The Washington Nationals are currently leading the NL East with a 38-23 record, and are 4.5 games ahead of the second-place Atlanta Braves. This is the latest the Nationals have been in first place since July 2005, during their first year in DC.
The Nationals starting rotation has been dominant, the defense has been excellent, their bench players have delivered and the offense is finally waking up.
But where can they improve?
Here are eight moves the Washington Nationals must make if they are to ride their current success all the way to October.
It's time to see how good Eury Perez really is.
The 22-year-old Dominican was signed by the Nationals as an international free agent in 2007, and is currently playing center field for the Harrisburg Senators of the Class-AA Eastern League. In 57 games this season, Perez is hitting .288 with a .323 on-base percentage.
Eury has 80 total bases and 25 RBI, and is 17-of-24 when stealing a base. He does, however, have 39 strikeouts in 243 at-bats while drawing only seven walks.
Eury Perez has been in the Nationals farm system for five years. Therefore, the organization knows what they have, and knows what it will get when they call him up.
And that is a speedy outfielder who can instantly improve the defense and the running game.
Bryce Harper has adapted well to the outfield since moving from his natural position of catcher as soon as he was drafted by the Washington Nationals in 2010. This season, he has mostly played right field, while also seeing time in center and left.
But Harper is a better fit in right field, as his throwing arm is his best defensive weapon. Plus, he is not the Nationals' best option in center field at the moment. That would be Rick Ankiel, who has a fielding percentage of .990 in 105 total chances in center field. Bryce Harper, on the other hand, has a .968 fielding percentage in 31 total chances.
And now with the addition of Eury Perez, Bryce Harper's services are no longer needed in center field.
For the good of the ball club, it's time to make Harper a right fielder for good. The Nationals can finally put an end to the Bryce Harper experiment in center field.
The Washington Nationals have had a lot of upheaval in their roster this season due to injuries, and at no position has that been more evident than catcher.
Starting catcher Wilson Ramos blew out his knee on May 12 and is done for the season. Minor league catcher Sandy Leon made his major league debut the very next day in relief of Ramos, only to suffer a severe ankle sprain. He has not played since. Even stalwart Jesus Flores, who has become the de facto starter, gave the team a scare with a slight hamstring strain while running the bases on May 27.
Since then, the Nationals have used career minor leaguer Carlos Maldonado and 26-year-old rookie Jhonatan Solano as Flores' backup. But it's time to name Solano the backup once and for all. He is an excellent defensive catcher, and is a much better hitter than Maldonado. Plus, the Nationals need to see what they have in the youngster. No better way to do that than to play him on a regular basis.
Danny Espinosa is not the only option at second base. In fact, he may not even be the best option.
Espinosa is an outstanding fielder, and currently has a .984 fielding percentage in 248 total chances. But he has struggled at the plate. The switch-hitting Espinosa is currently batting .235 with six home runs and 18 RBI, but has 75 strikeouts, the worst in the National League.
Meanwhile, Steve Lombardozzi has exceeded his already high expectations as an everyday major league player, and has put himself in contention for the NL Rookie of the Year award. He is currently hitting .275 with eight doubles and 49 total bases, and a .693 OPS.
And despite Steve's ability to play wherever he is placed on the field, he is most valuable to the Nationals as a second baseman, his natural position. In limited duty at second base so far, Lombardozzi is errorless in 26 total chances.
Davey Johnson and the Nationals need to platoon these two youngsters to find out once and for all who is the best option at second base.
Last season, Tyler Clippard made the NL All-Star team as an eighth-inning stopper.
This season, the Nationals expected more of the same, until Drew Storen was injured in Spring Training and has not played a game in the regular season. Storen is not due back until July at the earliest.
The back end of the Nationals' potent bullpen has been unsettled ever since. Davey Johnson has used Brad Lidge, Henry Rodriguez and Sean Burnett as the closer with mixed results. Lidge is a true closer, but has been injured for the last month, and is due to return shortly.
Rodriguez may have the best stuff in the bullpen, but the experimentation of Rodriguez as a closer has rattled his nerves and shaken his confidence. He is also injured at the moment. Sean Burnett relishes the closer role, but is better used as a seventh- or eighth-inning setup man.
The man for the job is Tyler Clippard. He has once again been dominant this season, and has practically begged for the chance to be the closer, even publicly lobbying Davey Johnson. So far, he has been excellent, saving all nine of his 10 opportunities. This includes saves in all three games of a weekend series at Fenway Park.
The Nationals need to name Tyler Clippard their closer, at least until Drew Storen returns. This will settle their entire bullpen, and will strengthen their most valuable asset as their season turns from summer into fall.
The Nationals have what a lot of contending teams need: quality relief pitching.
One of the team's best relievers has been Tom Gorzelanny, a converted starter who has become a "long man." He eats valuable innings on the rare occasion a Nats' starter doesn't make it past the fifth inning. He has even pitched well enough to earn the late-inning assignments.
Gorzelanny becomes even more valuable because he is a southpaw. Left-handed relievers are rare, and can be used to effectively negate a lefty-loaded lineup. Other teams will come knocking at Mike Rizzo's door to inquire about the services of Tom Gorzelanny, but the Nationals must decline.
The Nationals need to hold onto Gorzelanny no matter what the cost.
With the return of Chien-Ming Wang to the starting rotation and the emergence of Tom Gorzelanny in the bullpen, Ross Detwiler has become expendable.
Detwiler's fortunes have fallen fast this season. The 26-year-old former first-round draft pick has gone from the surprise fifth starter out of spring training, to the odd man out in the rotation once Wang got healthy, to the weak link in a strong bullpen.
But all is not lost for Detwiler, or the Nationals. This left-hander would be valuable to a contender as either a reliever or an extra starter in the playoffs. And the Nationals could receive a player they need in return, such as a veteran catcher.
While the Washington Nationals will be buyers at the All-Star Game, the Philadelphia Phillies will most likely be sellers, as they are currently four games under .500 and in last place in the NL East. And one of their most coveted assets is Carlos Ruiz, set to be a free agent after this season.
Chooch is just what the Washington Nationals need to fully replace the offensive skills of Wilson Ramos. Ruiz is currently hitting .350, fourth in the National League. He's also a better defensive catcher than Ramos, as he has thrown out an astounding 40 percent of potential base stealers, again leading the National League.
But most importantly, Ruiz is a playoff veteran. He has gone to the playoffs each of the last five seasons, and went to the World Series in 2008 and 2009. His Phillies own the title in 2008, when he batted .375 for the World Series.
The presence of Ruiz will strengthen the lineup, calm a young pitching staff and reassure a dugout full of playoff novices. If the Washington Nationals want to make their playoff dreams a reality, they must acquire Philadelphia's Carlos Ruiz.