The Washington Nationals: 10 First Place Worries Moving Forward
The Washington Nationals have had a fast start and currently sit atop the NL East standings. They hold a 29-18 record, third best in all of the majors.
Washington has the best starting rotation in baseball, led by Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez. Rookie Bryce Harper has looked good in his young career, bringing more youthful enthusiasm to the team and its fan base.
However, there are several things that the Nationals and their fans should be worried about heading into the second quarter of the season and beyond, which could affect their playoff potential.
Here are 10 of these worries.
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Injuries are always something that teams have to deal with, and the Nationals have been no exception.
Jayson Werth is expected to be out until August with a broken bone in his wrist.
Last year's closer, Drew Storen, has been out for the whole year so far, and is not expected back until about the All-Star break.
Backup closer/reliever Brad Lidge has been out with a hernia, but should be returning soon.
Third basement Ryan Zimmerman recently returned from his second stint on the DL.
Michael Morse, the team's best offensive player and biggest surprise from last season, has yet to see any action this year.
Starter Chien-Ming Wang just recently started his season, making just one appearance after being out for most of the year so far.
Wilson Ramos, the team's starting catcher, is out for the year with a torn ACL.
The Nationals have been able to keep up their good play despite all of these injuries, in large part due to the fact that their stellar starting rotation has remained healthy. They also really can not afford to lose any more of their offense, with two of their better hitting outfielders out right now along with the team's inconsistent offense.
The pitching staff has performed wonderfully so far, but with Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmerman both having gone through Tommy John surgery in the past, injuries in the rotation are something that the Nats definitely should be worried about.
2. Lack of Offense
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The Nationals currently rank 22nd in runs scored in the majors with 185 runs, and 18th in batting average, hitting .246. Adam LaRoche is leading the team's every day players with a .295 average. However, pitcher Stephen Strasburg is batting .389, which is a great compliment to his athletic ability—it is also a little embarrassing for the rest of the team.
At some point the players have to look at themselves and realize that they are getting out hit by their pitcher. Strasburg only plays every five days, and it is asking a little much for the pitchers to be expected to carry the load offensively as well. The starters have done a great job by having the lowest ERA in baseball, but if they can not get offensive support from their hitters, it does not do them much good.
With two of their better hitters in Morse and Werth currently on the DL, the rest of the team needs to pick up the slack. Veterans like Ryan Zimmerman and Rick Ankiel have the ability to hit well, but head coach Davey Johnson would definitely like to see more offensive production from the other players.
3. Drop off in Pitching
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The Nationals have been blessed with the best starting pitching in baseball.
The staff leads the league in ERA (2.93), batting average against (.218), WHIP (1.12) and strikeouts (411). Gio Gonzalez has to be considered one of the front runners for NL Cy Young at the moment, with a 7-1 record and a stingy 2.04 ERA. It is hard to imagine that they could be pitching any better.
The question is can they keep it up?
There has always been the idea that if you hit rock bottom, you have no where to go but up. In a way, the exact opposite can be said for those at the top. At this point it would seem that the Nationals' starting pitching has no where to go but down. With the offensive struggles the team has, any drop off in pitching could lead to a fall in the standings.
The team of starters has shown no signs of slowing down, and Wang's presence in the rotation could improve it even more. Yet, you cannot help but wonder if they could stumble along a potential trip into October.
4. Stephen Strasburg's Inning Limit
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This point is related to worry #3, as the departure of Strasburg could lead to a drop off in the starting pitching. Strasburg currently has a 5-1 record with a 2.64 ERA. He has 70 strike outs and has pitched 58 innings. Other than a little bicep tightness and some misplaced Icy Hot, he has had no sign of injury.
The Nationals GM Mike Rizzo has said several times that despite the team's great start, where they are in the standings will have no baring on when the team decides to shut Strasburg down. However, Rizzo has also stated that the 160 inning limit that had surfaced was just a rumor, and that there is no set time of year, pitch or inning limit in place.
Whatever the case may be, it would seem that Strasburg will most likely not be playing for the entire season, which leaves a vacancy in that starting rotation to be filled by either Ross Detwiler or John Lannan. Both are solid #5 starters, but definitely not at Strasburg's level. The Nats are hoping the drop off will be minimal, but right now, all anyone can do is just wait and see.
5. The NL East
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This one may be obvious, but when you are at the top of a division, the rest of the teams are surely going to be gunning for you.
The NL East has been a strong division this year. All of the teams are currently within five games of the Nationals, and all five teams are above .500. Washington is currently 11-3 against teams inside their division and have yet to lose a series. However, it is early in the season, and all four teams still pose a threat.
Many people expected Atlanta and Philadelphia to be at the top of the division at the start of the year, but they are currently fourth and fifth in the division respectively. However, the Nationals can not over look them, especially Philly, as they have the skill and experience to get to the top.
The Miami Marlins have been an interesting story all year.
Despite the transition of new players, coaches and stadium, and head coach Ozzie Guillen's questionable feelings about Fidel Castro, they have played well and sit just three and a half games back of the Nats. With their newly acquired talent, they definitely look like a team that will be around to the end.
The biggest question mark is the Mets. They were not really expected to do much, but are currently second in the division due to playing well. They have a lot to prove, along with the Nationals, as to whether or not they are the real deal.
Whatever each individual case may be, all four teams are sure to be hot on the Nats heels for the rest of the season.
6. Inability to Finish a Series
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Despite the fact that the Nationals are 11 games over .500, they have done a poor job in final games of series. The Nats are just 5-10 in the last games of series, and are a pitiful 1-9 in sweep opportunities.
Washington has only lost three series all year, yet the inability to put the proverbial "nail in the coffin" is something that is worrisome.
The opportunity to put teams away is something that every successful playoff team needs to be able to do, so improvement in this category is something that Coach Davey Johnson and the Nats would like to see.
7. Bullpen Question Marks
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For a team with the best pitching staff in baseball, there seems to be a lot of pitching worries. Yet the injuries and inconsistent play of the back end is something that can not be ignored.
Currently the Nationals seem to be without a closer. Last years closer Drew Storen is not expected back until the All-Star break, and free agent veteran Brad Lidge is also out, leaving a gap at the position.
Henry Rodriguez did a decent job filling in with his 100 mph fastball, but recently it has been all too evident that he struggles with his control. Tyler Clippard, an All-Star last year, has been a great set up man and is now closing games, but yet to prove he can handle the job consistently.
The injuries have also led to a shortage of relievers, and starter Ross Detwiler has been moved to the pen with the return of Chien-Ming Wang. Hopefully the transition is smooth, but the consistency needed to help the outstanding starting rotation has been missing. It could be an issue moving forward.
8. 15 Straight Games Against the AL East
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The Nationals are currently in the midst of playing 15 straight games against the NL East, which has given them an opportunity to pull away from the division. However, following the NL East, they go into a 15 game stretch against the powerful AL East.
As usual, the AL East is in the discussion for being the best division in baseball. They are by far the best offensive division currently in the game, with every team having scored over 200 runs and positive run differential of at least +14.
The Nats are 1-2 against the AL East this year, losing the first two of their three game set at home against the Baltimore Orioles this month. They will be tested against them again, as well as the rest of the teams in the division.
It will be a good test for Washington's ace pitching staff, and the team will definitely be going in confident. But you can not help but to worry a little as it could turn into a rough stretch.
9. The All-Star Break
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I know, you are surprised to see this as one of the options, but it makes sense. For the teams that are slumping, the All-Star break is a welcome sight, giving them time to relax and see their families. For the teams that are playing well, it is a time when you worry about a loss in momentum and getting distracted.
With the Nationals playing so well and getting national coverage really for the first time in their history, the team is sure to have several players (especially pitchers) selected to participate in the midsummer festivities.
Strasburg is only going to pitch so much this year, and if he pitches in the All-Star game, that takes away from what he can do in September. There is always the chance of injury, and when that is already a worry, an extra goof off game may not be the best idea.
As much of an honor playing in the All-Star game may be, you also worry about it messing with the players' pattern and rotation. It is not uncommon for players to go into a slump after the All-Star game. Few of the Nats players have had any All-Star experience, and hopefully they can avoid the All-Star break jinx.
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In the Nationals short existence, they have yet to make the post season. In fact, they have yet to finish a season above .500. The fact that they are in first this late in the season is something new and exciting, but also a little nerve racking. Additionally, the longer they stay in that position, the more pressure they will begin to feel.
The average age of Washington's starting rotation is 27. They have just two every day players over 30. And the player who gets the most attention and hold the most pressure has played in 28 career games at just 19 years old.
With such a young team, it is going to be interesting to see how the Nats handle themselves as they head into the midway point of the season and into September.
If they are still in contention, there will certainly be no shortage of story lines to watch and no shortage of national pressure to deal with.