If Nats are going to make a run, stars must lead the way

Seven major league clubs will have four or more players representing them tonight at Coors Field in the All-Star Game. Five of those clubs (the Dodgers, Padres, Brewers, Red Sox and Astros) entered the break in possession of a postseason berth, and a sixth (the Blue Jays) owns a winning record.

The seventh? That would be the Nationals, who despite climbing two games over the .500 mark two weeks ago, limped into the break having lost nine of 11 and now own a disappointing 42-47 record.

And that distinction alone reveals so much about the Nats, why they are where they are, and why there may still be hope of a second-half surge back into the playoff mix.

This is an extremely top-heavy team, one loaded with star power. How many other clubs would happily trade their four best players in exchange for the Nationals’ four All-Stars (Juan Soto, Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber and Max Scherzer)?

If you add up those four guys’ WAR to date this season, you get a total of 10.5 (according to Baseball-Reference’s formula). The club’s 12 next-best players combined have totaled 10.7 WAR.

Therein lies both the problem and the potential solution for what ails this team. The Nationals simply don’t have enough quality depth to win without their stars leading the way. But if their stars can all get healthy at the same time and produce up to their career standards, it could still be enough to lift this team to the top of a weak National League East.

It’s no coincidence the Nats’ late-June surge coincided with Schwarber’s record-matching home run binge. And it’s no coincidence their early-July struggles began as soon as the big slugger hurt his hamstring rounding first base.

Of course there were other reasons for both the team’s success and failure. The pitching staff was great while the team was winning, not so much while it was losing. The lineup actually did put together some productive games minus Schwarber, especially in San Diego last week.

But in the long run, the Nationals know they’re going to need Schwarber back sooner rather than later to make a real run at the first-place Mets. And they’ll also need Soto and Turner to continue their recent hot streaks. And Josh Bell, Yan Gomes and Starlin Castro to keep doing what they were doing at the plate.

That’s the Nats’ path to victory, with their best hitters leading the way. And the same goes for their pitching staff.

Thumbnail image for Strasburg-Delivers-Blue-ATL.jpgThis team was built to win behind an elite rotation, with the same three big names who led the franchise to its first championship in 2019 at the top. So far, only Scherzer has held up his end of the bargain. Stephen Strasburg has made only five starts and spent more time on the injured list than the active roster. And Patrick Corbin owns the highest ERA (5.40) of any qualified starter in the NL right now.

So any second-half surge must include Strasburg’s return to the mound every fifth day and Corbin’s return to competency after back-to-back substandard seasons.

If that doesn’t happen, if the Nationals’ stars don’t rise to the occasion, they’ll need the rest of the roster to fill in the gaps. And as we’ve seen over the last 3 1/2 months, that’s a tough ask of this group.

The Nats simply don’t have as much quality depth as other organizations. The players they summon from Triple-A aren’t future stars. They’re either veterans on the tail ends of their careers or older rookies who weren’t elite prospects and now are just getting a chance to make a name for themselves in the majors.

Yes, they’ve been decimated by a rash of injuries in recent weeks that few teams could overcome. But even their first call-up to replace one injured regular often feels like a stretch.

Which is why this team’s best (possibly only) hope is for its stars to carry everyone else on their shoulders. The Nationals’ 10 best players stack up with just about anyone else’s 10 best players. Their 11th-through-40th players don’t.

If they’re going to put another charge together when they return from the All-Star break, they’re going to need it to be led by Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin, Soto, Turner, Schwarber, Bell, Gomes, Brad Hand and Daniel Hudson. Those are their 10 best players.

The 2019 Nationals proved you can win a World Series behind great star power. The 2021 Nationals may not quite match that championship club in star power, but they do have enough to make a run at a return to the postseason.

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