Amidst a wave of great expectations, the Washington Nationals are scuffling. Losers of four straight, including a sweep at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals, the National League East favorites are under .500 for the first time since 2011.
Before dismissing their issues to small-sample variance, there are legitimate reasons for the losses piling up in Washington right now.
Through 21 games, the Nationals have been outscored by 19 runs. That figure is the seventh worst in baseball right now. Only the Mariners, Astros, Phillies, Marlins, Blue Jays and Padres have been worse in that department. Of those, only Philadelphia and Toronto came into the season with expectations of success close to the level of Washington.
Furthermore, Washington's run differential looks even worse when removing its six contests against Miami, perhaps the worst offense baseball has seen in years.
Washington has outscored Miami 28-13 in its six head-to-head games this season. When removing their plus-15 run differential in those games, the Nationals have been outscored by 34 runs and posted a 5-10 record against the rest of baseball.
Amanda Comak @acomak
In which I attempt to answer the question so many #Nats fans have asked recently: Is it time to panic? http://t.co/kA8vlGdUyf4/25/2013, 2:02:42 PM
But it's not time to panic in the nation's capital.
The 2013 Nats may not reach the 100-plus win plateau some thought they could or even duplicate the 98-win mark of 2012. Of course, that doesn't mean they won't be a very, very good team this season.
When analyzing their team from 2012 and the offseason moves to enhance the club, crowing the Nationals wasn't wrong. In fact, they looked to be a juggernaut heading into the season. Through three weeks, the results simply haven't matched the talent.
Last year, the Nationals outscored their opponents by 137 runs and won the National League East by four games, despite a flurry of injuries, performance issues and holes on their roster throughout the season.
Mark Zuckerman @MarkZuckerman
#Nats are trying to block out all the lofty expectations and not get caught up in "World Series or bust" hype: http://t.co/dg2OoQz5jV3/31/2013, 9:02:20 PM
For as good as Stephen Strasburg was in 2012 (11.1 K/9, 2.81 xFIP), he only made 28 starts after being shut down before the stretch run.
Despite winning the NL Rookie of the Year award, Bryce Harper spent virtually all of April in the minor leagues.
While reinventing himself as a top-of-the-order hitter with a .387 on-base percentage, Jayson Werth only played in 81 games due to injury.
Projected starting catcher Wilson Ramos tore up his knee after only 25 games.
For as great as the starting pitching was, not one starter, including Cy Young candidate Gio Gonzalez, pitched 200 innings.
Franchise cornerstone Ryan Zimmerman, due to lingering injuries, posted an unthinkably bad .694 OPS in the first half of the season.
Of course, plenty did go right in Washington.
Strasburg stayed healthy, Gio Gonzalez thrived in the NL, the bullpen stabilized after a rough start and Adam LaRoche, after sitting through an offseason of "Prince Fielder to the Nats!" rumors, posted a career year. Ian Desmond, somehow still underrated, slugged .511 as a shortstop too. All of this still doesn't mention that the team held first place for 180 days during the season.
But there was room to grow and work to be done. As the Nationals went to work this winter, the NL East favorite and baseball's next great team seemed to come together, move by move.
The trade for Denard Span gave Washington a legitimate center fielder and leadoff hitter, allowing Bryce Harper to play left field.
Adding Rafael Soriano to the bullpen gave manager Davey Johnson a proven closer, allowing Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard a chance to pitch in potentially lower-leverage moments.
Replacing the enigmatic Edwin Jackson with a proven veteran, Dan Haren, would further solidify the great rotation.
Wilson Ramos, along with Kurt Suzuki, a 2012 trade acquisition, would provide plenty of offense behind the plate.
Zimmerman, after bouncing back to post-MVP quality numbers in the second half of 2012 (.945 OPS), had offseason shoulder surgery and was expected to come back even stronger.
James Wagner @ByJamesWagner
Hope for the Nats offense? Numbers nearly same as last season. And, historically, offenses heat up during season. http://t.co/Id5KuUvwyR4/25/2013, 2:36:24 PM
Of all the things to be excited about, none provided more upside than the projected full years of Strasburg in the rotation and Harper in the middle of the order.
The 10-11 record through 21 games is hardly a flop, but it does raise eyebrows around a team that was supposed to be even better in 2013 than it was in 2012.
While individual, small-sample-size variances make it difficult to critique individual players, there are some reasons to worry moving forward.
Adam LaRoche (.597 OPS) looks lost at the plate. Dan Haren (4.85 xFIP) looks more like the guy who struggled in 2012 than the consistent star that dominated baseball from 2005-2011. Zimmerman, owed $104 million through 2019, is facing "injury prone" concerns, along with a case of the yips at the hot corner.
It's early, and Washington has not picked up where it left off in 2012. But don't confuse a poor start with baseball fans and experts misreading the talent on the roster and the accomplishments from last season.
This team has the talent, leadership and pieces in place to win big right now.
Thus far, the results have not matched the expectations.
Will the Nationals live up to expectations?