Nats may need to make decisions on struggling vets

CHICAGO – Maybe it’s a fruitless exercise to break down specific at-bats in the 111th game of a season that has long since lost its significance. But there was one particular sequence during the Nationals’ 6-3 loss to the Cubs on Monday night that underscored much of what is wrong with this lineup.

Trailing 3-0 in the top of the fifth, the Nats gave themselves a chance to do something with two on and nobody out. And then proceeded to squander it before anyone had the opportunity to hope it might turn into something big.

It began with Maikel Franco getting a 3-2 fastball from Cubs starter Keegan Thompson on the inner half of the plate, thigh-high, and grounding into a 6-4-3 double play. And it ended immediately with a three-pitch strikeout by Victor Robles, who saw only one pitch in the at-bat that might have been called a strike had he taken it.

“We chased,” manager Davey Martinez lamented. “We chased a few times with guys on base. Franco’s got to get the ball up in certain situations, try to keep the ball off the ground there. … With guys on base, we’ve got to do a better job trying to get the ball in the strike zone, get the ball up and try to drive the ball.”

This, of course, was nothing new. It’s been a recurring theme all season for a Nationals lineup that leads the majors with 106 double plays grounded into while ranking 25th out of 30 teams with a .676 OPS with runners in scoring position.

But it does underscore how much of a problem it’s been, and how much some specific hitters have struggled, bringing into question the club’s plan for them the rest of the season.

Franco was at one point earlier in the year something of a pleasant surprise. Signed to a minor league contract over the winter, he was thrust into the everyday lineup after Carter Kieboom suffered an elbow injury in spring training that required Tommy John surgery. And when he delivered a handful of clutch hits in April and May, he was praised for it.

But at this stage of the season, Franco has proven to be one of the least productive regulars in baseball. His current .592 OPS ranks third-worst among all qualified National League hitters, sixth-worst in the majors. That number is down from the .609 mark he produced in 403 plate appearances with the Orioles last season before getting released.

It was telling, then, that Martinez actually sent up Joshua Palacios to pinch-hit for Franco with one out in the top of the ninth, his team trailing by three runs at that point. Palacios, who was just called up from Triple-A Rochester last week, wound up striking out.

“He hits fastballs well,” the manager said, explaining his decision. “He’s hit fastballs well in the minor leagues. I thought he could keep it going right there. A (runner) on first base, maybe pull the ball into the hole there. It didn’t happen. He worked a good at-bat, got to 3-2, just couldn’t do it.”

This all came shortly after Franco’s misadventures in the field. He was slow to cover third base on a double-steal attempt in the bottom of the seventh, catching Hunter Harvey’s pickoff throw in plenty of time to get the runner but not close enough to the bag to tag him. The following inning, he threw way wide of first base on a routine grounder, bailed out only by Luke Voit’s impressive stretch.

Robles, meanwhile, would strike out on three pitches in another at-bat with runners in scoring position, this time in the top of the seventh. That leaves the beleaguered center fielder with a .612 OPS on the season.

And then there’s César Hernández, the veteran second baseman who has played almost every day this season but still has yet to hit a home run after launching 21 of them for the White Sox and Cleveland last year. Hernández's OPS now stands at .611, fourth-worst among all qualifying NL batters, right ahead of Franco.

In their first 16 seasons in the District, the lowest OPS by a Nationals hitter who took at least 500 plate appearances was Wilson Ramos’ .616 mark in 2015. As things currently stand, both Franco and Hernández rate lower, with more than enough plate appearances to qualify. Robles would also rank below Ramos’ low-water mark, though he doesn’t have enough plate appearances to qualify.

The Nationals are in a full-scale rebuild at this point, that’s no secret. The question is how much longer they believe it makes sense to continue giving veterans on short-term contracts like Franco and Hernández daily at-bats.

Hernández could be headed to the bench (or worse) when the organization promotes newly acquired shortstop C.J. Abrams from Triple-A Rochester, a decision that will bump Luis García to second base. There isn’t an obvious replacement for Franco at third base, unless Martinez wants to start 31-year-old utilityman Ildemaro Vargas or call up one-time big leaguer Jake Noll (who is no longer on the 40-man roster) from Triple-A.

Robles is more likely to continue to get playing time because he’s younger and still theoretically could figure out his longstanding offensive issues.

But time could be running out for everyone in that mix. The Nationals are already on pace to lose 110 games with them in the daily lineup. How much worse off could the team be if they try out some alternate plans at those positions?

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