Nats quarterly report-5/18

Nats quarterly report-5/18
May 18, 2013, 8:30 am
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A baseball season can’t be broken into perfect fourths due to a total of 162 games, but the Nats basically entered the second quarter of their season on Thursday in playing their 41st game. Here is a look at the team through roughly one-fourth of the year and how they compare to last season, plus some predictions for the next 41 games.

Lineup
Aside from Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond, and Denard Span, everyone else in the Nats’ lineup hasn’t been playing up to their capabilities. Injuries have been a significant factor, but that excuse doesn’t apply to everybody. Danny Espinosa has simply struggled, and Adam LaRoche is still recovering from his forgettable April. As a whole they don’t get on base, strike out too much, and don’t make the most of opportunities.

After ranking among the top ten teams in the majors in team batting average, runs scored, and home runs in 2012, the Nats are among the ten worst teams in each of those categories this season. Their team OPS is second worst only to the Marlins and their batting average is third worst. Espinosa is the posterboy for these struggles, but he’s not the only one at fault. Harper and Desmond are the only members of the Opening Day lineup that aren’t hitting below their career batting averages. That applies to Kurt Suzuki as well.

Defense
The Nationals’ defense this season has been much worse than last year and it’s not even close. They have committed the second most errors in the league (33) after having the eighth least in the majors in 2012. Ryan Zimmerman (8) and Ian Desmond (7) have been a huge part of this regression as each rank first and second in baseball this season in the category.

Noteworthy in all of this is the team’s offseason moves which opted for defense over power at the plate. In bringing in Denard Span and trading Michael Morse, the Nats looked to solidify their outfield as their infield was already supposed to be airtight defensively. The outfield has done its job, but all of a sudden the guys in front of them can’t hold up their end of the bargain.

Pitching
The Nats’ starting rotation is actually better this season, despite the early troubles for Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg. Both had up-and-down first months, but those struggles were offset by Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler. Now Dan Haren is coming around, and as of Friday, their team ERA (3.28) is slightly better than it was last year (3.33). This is in large part due to the starting staff having a better ERA so far this season (3.14) than it did in 2012 (3.40).

The bullpen, on the other hand, has taken a step back overall. Their ERA as a unit was better than the rotation last season at 3.23, but this year it is lagging behind at 3.60. This is mainly due to the middle of the bullpen not being as strong as it was last year with Sean Burnett, Tom Gorzelanny, and an effective Drew Storen. One area that has improved, however, is the closer position. Rafael Soriano has been much more consistent than the Henry Rodriguez and Brad Lidge experiment that plagued them early last year while Storen was out. 

Most Valuable Player: Jordan Zimmermann
On a team mired by inconsistency, matters would be much worse if it weren’t for Zimmermann’s Cy Young-worthy start. He has emerged as a true ace, reliable enough to put his team in a position to win no matter who the opponent or what the circumstances.

Least Valuable Player: Zach Duke
We could go with an obvious choice like Danny Espinosa or a bench player, but Duke has arguably been the worst overall. Called upon mostly in mop-up situations, Duke has allowed 14 earned runs in nine appearances and has been a major liability. He has more earned runs in 15 innings pitched this year than Zimmermann has allowed in 58 2/3. Maybe if he weren’t the bullpen’s only lefty it wouldn’t stick out as much, he can’t help that. Either way, he will need to get things going and soon.

Are they better or worse?
Despite the doom and gloom when looking at the team unit-by-unit, the Nats aren’t far off from where they were at this point last season. Yes, they haven’t been quite as good, but the record is close and that could be seen as a good sign. At some point they should be healthier and Strasburg is getting better (2.25 ERA in May). Could they be better off for struggling earlier? Hey, it happened last year.

Now, just for fun, second quarter predictions:

Harper, Desmond, Zimmermann, Soriano, Strasburg make N.L. All-Star team
*All-Star teams will be announced July 7, about a week after true half-way mark
This is largely dependent on health, and five All-Stars is a lot, but right now the Nats have several prime candidates for the 2013 All-Star Game. Soriano and Strasburg are the least likely of the bunch at this point, but Soriano is near the top of the league in saves and just needs to maintain his current pace. Strasburg has ‘struggled,’ yet has a 2.83 ERA. If his worst days are behind him, he will have a great shot at getting his second All-Star nod.

Anthony Rendon comes up to stay
This is a decent bet just because he is playing so well at Double-A, and because there are several realistic scenarios for it to come true. For one, the Nats have major questions at second base, potentially opening up a spot in the infield. Zimmerman’s throwing errors at third could also force a change to be made. Rendon could also simply outgrow the minors and come up to improve their bench and make spot starts. Then there is the injury case which can’t be predicted, but is always a possibility.

A pitcher from Syracuse makes an appearance
Nats pitchers have been fortunate in the injury department, at least up until Ross Detwiler hurt his back, and at this point aren’t looking at Triple-A for reinforcements. But any serious injury could change that, plus they have several questions in their bullpen. The best bet at this point would be either Chris Young or J.C. Romero, but Danny Rosenbaum and Fernando Abad could have something to say about it.