Where did it go wrong for the Washington Nationals? Heading into the season they were heavy favorites not just to win the NL East, but to make a run at the World Series. Everywhere they were being discussed as possibly the best team in the game.
Fifty-seven games later, they are a game under .500 and seven games behind the division leading Braves. They seem puzzled as to how this could have happened, but the reasons are obvious. In baseball the reasons often are.
It’s because when you think of the Washington Nationals you think of two things. Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Those are the cornerstone players on which the Nats' success is laid. And while both have performed admirably, both have struggled with injury and haven’t really stepped into the role of team leaders despite the massive levels of talent they possess.
Blame that on youth and inexperience. At least you can for now. If they fail to fill those roles in a year or three it will be a lot more serious. Right now neither of them are capable of carrying this team. They need a lot of help from the supporting cast and it hasn’t been there, especially on the offensive end.
Last year the Nats got a career year out of Adam LaRoche, but LaRoche is hitting 30 points lower than he did in 2012. Denard Span, with his .264 average and .318 OBP, has not fulfilled the expectations the Nationals had for him when they acquired him to be their leadoff hitter. Ryan Zimmerman has had a tough early season -- not lacking, but subpar by his standards in both power and average. Subtract his three home run game from last week from his stats and the .272-3-24 line he’d be left with just isn’t even close to his norm.
Then there are the injuries to the offense. Catcher Wilson Ramos, who missed most of last year with a knee injury, managed to play in just 14 games before he injured his hamstring, sending him back to the DL for who knows how long. Jayson Werth has missed a month due to hamstring injury too. And Danny Espinosa has been playing through both a torn rotator cuff and free floating piece of bone inside his wrist joint. It shows every day with his .160 average.
Not even Harper's .287-12-23 line has helped to make the offense that much better. Only the Marlins have scored fewer runs in the NL. And now that Harper, when not running into fences, is battling a balky knee, things will only get harder.
Maybe the Nationals could handle that if the pitching were superhuman. But it hasn’t been. It’s been very good -- sixth in the NL -- but not superhuman. And now their ace Strasburg is dealing with a lat injury and despite a 2.54 ERA has managed just three wins. That ties him with Gio Gonzalez -- last year’s 21-game winner who’s been painfully erratic though hardly awful.
Turning it around isn’t going to be easy. Espinosa is unlikely to get better without surgery, and LaRoche isn’t likely to follow up his career year with an equal one. There is hope that Zimmerman will rediscover his stroke and that Span will adjust to the National league. But even then the Nationals will still be deep in the hole, especially if the injuries to Strasburg or Harper turn out to be severe ones.
If the Nationals are going to compete to compete they’ll need reinforcements -- and they’ve got some in the minors due to a good farm system that should enable them to at least replace Espinosa soon by calling up Zach Walters, Jeff Kobernus (or Anthony Rendon - though the other two are natural middle infielders).
Any hope they have for this year may well depend on their farm system. It offers them depth from which to trade from, either by dealing prospects who are close to Major League ready or by allowing them to promote those prospects and trade away some of the veterans for pieces they need more badly.
There are still over 100 games left to be played, but the Nationals need to right this ship soon. Trading for offense is a move they’ll have to make.