Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals. (Photo credit)
On Opening Day, it was difficult to imagine the Washington Nationals having anything other than a smooth ride through the regular season. Coming off their first playoff appearance since 1981, when they were still the Montreal Expos, (albeit with a heart-wrenching collapse in the NLDS), the Nats merely tinkered with their dynamic young roster during the offseason, bolstering a few weak spots with savvy acquisitions (Denard Span, Rafael Soriano, and Dan Haren) and relying on their dominant starting rotation to power them through the rest of the National League.
To all outward appearances, it looked like a brilliant strategy. After all, the Nationals boasted one of the best pitching staffs in baseball last year, were returning four starters – three of whom entered the season as legitimate Cy Young candidates – and could expect a full season out of Stephen Strasburg after last year’s controversial decision to shut him down in September. The bullpen, which was phenomenal last year, was also getting a big boost on the back end with the addition of closer Soriano.
However, even with the issues that the pitching staff has faced (and we’ll address those in a bit) the real problem seems to have arisen in the construction of the Nationals’ lineup. Washington owned a top-10 offense last season even without full seasons from Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, and Ryan Zimmerman, and with the addition of Span into the turbulent centerfield spot plus the return of steady first baseman Adam LaRoche, Washington management expected more of the same.
Yet the team seems to be a walking embodiment of Murphy’s Law through the first two and a half months, as Washington found itself Monday morning with a 34-34 record and the 28th-ranked offense in baseball. The blows have come primarily in the two most common forms of baseball failure: injuries, slumps, regression to the mean.
After a month-and-a-half of validating those who pegged him as an MVP candidate coming into the season, Bryce Harper’s crash into the Dodger Stadium fence on May 13 has derailed what had been the most promising sophomore campaign in recent memory. The scary-looking incident left him with a nasty cut on his chin that required 11 stitches to close, a jammed shoulder and neck, and a knee strain. He hit just .184/.279/.421 in the nine games following it while stubbornly refusing that he was severely injured, until the team reluctantly put him on the DL on June 1. And while they are noticeably weaker without Harper in the middle of the order (8-13 record when he sits), his is not the only absence that they’ve been feeling.
Jayson Werth has continued his spotty track record in Washington by missing nearly the entire month of May with a hamstring strain, and his line of .252/.305/.389 when on the field isn’t much to write home about either. Zimmerman went through another DL stint less than a month into the season (making it four years in a row with one). Ian Desmond has been healthy, but his apparent breakout last year is looking more and more like an aberration rather than a sign of things to come. And as for Danny Espinosa, well, at least it probably can’t get much worse than posting an OPS+ of 27 and then breaking your wrist.
Trailing the NL East-leading Braves by 6.5 games as of Monday and sitting in 6th place in the NL Wild Card standings, the only reason the Nationals have managed to tread water for this long has been the performance of their pitching staff, and even then things could have been a lot better. Jordan Zimmermann has been a Cy Young candidate, but Strasburg’s health problems have returned with a recent lat strain that landed him on the DL (he’s due to return on Sunday), Gio Gonzalez has taken a step back from last year to pitch more along the line that his career numbers would suggest, Dan Haren has been a disaster, and Ross Detwiler has joined the long list of injured players by missing a month with a back muscle strain before returning this past Thursday.
Finally, the bullpen that was so good last year has taken a step backwards as well, as only Soriano, Tyler Clippard, and Craig Stammen have proven themselves to be reliable arms in 2013. As it stands, the team has already seen a half-run increase in its bullpen ERA (3.23 to 3.86, as of last weekend) despite having the 5th-lightest workload in the National League, and if those three continue to be leaned on as much as they have been thus far, the numbers can only be expected to get worse.
All of this has added up to a team that has woefully underperformed through the first two and half months, and while they might not hold the title of the most disappointing team in baseball thanks to the misery that both the Blue Jays and Angels are experiencing, they are certainly the most disappointing team in the National League.
All told though, the Nationals’ fortunes this season depend on how you want to look at them. While any team that suffers a rash of injuries can be cut a bit of slack, the fact that so many of them have happened to players that have a spotty health history (Werth, Strasburg, Zimmerman) means that the team should have been prepared for such eventualities.
More importantly though, Washington’s fate for the rest of the season relies largely on their ability to get their stars back on the field and keep them there. Harper and Strasburg are obviously of particular importance, but the ability of Werth, Desmond, and Espinosa to pick up the slack could be the difference between the Nationals getting back to at least mediocrity in terms of scoring runs. Unless that happens, what began as a year with unbridled optimism could lead to some serious questions at season’s end about where the franchise goes from there.