WASHINGTON, D.C. — They have reigned as National League division champions in each of the previous two years and are widely expected to keep the crowns again this season.
But after combining for eight playoff appearances since 2015, the Dodgers, Nationals and Cubs have a collective record of 19-25, and none of them feature a winning mark.
At 5-9, the Dodgers sit in last place in the National League West, a startling turnaround for a team that came within one victory of winning the World Series.
Although mid-April is not the time to make any proclamations for the season, the reasons for the slow starts and what they might mean are worth examining:
What has gone wrong: Third baseman Justin Turner, the team’s clubhouse leader, is sidelined with a broken wrist and has yet to start taking batting practice. In his absence, key offensive cogs including Corey Seager, Yasiel Puig and Chris Taylor have failed to pick up the slack. None was batting better than .220 before Sunday.
How to fix it: Turner’s return will help, but that probably won’t happen for another month or so. In the meantime, the Dodgers could use more contributions up and down the lineup. They’re third from the bottom in the league in home runs and on-base plus slugging percentage.
They would also benefit from better performances from lefty starters Rich Hill and Alex Wood, both of whom have ERAs over 5.
Objects in the mirror: The division-leading Arizona Diamondbacks had beaten Los Angeles 11 times in a row, the longest losing streak against another club in Dodgers history, until Clayton Kershaw ended that run almost single-handedly Sunday in a 7-2 win. The day before, the Dodgers failed to capitalize on Arizona starter Taijuan Walker leaving after two innings with a forearm strain, getting shut out by the Diamondbacks bullpen over the final seven in a 9-1 loss.
The Diamondbacks have been a terror on the road despite the absence of third baseman Jake Lamb and right fielder Steven Souza due to injuries.
The long game: The Dodgers have already lost as many games in 2½ weeks as they did during a 2½-month stretch last season in which they went 52-9. It’s highly unlikely the Dodgers can replicate that kind of season, and although they have essentially the same roster as last year, the road to the playoffs figures to present more obstacles.
What has gone wrong: After losing three of four at home to the Rockies, the Nationals fell to 7-9 and were kept out of the cellar in the NL East only by the presence of the hopeless Marlins. Before this past weekend, Washington had not been two games below .500 since May 5, 2015.
The Nationals offense was powered last season by Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman and Daniel Murphy, all of whom delivered an OPS above .925. But that quartet is down to a duo, with Murphy still out as he recovers from surgery on his right knee and Zimmerman immersed in a slump that has dropped his batting average to .122. In addition, spark plug Trea Turner is batting .203.
How to fix it: Give it time. Murphy is scheduled to start getting rehab at-bats this week, and Zimmerman, coming off a bounce-back season, figures to get going at some point. In addition, the Nationals will benefit from outfielder Adam Eaton returning from his ankle injury, likely this week.
Harper is off to a torrid start with a majors-leading seven home runs as he builds his résumé in his final season before free agency, but he needs help.
Objects in the mirror: The Mets’ nine-game winning streak ended Saturday, but with a healthy rotation at last, they won 11 of their first 12, the best start in franchise history. They lead the division by three games.
In addition, the surging Phillies have won six in a row and eight of nine, and rookie Scott Kingery looks like the real thing.
The long game: The Nationals cruised to the division title by at least eight games in each of the last two years, but this season — with Harper on an MVP clip but the Mets surprisingly torrid — has shades of 2015 already. With a rotation headed by Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg and Harper leading what should be a potent offense, the Nationals might rule the East again, but the resistance will be significant.
What has gone wrong: Much like last year, the Cubs’ situational hitting has been a problem, as they have batted .193 with runners in scoring position, ranking 28th in the major leagues. And the leadoff spot still hasn’t been solved, as manager Joe Maddon continues to experiment with the likes of Ian Happ, who’s batting .222, Albert Almora and even Ben Zobrist.
In addition, the first three turns through the rotation have been rough, with Kyle Hendricks (3.71) the only starter to keep his ERA under 4.00. Newcomer Yu Darvish has been a special concern as he has failed to complete five innings twice while yielding 10 earned runs in 15 innings.
How to fix it: Anthony Rizzo’s return after a stint on the disabled list with a back injury should help settle down an inconsistent offense that’s as likely to explode for double-figure runs as it is to get shut down.
More important than that, the starting pitchers need to do their share. The bullpen has been brilliant, but the relievers have had to clean up too many messes left by a rotation yielding a 5.40 ERA.
Objects in the mirror: After back-to-back losing seasons, the Pirates are riding a youthful rotation and productive offense to the top of the NL Central. They are a surprise roadblock in a season the Brewers and Cardinals were viewed as the Cubs’ primary impediments.
The long game: The Cubs have played only five home games, fewer than any team in the big leagues. They showed their grit in coming back from 9-1 deficit to beat the Braves 14-10 on Saturday, scoring nine two-out runs in the eighth inning. The Pirates are a nice early story, but Chicago is the class of the division.