Entering Tuesday’s series with the Tampa Bay Rays, the Washington Nationals are sitting at 17-28 with the third-worst record in the National League. The Nationals eight-year streak of being above .500 is at risk. They would have to go 14-1 to finish the season. That seems almost impossible given how they have played thus far. This season, the Nationals have had struggles throughout the team, ranging from starting pitching to the lineup outside of Juan Soto and Trea Turner. Soto and Turner have been unbelievable this season and maybe the best 1-2 combination in baseball. They both have a chance to finish as the top two in batting average for the NL with Soto currently in first and Turner in third. But the big issue has been the play of the Nationals young hitters.
Despite a few offensive explosions and more consistency as of late, the lineup doesn’t have the depth that fans have become accustomed to in recent years. A large part of this has been the puzzling struggles by Carter Kieboom, and the lack of the “next step” by Victor Robles. Now, the Nationals have added 20-year old Luis Garcia into the mix. Garcia has shown flashes of excellence, but he still seems a year or two away from being the player he is expected to be. This does not seem like an issue for the Nationals as Garcia was not expected to play this year, and has still been able to hold his own against major league pitching. All in all, the Nationals have had a disappointing bottom of the order this season.
With all of these questions and a farm system with even more questions, the Nationals have lots of unknowns, with not too many definite answers heading into 2021.
Three Nationals Questions With Their Young Hitters
With the loss of Anthony Rendon, the Nationals had high hopes for Kieboom heading into 2020. There is no doubt that Kieboom has improved after a dreadful stint last season where he hit .128, but there seems to be something missing with Kieboom. This could be mental, as Davey Martinez alluded to, or it could be something with his swing. Kieboom has grown to be a very patient hitter; however, this could be at the expense of some aggression that was on display in the minor leagues. After walking just four times in 11 games last season, Kieboom has 14 in 25 games this season.
His approach seems more mature, but he doesn’t look like the 60-grade hit tool player coming out of the minor leagues. This is typically the opposite of young hitters. They normally struggle with their plate discipline, but Kieboom has yet to make consistent, hard contact. He has just one extra-base hit thus far. Most of the questions heading into the season were about his defense. His defense has looked much better, but he is hitting just .184 with a .197 slugging percentage. His on-base percentage is solid at .330 which shows his improved plate discipline.
Beyond the numbers, Kieboom just does not look right. There seems to be some movement with his head at the plate, and his swing looks to be longer than last year. The most glaring part of Kieboom’s struggles is the lack of aggressiveness in hitter’s counts. He often tries to work too many at-bats instead of showing the aggression that made him a top prospect for the Nationals.
This is such an odd case for the Nationals as Kieboom has always been a player who makes hard contact. Despite his 2019 struggles, he had two home runs in the majors with 16 in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. He also had 24 doubles in the minor leagues. Martinez has named Kieboom the starting third basemen for the rest of the year. If Kieboom continues to struggle, there will be uncertainty at third base with Kieboom’s potential, but lack of production.
Robles has been an excellent defender with plus speed throughout his career. This has continued this season as evident by this unbelievable play against the Phillies, despite some communication issues in center field. However, the former top-five prospect has not taken that next step thus far. He showed flashes of the type of hitter than he can be in a short stint in the leadoff role, but he has yet to find that consistency that would transform his five-tool potential into an all-star caliber season. The major knock of Robles last season was his plate discipline and limiting the strikeouts. He is striking out a 26.6% clip this season, compared to just 22.7% in 2019. His walks, extra-base hits, batting average, and on-base percentage are all down as well.
After a scorching hot start to the season, Robles’ batting average is down to just .234 with a .305 on-base percentage. There have been instances where Robles has put together solid at-bats, but he is still struggling with breaking pitches. After hitting .236 against breaking pitches last season, Robles is just hitting .211 this season. To add on, Robles’ performance is also down against the fastball where his average has fallen from .28o t0 .226 according to Baseball Savant.
There is a definite chance that this is a down-year for Robles due to the uncertainty to the start of the season. He could very well rebound next season and become the player that the Nationals want him to be, but his primary improvement must be his plate discipline. Robles is almost certain to be the center fielder next season with Michael A. Taylor set to be a free agent. Taylor would be the fourth outfielder even if he returns.
After the injury to Starlin Castro, the Nationals called-up Luis Garcia to be the starting second basemen. Garcia was known for having an MLB ready glove in the minors, but with questions at the plate as his .280 OBP suggests after an aggressive promotion to Double-A. Since being called up, Garcia has held his own against MLB pitching. He is hitting .276 with five extra-base hits. However, being 20 years old, he has had his fair share of struggles with a .356 slugging percentage with 17 strikeouts and just three walks.
There have been at-bats where Garcia has looked a little bit like Soto with his two-strike approach and a sweet opposite-field swing. Garcia also has had some ugly at-bats mixed in where he has looked overmatched. This is expected as Garcia is the youngest player in the major leagues. It is evident that Garcia could use an extra year in the minor leagues, but he has not seemed overmatched on a consistent basis.
With Starlin Castro coming back next season, it will be interesting to see what happens with Garcia. It would be difficult to send him back to the minors after consistent playing time in the majors. But if the Nationals skipper thinks that Castro is the best option at second, Garcia could be sent down. However, it does make the most sense to have Garcia at second next season.
The Positive Note About These Young Players
The Nationals young hitters on this team have struggled, particularly Kieboom and Robles. But it is necessary to mention just how young these players are. Robles and Kieboom are 23, and Garcia is just 20. All of these players were highly regarded prospects, and have the potential to be staples for the Nationals for years to come. Especially in such an odd season, it is important to take the performances into the larger context. With a 60-game season and the uncertainty for the start of the season, reps might not have been as abundant as previous years. Moving forward, Mike Rizzo will have to make decisions on the state of the lineup in 2021.
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