Harper had a 1.012 OPS with 10 homers and 21 runs batted in before being slowed by a knee injury.
While no one was taking the Braves lightly after their additions of the Upton brothers this offseason, or the Reds and Cardinals in the NL Central or the World Series champion Giants in the NL West, there was no mistaking who the National League favorites were.
That would be the Washington Nationals.
Sports Illustrated chose the Nats as World Series champs.
Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports did the same.
My World Series pick is Nationals over Blue Jays ... one generation removed from Expos over Blue Jays ... which would have been awesome.— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) March 28, 2013
Even a computer simulation called "Prediction Machine" got in on the act, although they had the Angels beating the Nats.
Shaikin (@BillShaikin) March 12, 2013
So how is it that more than two months of the season, the Nats are 29-30 and 7.5 games back in the division? Not only are they chasing the first-place Braves, they're also behind the Phillies, who many thought could blow up their team with a fire sale in the near future because they just weren't very good anymore.
What Has Gone Wrong?
The rotation (3.41 ERA), not surprisingly, has been very good aside from Dan Haren (5.45 ERA in 12 starts). The offense, though, is second to last in the majors in runs scored, just in front of the lowly Marlins. They're also 28th in OPS ahead of the Marlins and White Sox. The bullpen is also in the bottom third of the league in ERA.
Injuries to Bryce Harper, Wilson Ramos, Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth haven't helped, and they probably stuck with Danny Espinosa (pictured) too long as he was battling through multiple injuries before being placed on the disabled list.
The bench, which was so strong in 2012, hasn't been up to the challenge this season. Here's a long list of underachievers.
- Roger Bernadina: .499 OPS in 91 at-bats
- Danny Espinosa: .465 OPS in 158 at-bats
- Stephen Lombardozzi: .528 OPS in 128 at-bats
- Tyler Moore: .464 OPS in 94 at-bats
- Denard Span: .678 OPS in 225 at-bats
- Kurt Suzuki: .639 OPS in 139 at-bats
- Chad Tracy: .390 OPS in 55 at-bats
- Jayson Werth: .675 OPS in 108 at-bats
And how about that bullpen? The addition of free-agent closer Rafael Soriano was supposed to make an already strong group even better. Drew Storen to Tyler Clippard to Soriano was money in the bank in the late innings. But without another reliable reliever aside from Craig Stammen, the Nats have struggled getting the lead to the big three on the rare occasion the offense can give the team a lead.
Zach Duke: 8.71 ERA in 20.2 IP; designated for assignment
Ryan Mattheus: 4.96 ERA in 16.1 IP
Henry Rodriguez: 4.00 ERA, 16 BB, 11 K in 18 IP; designated for assignment
Drew Storen: 4.18 ERA, 3 blown saves
Although the Nats had arguably one of the best rotations in baseball coming into the season, they had very little depth in the minors in case injuries occurred.
Injuries have occurred.
With Ross Detwiler (2.76 ERA in eight starts) out since mid-May with a strained oblique, Washington turned to Zach Duke for one disastrous start (3.1 IP, 4 ER, 7 H) and rookie Nate Karns, who with all of nine starts of Double-A experience under his belt has made two MLB starts (9 IP, 6 ER, 12 H).
It gets worse. Staff ace Stephen Strasburg (pictured) is also on the disabled list with an oblique injury. And while back-to-back rainouts on Thursday and Friday will allow the Nats to adjust their rotation so they don't have to call anyone up before Detwiler can return, it should be noted that journeyman Ross Ohlendorf, who had a 7.77 ERA in the minors in 2012, was the leading candidate for a call-up. Update: The Nats will call up a starter on Wednesday. It will likely be Ohlendorf.
Can They Turn Things Around?
Fortunately, Detwiler and Strasburg are expected back in the rotation later this month, and changes in the middle of the bullpen have been positive thus far with lefties Fernando Abad (6.2 IP, 0 R, 2 H, BB, 6 K) and Ian Krol (IP, 0 R, H, 0 BB, 3 K) both looking strong since their call-ups.
The 'pen could also get a boost from the return of Christian Garcia (pictured), who is on a rehab assignment and could also return to the majors later this month from a forearm injury. The 27-year-old had a breakout season in 2012, posting an 0.86 ERA, 2.9 BB/9 and 11.4 K/9 between Triple-A and Double-A and a 2.13 ERA in 12.1 big league innings with two walks and 15 strikeouts.
Health is the key on offense, as well. They'll have a tough time getting on a roll while Harper's out with a knee injury. The 20-year-old will seek a second opinion on Monday for his ailing knee, which he injured a few weeks back. Prior to that play, Harper was on an MVP-like pace with a 1.012 OPS, 10 homers and 21 runs batted in.
Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond aren't having outstanding seasons, but they're the only two regulars who haven't disappointed at the plate in 2013.
If Werth can get it going—he's 1-for-8 with four strikeouts since returning from the disabled list—and the addition of top prospect Anthony Rendon (.319 BA, 6 HR, 24 RBI, 11 2B, 2 3B, 30 BB, 25 K in 33 Double-A games) to the lineup as the regular second baseman can help spark the team, it won't be hard for the Nats to hang around in the playoff race until they're at full strength again.
As you've probably heard before, baseball is a marathon and not a sprint. The eventual 2012 AL Champion Detroit Tigers were 30-34 on June 15 of last season. The case wasn't as extreme for the World Series champion San Francisco Giants, but they were under .500 at 18-19 on May 16.
Just because the Nats haven't played up to their potential and have suffered several injuries doesn't mean they aren't the team everyone was predicting them to be. Sometimes it takes a bit longer to come together, especially with so many injuries early in the season.
With that said, I will give this team about a one percent chance of making the playoffs if Harper and Strasburg miss more time than expected and the Nats are forced to play without them for more than another month or two. Barring any other setbacks, their roster could look like this by the beginning of next month:
1 Denard Span, CF
2 Jayson Werth, RF
3 Bryce Harper, LF
4 Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
5 Adam LaRoche, 1B
6 Ian Desmond, SS
7 Anthony Rendon, 2B
8 Wilson Ramos/Kurt Suzuki, C
1 Stephen Strasburg
2 Gio Gonzalez
3 Jordan Zimmermann
4 Dan Haren
5 Ross Detwiler
CL Rafael Soriano
SU Tyler Clippard
SU Drew Storen
MID Christian Garcia
MID Fernando Abad
MID Ryan Mattheus
LR Craig Stammen
This is not a 29-30 team. They're still a strong World Series contender, in my opinion. We did not crown them the "The Team of the Future" too soon. Watch out, National League.