him after he hit .175/.218/.263 in 36 games. He’s been rejuvenated in Washington, however, hitting .275/.352/.386 in 358 plate appearances across 2020-21. The 5’8″ sparkplug has been worth 1.3 rWAR this year.
Parra doesn’t have the hard evidence to back up his on-field value since latching on with the Nats mid-way through 2019, but his contributions as a clubhouse presence cannot be discounte — not when “Baby Shark” continues to rev the engines of Nats Park whenever Parra steps to the plate. With the ability to play all three outfield spots, Parra certainly adds enough value to hold a roster spot, but he’s overextended as an everyday player.
Which leads us to Yadiel Hernandez, the likeliest option to get the call as the regular left fielder until Schwarber returns, especially with Andrew Stevenson also out (Stevenson is set to begin a rehab assignment tomorrow, notes Dougherty). Hernandez has some power and regularly puts together quality at-bats. In his youth, he could play all three outfield spots, but now he’s best used in a corner. He has mashed to the tune of .309/.367/.618 in 14 games since being optioned to Triple-A, where the Nats sent him to get more regular playing time.
The 33-year-old rookie may seem an uninspired option at first glance, but there’s cause for his believers to feel righteous: he hit a particularly righteous .333/.390/.417 in 41 plate appearances earlier this season when getting regular playing time as Juan Soto’s injury replacement. His overall line slipped to .261/.316/.362 in 76 trips, but with Schwarber and Soto healthy, Hernandez’s opportunities were limited to pinch-hitting. That’s a tough gig and not everyone can be Lenny Harris or Matt Stairs (though Stairs is actually a decent comp for body type and swing style).
As with Turner, nobody is capable of stepping into the role left behind by Schwarber, at least as he was in June. Even Schwarber was unlikely to continue to be that guy. The macro problem for the Nationals isn’t replacing Turner and Schwarber over the next few days or even weeks, it’s that the pool of talent behind the active roster is thin enough that it’s not hard to imagine a total collapse — which is why teams continue to eye the Nats closely as the trade deadline approaches.
On the one hand, Stephen Strasburg could return, Patrick Corbin could find his form, Turner’s finger issue could pass quickly, Soto could hit a much-anticipated power surge, and Daniel Hudson, Tanner Rainey, and Kyle Finnegan could make hasty returns from the injured list to reinforce the bullpen. In a relatively flaccid NL East, the Nationals certainly can make a run.
On the other hand, Strasburg’s mysterious poor health could remain mysterious and poor, Corbin could struggle to find his mechanical consistency all season, and with just an injury or two, the offense could crater. That was the story for the Nationals in 2020, which resulted in a last-place club. That was also the case in 2019 when — stop me if you’ve heard this before — an injury to Turner’s finger nearly tanked their season.
The watch is on to see how the Nats respond to Schwarber’s injury. At the very least, we now know Schwarber isn’t coming back any time soon — which quite literally puts an end to the run that got them back into contention.