The last time the Nationals were close to the .500 mark was entering play on June 11 with a 30-31 record after a sweep of the Pirates in a series that saw Stephen Strasburg make his MLB debut. Since then, Washington has gone 3-9 to fall to nine games back of first place and mar what was becoming a promising season. In Nats standards, that means that they were not absolutely abysmal and had an outside shot at being relevant in September.
Well, that probably was never going to happen, but being near .500 in mid-June with the best prospect in baseball bringing big buzz to National Park was about as good as could be expected. It seemed a minor tweak here and a roster spot there and the Nats might actually make a run at it.
Perhaps all Washington needs is to get out of the inter-league portion of the schedule as the last four series have come against American League Central opponents and two of the three wins came against the Royals, a organization far more damaged these days than even the Nationals (though they did find a way to beat Strasburg).
For the most part, it is all about the lineup. Yes, and I have harped on this before at Sports Chutney, they lack starting pitching depth but if Jason Marquis (elbow) and Chien Ming-Wang (shoulder) come back and are productive and Jordan Zimmerman (elbow -- Tommy John surgery) makes a solid return then then the rotation is not quite a glaring weakness as it has been. John Lannan, the nominal No. 1 for the last two years, has finally had his talent level catch up with his production and is back in the minors to work things out though in a real world rotation he would be a decent fourth or fifth starter if he can keep his ground ball rate up.
The pitching has given up 4.5 runs per game the last 12 games (55 runs allowed), which is actually about league average. The problem is that the lineup has gone into a serious funk at 2.66 runs per game and the Nats have been blanked with 1-0 scores twice in the last week, not counting the 2-1 extra innings affair when Strasburg went seven one-run innings against the White Sox and left the game with a 1-0 deficit (though they would score one in the bottom of the seventh to technically take him off the hook) last Friday.
When discussing major league lineups, there is a lot to be said about length. Washington has three good to great hitters in Adam Dunn, Ryan Zimmerman and Josh Willingham, who have produced 43 of their 65 home runs and make for as stout a middle of the order presence as can be found in the majors. Yet, the trio might as well be an island and when they hit slumps there are not much other tools that manager Jim Riggleman can deploy to get the team over the hump in games where the starters give them a chance to win, as has been the case in the last six games against the White Sox and Royals.
It starts at the top. Nyjer Morgan, for all his supposed defensive prowess (great UZR/150 last year of 39.4, projected to be at -7.3 so far this year), is simply not a leadoff hitter. His slash line of .244/.304/.320 is below replacement level and his WAR of -.4 means that he has actually cost the Nationals half a win this year as opposed to where the Bill Games projected him to be at 2.4 before the season. He has 15 stolen bases but his percentage is terrible with 11 times caught stealing. Yet, Riggleman has little choice but to roll him out in the No. 1 spot every day and hope he makes some plays. Morgan will eventually come around to be a little bit better than replacement but general manager Mike Rizzo should keep his eyes open for a legitimate leadoff hitter either later this summer or in the Hot Stove. Length in the a lineup starts with two hitters at the top of the lineup who can get on base for the middle of the order and Morgan's .304 OBP just does not cut it.
Then there is second baseman Christian Guzman. He is a decent complimentary player and at first glance you might think that he is a consistent contributor with his .303 average. Yet, he has a .329 OBP, about league average and that is actually better than his career average of .308. Add to that his .389 slugging percentage (.414 usual league average) and, overall, Guzman is more of a liability than a benefit. Taken as a unit, the table setters for the Zimmerman/Dunn/Willingham trio provide scant opportunity for the big boys to feast.
On the other end the Nationals have Ian Desmond at shortstop, Ivan Rodriguez at catcher and Roger Bernadina in right. Desmond is a shell of a hitter at .251/.286/.381 and his minors line of .256/.326/.388 through five seasons does not bode well for future production. Riggleman tends to have him in the No. 8 spot which basically gives the lineup two automatic outs with the pitcher in the No. 9 spot. Despite his "hitting," Desmond has a .07 WAR, mostly because he plays decent defense with a 2.5 UZR (6.7 UZR/150 projected) thus far.
Rodriguez's line of .313/.338/.416 is good but deceiving. Of his 52 hits, 12 are doubles with one home run and one triple, making him, for all intents and purposes, a singles machine. Combine him with Desmond in the bottom third of the order and the slugging and on base percentages that lengthen a lineup are virtually nil.
Then there is Bernadina. In his first full season, he is holding his own at .284/.344/.436 with six home runs and 20 RBI in 49 games and 164 plate appearances. His OPS+ of 108 shows that he is eight percent better than league average. In a perfect world he would be a great compliment lower in the lineup but at this point might be better suited in the No. 2 slot or even leadoff. Outside of the slugging trio, he has been there fourth best hitter this year, with apologies to Pudge. He might be due for a regression with a .330 batting average on balls in play but, lucky or not, there are not a lot of options in the cupboard.
There are things to like in Washington. The core is sound with Dunn/Zimmerman/Willingham, a top-five National League starter (and likely better than that in years to come) in Strasburg and a sound bullpen with Matt Capps, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard. Yet, there is no bench to speak of, the rest of the lineup is spare parts and starting pitching depth is non-existent. Yet, the task in front of Rizzo is not impossible. A couple key additions (maybe a big free agent hitter and a couple upgrades to the the spare parts) and the Nationals have the chance to be competitive next year. Considering how the National League fluctuates on a year-to-year basis, that may be good enough to grab a playoff spot.
There will be money to spend as well as the Washington market (even with the Orioles just to the north) figures to be able to support an above average payroll. Hey, if the Twins can have a $100 million payroll this year, the Nats certainly should be able to spend some money. Jim Bowden may have thrown the organization off three or four years with his roster bungling (and alleged scandal) but all is not lost in the nation's capital. Strasburg's buzz may help convince a marquee name into Nationals Stadium and from there it could be off to the races. Either way, the prospect of continuous 59 loss seasons should be behind the organization. There is hope to be competitive next year . . .
Or at least be in contention in September. In Washington recently, that would still amount to a major coup.