First, let’s start with some good news for the Washington Nationals: although he visited Dr. James Andrews recently, there doesn’t appear to be any structural damage to Bryce Harper’s injured left knee and he didn’t have any surgical procedures on it. The bad news for the Nationals? Harper and ace Stephen Strasburg remain on the disabled list, as the team sits at 31-31, seven games behind the Braves in the National League East.
Coming off a brutal loss to the Cardinals in the NLDS, this was supposed to be the season the Nationals broke through. Washington was a trendy, if not consensus, pick to win the World Series back in March. Multiple ESPN experts tabbed the Nationals as World Series champs before the season began. At Sports Illustrated four of its seven baseball guys picked Washington to win it all.
The Nationals addressed their closer situation, signing Rafael Soriano. They traded for Denard Span, to bat leadoff. Dan Haren came on board to add veteran experience to the young rotation.
Everything looked primed for a World Series run. Harper even hit a pair of homers on Opening Day, getting the DC area “cised” for a big summer of “Natitude.”
Only it hasn’t clicked for Washington, and that was before Harper and Strasburg landed on the disabled list in the last two weeks. The Nationals’ anemic offense is the main culprit here. As of Tuesday afternoon, Washington sits 29th in runs, 29th in on-base percentage, 27th in OPS and 23rd in home runs. Say what you will about batting average, but the Nationals are only hitting .234 as a team.
First baseman Adam LaRoche hit 30 homers last season (in a contract year) to go along with a .271/.343/.510 line. This season he’s hit 10 home runs, but his line is down to .252/.335/.451., yet he still leads the team with 30 RBIs. Ryan Zimmerman, the franchise’s cornerstone third baseman, is playing to a .268/.343/.430 line, hardly what you’d expect for a $14 million per-year player. The less said about Jayson Werth, who’s making $16 million to post a .721 OPS, the better, though in Werth’s defense he’s been battling injuries throughout much of the season.
Injuries are a running theme with the Nationals. Second baseman Danny Espinoza is on the disabled list with a hand fracture, meaning more playing time for utility infielder Steve Lombardozzi. While his father might be an “RBI Baseball” legend, the younger Lombardozzi has managed a meager .222/.234/.281 line over 135 at bats, which will submarine any offense. Espinoza, was a pleasant surprise last year with 17 homers, but had an OPS of .465 in 44 games in 2013. Outfielder Roger Bernadina has played in 47 games, hitting just .186 in 97 at bats. Span hasn’t been the answer in the leadoff spot, either, with an on-base percentage of only .325.
Realistically the only National having a “good” offensive season is Harper (.287/.386/.587) but you’re asking a lot for a 20-year-old, regardless of his talent, to carry the team and that was before he ran into the outfield wall at Dodger Stadium face-first in mid-May, which is the likely culprit for his current knee trouble.
Pitching has kept the Nationals afloat. Jordan Zimmermann (9-3, 2.00) is on his way to the All-Star team. Washington’s team ERA is 3.55, sixth in baseball despite a slight regression from Gio Gonzalez (3-3, 3.59) who won’t match last year’s 21-win performance. (Then again, Gonzalez’s Batting Average Against, 2.06, is the same as last season.) Even with a slow start, Strasburg’s ERA was 2.54 before he landed on the DL with a strained lat.
There’s plenty of time for the Nationals to make up ground in the division. They’re only 5.5 games out in the Wild Card. Without making a trade, the Washington offense won’t magically get better overnight, although it can’t get much worse. The Nats could always fire manager Davey Johnson to try to give the team a shot in the arm without juggling the roster, but that sort of boost tends to be short-lived.
As inept as the Nationals’ have been at the plate, they’ve still managed to play .500 ball. Still, unless it turns around, the second-guessing about the team shutting down Strasburg last season is going to look all the worse as time goes on. The window to win a World Series doesn’t stay open very long and it certainly doesn’t do so on paper.
[Photo via @YoungSimba3]