The struggles of the Washington Nationals has been one of baseball’s big surprises in the first half of the 2013 MLB season. The Nats are a .500 club, with a 33-33 record and 5 ½ games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East. Washington is 6 ½ out of a wild-card slot.
There’s plenty of time to catch up, but those deficits underscore the importance of winning games quickly. What’s the problem in Washington? That’s what the National League installment of today’s MLB coverage will focus on.
THE ROTATION ROUNDS INTO FORM
Starting pitching is what this team is built on, and while there have been some rocky moments, and some individual struggles, the collective efforts of the rotation have continued to bear good fruit. Washington is third in the National League in starters’ ERA.
While Gio Gonzalez struggled for several weeks to start the season, Jordan Zimmerman picked up the pace and has pitched at a Cy Young level. Stephen Strasburg has been steady, with a 2.92 ERA and his recent trip to the disabled list proved to be minor, and Strasburg is expected to return tomorrow. Ross Detwiler is also back from the DL, after posting a 3.02 ERA in nine starts. Furthermore, Gonzalez appears to be locked in and back to the form that made him a 21-game winner last year. He’s been sharp his last three starts, and four of the last five.
It’s the bullpen that was reliable last year, but has been less so this year. There’s no problem at closer, where Rafael Soriano has closed 17 of 20 chances with a 2.67 ERA. The problem has been in front of Soriano. Drew Storen has struggled mightily after losing the ninth-inning gig, and has a 4.73 ERA. While Tyler Clippard and Craig Stammen have been competent, there’s a lack of depth here. The unit as a whole is eighth in the NL in ERA.
If Washington had a great offensive team, they could get by with the starting pitching, Soriano and some thin middle relief. But they don’t have a great offense. Quite the opposite.
NO OBVIOUS SOLUTIONS ON OFFENSE
No one thought the Nationals were going to win games by mashing out runs, but it was surely reasonable to expect them to do better than 14th in the National League wasn’t it? The only NL team that’s been worse is Miami. There are no discernible strengths to build on—the Nats are bad at getting on base, and bad at hitting for power. In both cases, they’re also near the bottom of the league.
Bryce Harper is not enough, even when he comes back from his knee injury (he starts rehab next week). And when you look at the veterans it’s fair to ask where the help is coming from.
Adam LaRoche has been decent, hitting 10 home runs. You could say he was much better last year, but it was 2012 that was more the aberration than this season. LaRoche is a moderately decent offensive first baseman and that’s exactly what he’s playing like. Ryan Zimmerman is respectable at third, with a stat line of .349 on-base percentage/.454 slugging. Could he do better? Sure, but there’s no basis to assume it.
Ian Desmond has popped eight home runs in a nice show of power. Denard Span has been a disappointment in centerfield—at least disappointing to the Nats’ front office. A lot of us didn’t expect a lot from Span based on his years in Minnesota and “not a lot” is exactly what Washington is getting.
But the biggest blow is the continued failure of Jayson Werth, with his appalling .297/.378 stat line. Two years ago he was a disaster and the excuse was that he felt the pressure of the $126 million contract. Last year he was hurt. Now this year he’s been hurt some more, and been lousy when he’s in the lineup. I’ve given Werth benefit of the doubt in the past, but I’m frankly past that point now. I think we have to assume he’s just not that good and this is wasted money Washington paid out on a seven-year deal.
These are the veterans, and in some form or another this is probably what Washington fans can expect. Sure, one player might go above his expectations, but another player can just as likely go below. The Nats need someone to shake things up and that’s where the call-up of second baseman Anthony Rendon is a heartening development.
Washington’s regular second baseman Danny Espinosa got hurt. Given he wasn’t all that productive to begin with, the injury was what manager Davey Johnson needed to call up Rendon, who has promptly hit .308 in his first 52 at-bats with an on-base percentage of .390. The word on the street is that when Espinosa is healthy, he’ll be shipped to the minors.
Rendon gives this offense hope, but when you’re entire hope for improvement rests on a kid for whom it took an injury to persuade the organization to give him a shot, what does that say about the overall offensive prospects?
THE ROAD AHEAD
It might be deeply skeptical of the offense, but I do expect the pitching to continue to get better, as Gonzalez returns to form and Strasburg and Detwiler come off the disabled list. The bullpen has an interesting prospect in Fernando Abad, who’s only pitched nine innings, but looked very good in doing so. In short, we can expect Washington to be what we expected—some great pitching, top-to-bottom and just enough offense.
I think that’s going to be enough to justify sticking with my pick of the Nats to win the NL East. I respect Atlanta, but don’t believe they have the starting pitching depth to hold off a sustained drive by Washington. And a sustained drive is what’s going to come.
AROUND THE NATIONAL LEAGUE
NL EAST: To contradict what I just wrote, Atlanta doesn’t look far from getting Brandon Beachy back in the rotation. While Beachy will help, I still think the Braves need a true ace to hold off the Nats.
NL CENTRAL: Pittsburgh is rolling along at 40-27, virtually neck-and-neck with Cincinnati for second place, and three games back of St. Louis for first. The Pirates need to get Jeanmar Gomez and James McDonald back from their rehab assignments, and they have to hope Wandy Rodriguez’ forearm stiffness that put him on the DL proves to be minor. With this many pitchers out, it’s a potential danger time for Pittsburgh.
NL WEST: San Diego has quietly moved to within four games of the lead, in what has become a packed four-team race. The Padres have gotten surprising offense, ranking seventh in the National League in scoring runs. But the recent injury to second baseman Jedd Gyorko was a blow, and unless Bud Black can find some pitching, this run won’t last.