November 22, 2014

Washington Nationals have work to do in second half

The Washington Nationals were on every prognosticator’s pre-season short list of World Series contenders. No less an authority on the team than its manager, Davey Johnson, proclaimed this season — his last as a manager in the Major Leagues — as “World Series or Bust.” His words. But through the first 96 games of this season, the Nats have hardly looked like a championship caliber club.

Testament to that is their record: a pedestrian one game over .500 at 48-47, six games behind the Atlanta Braves in the N.L. East and five games off the pace for a wild card spot behind the Cincinnati Reds. Their only consistency has been inconsistency. Wallowing in mediocrity thus far, their longest winning streak was five games; longest losing streak was four, twice.

Here’s the kicker: they are outplaying their run differential by two games. Things could (should) actually be worse.

As expected, their pitching, especially their starters, have led the way. The Nats are fifth in the league in fewest runs allowed per game, fifth in lowest ERA, first in fewest walks allowed, fifth in strikeouts per nine innings and second in K/BB rate.

It’s in the other two areas where the Nationals weaknesses are being exposed. According to most metrics, the Nats defense is below-average-to-poor this season. They are tied with the Dodgers for the most errors committed, third from the worst fielding percentage, and sixth-worst in Baseball-Reference.com’s Defensive Efficiency, which takes into account fielding and pitching statistics.

As for hitting, the Nationals are, simply, atrocious.

Their cumulative slash line of .241/.301/.385 is “good” for 13th, 14th and 12th in the National League. They are, not surprisingly, next-to-last in runs scored per game, above only the quad-A Marlins.

Their struggles at the plate are evident up and down the lineup. Denard Span, traded for over the off-season to be the everyday leadoff hitting center fielder, is hitting .260/.317/.355 overall and .143/.208/.163 against left-handers.

Span’s problems have prompted GM Mike Rizzo to trade for Scott Hairston, a right-handed batter, to give Span the day off against tough lefties. Manager Davey Johnson took matters into his own hands Sunday, the last game before the break, when he dropped Span into the seventh spot in the lineup and moved Bryce Harper into the leadoff spot.

Everyone associated with the team would prefer seeing Harper in a more run-producing spot in the lineup and not hitting after the pitcher’s spot two or three times a night, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

Ian Desmond and Jayson Werth are performing pretty much as expected, but after that, it’s a laundry list of disappointment.

Ryan Zimmerman is on pace for just 20 home runs. Adam LaRoche is hitting .184/.242/.322 against left-handers. Danny Espinosa was so bad for so long he was placed on the D.L., then demoted, and replaced by a rookie who was forced to switch positions and learn how to place second base in the big leagues.

In fact, Anthony Rendon (.301/.352/.460) qualifies as the only Nats hitter exceeding expectations at this point.

And the bench has been an unmitigated disaster area.

The only solace Nats fans can take with them into the All-Star break is the knowledge that traditionally, many of the Nats hitters have been better second half of the season performers.

We’ve seen the offense get marginally better with the return to health of Harper, Werth and Ramos, and the promotion of Rendon. During a recent stretch, the team scored more than 8 runs in five out of eight games, all wins. Then, a 2-5 trip through Philly and Miami brought back all the offensive woes the team has experienced all season long.

There aren’t any quick fixes either. Rizzo has his hands tied to find legitimate help for the batting order. All the guys that are in the lineup are players the Nats counted on to be part of a championship unit. Replacing any of them will be extremely difficult. We saw in the first half how long the Nats were willing to allow Espinosa to fight out of his problems.

The Nats traded an important asset for Span to be the leadoff hitter for the next two years. They chose LaRoche over Michael Morse and signed him to a two-year deal to hold down first base. Zimmerman is the face of the franchise and supposed to be entering the prime of his career. Werth and Desmond are playing at the peak of their abilities at this stage in their career, warts and all. Wilson Ramos is just coming back from injury. Rendon has fewer than 250 big league plate appearances.

You just can’t replace these guys.

If Rizzo wants to make a roster change, it could be for another starting pitcher. Ross Detwiler has struggled with back issues again this season. Dan Haren has been horrible up until his last two starts. Taylor Jordan will run out of innings pretty quickly in the second half. If Detwiler doesn’t return to health, Rizzo will have to decide whether to turn to an in-house option like Ross Ohlendorf or Nathan Karns, or go outside the organization to make an expensive acquisition.

Another place Rizzo could turn is to bolster the bench. Hairston was a start, but Chad Tracy (.157/.195/.289) and Roger Bernadina (187/.252/.288) haven’t been tearing the cover off the ball either. Tyler Moore could rediscover his stroke in Syracuse, but the right-handed outfield bat is filled by the veteran Hairston.

The bottom line is that the Nats players on the roster have to hit better in the second half. They need to get better against left-handed pitching. They need to make up for the lack of on-base skills with more power. The changes need to come from within. All these players, except for Harper and Rendon, have track records and for the most part, they aren’t living up to their career standards.

The Braves aren’t out of reach, and they have mounting injury problems of their own. The Nats start the second half with 20 out of their next 25 games at home, where they play at a 99-win pace. They absolutely must take advantage of the vagaries of the schedule and close the gap over the next month.

If the Nats aren’t a game or two within first place by Aug. 15, they’ll be facing an uphill battle, as 20 of 26 games between then and Sept. 12 are on the road, where they’ve played to a 68-win pace so far this season.

Oh, and it would help if the Nats actually beat the Braves a few times in the nine games they have left to play against them this season. So far, they’re 3-7 against the division leader, with 20 runs scored and 40 runs against.

This Nats team is still the same one that most folks had in spring training to win the division and represent the N.L. in the World Series. They are as healthy as they’ve been all season long. They have two extended homestands to open the second half. Many of the players are notorious second-half hitters. It’s time for this team to live up to the hype.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

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