Breaking Down the Washington Nationals' 4 Biggest Second-Half Storylines

Baily DeeterSenior Writer IIIJuly 17, 2012

Breaking Down the Washington Nationals' 4 Biggest Second-Half Storylines

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    The Washington Nationals have been and will be an interesting team to watch.

    After years of building up young talent and sending them into the farm system, Washington's young dream team has finally been assembled. Players like Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, Jordan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper were all drafted by Washington, and they are all making a splash.

    And it wasn't just the draft. Washington signed Jayson Werth in the 2010 offseason and traded for Gio Gonzalez in the 2011 offseason.

    Now, the Nationals lead the NL East by 2.5 games, and they're ready to fight to the finish in a tight NL East race that everyone will be talking about.

    Here are the Nationals' four biggest second-half storylines.

Can Ryan Zimmerman (Sort Of) and Danny Espinosa Bounce Back from Poor Starts?

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    Even though the Nationals have been great as a whole, Danny Espinosa and Ryan Zimmerman haven't.

    Both dominated in Washington's loss to Miami, but both have terrible stats this year. Even though Zimmerman has been great lately, he still has a .258 batting average. Zimmerman is seeing and hitting the ball better, and recently, he has been great in the middle of the lineup. 

    So, for Zimmerman, the question is actually if he can keep up his hot start, not bounce back from a poor start. He's already done that, so that's why I put the "sort of" in the title.

    As for Espinosa, he does need to bounce back.  

    Espinosa does have some power, as you can see from his seven home runs. However, he hasn't hit well with RISP (just 25 RBI) and his 99 strikeouts have killed the team. Espinosa has a .347 batting average on balls in play, so he just needs to hit the ball more.

    I think Zimmerman will continue his hot start and Espinosa will start to hit better as well. Expect both to at least do better than they did in the first half and contribute in the second half.

Can Bryce Harper Continue to Dominate?

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    At the age of 19, Bryce Harper wasn't expected to contribute much to the Nationals. But he has contributed.

    Harper is hitting .273 with eight homers and 25 RBI, and the teenage phenom hits second in the Nationals' batting order regularly. Harper has power, and he can hit any pitch. Even though he's already great, Harper will only get better.

    However, Harper has been on a bit of a slump. His batting average has dropped from .283 to .273 in just five games, and he hasn't knocked in a run in his last seven games. Harper hasn't been the same on-base threat he was earlier in the year, and, as a result, the Nats lost three of five games.

    I think Harper will bounce back and have a good second half, but nothing is a shoo-in. This will be one of the more interesting stories to watch in the second half.

Will Stephen Strasburg Be Shut Down or Skipped?

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    The first two storylines were interesting, but this is definitely the most interesting.

    Before the season, the Nats placed an innings limit on star pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who was recovering from Tommy John surgery. Strasburg, who is now at 105 innings, will probably pitch up to 160 innings.

    According to MLB.com, the team is already preparing for playing without him. Washington has interest in Cubs' ace Ryan Dempster, and they could go after him. Dempster is very consistent and would help the Nats' young rotation a lot.

    If the Nationals don't trade for Dempster, they could replace Strasburg with John Lannan. Just last year, Lannan could've made a case for being the Nationals' ace. Now, he is a struggling pitcher who has a 6-8 record and a 4.60 ERA in Triple-A.

    Pitching in the playoffs (if the Nats made the playoffs) would provide valuable experience to Strasburg, so it's also possible that the Nationals skipped a few of his starts in September to rest his arm for the playoffs.

    It seems like Washington will still shut down Strasburg, but nothing is guaranteed. This will be one of the most interesting stories to follow as the season goes on.

Can the Young, Inexperienced Nationals Contend in the National League?

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    Lack of experience has hurt a lot of teams on the big stage, and it could hurt the Nationals.

    Washington has a lot of young players who have never played in a postseason game. Nobody on their pitching staff has pitched in the playoffs (except for Edwin Jackson), and the team is fairly young. Bryce Harper would be going into his sophomore year in college if he wasn't playing in the MLB.

    The Nationals have a very well-rounded team. Their only weakness seems to be a catcher, where Jesus Flores has struggled and Jhonathan Solano could use some help. The team may pursue Rockies catcher Ramon Hernandez, who has lots of experience and could help the young Nats' catchers.

    I think the Nationals will contend for a championship. Even with Ryan Zimmerman and Danny Espinosa struggling, Michael Morse and Jayson Werth hurt and no proven catcher, the Nationals are in first place in a tough division. Expect the best pitching staff in baseball to dominate in the playoffs, and expect the Nationals to contend.