After a rough start to the 2011 season, the Washington Nationals—behind excellent pitching, of all things—are above .500 at 8-7 as they prepare to play the Cardinals in St. Louis and the Pirates in Pittsburgh.
With 15 games now in the books, I think we can begin to get a feel as to the quality of the players that are now on the roster and what options the Nationals may have should a change need to be made.
Adam LaRoche (.245-2-5)
There should be no concern about LaRoche’s slow start, as he’s come out of April with a .200 batting average pretty much every year since he first joined the Braves seven seasons ago. By the time the season comes to a close, LaRoche will have hit about .270 with 25 home runs and 90 RBI.
Consistency isn’t Adam LaRoche’s middle name, but it should be.
He has also already shown Nationals fans why defense matters. Adam Dunn’s offensive numbers may have looked gaudy, but they didn’t make up for all those balls that skipped down the right-field line because he wasn’t able to catch an errant throw.
LaRoche has already scooped at least 10 balls out of the dirt for outs that likely would have ended up down the right-field line last year.
The two first basemen the Nationals chased—and lost—before signing LaRoche, Derrek Lee (.212-1-2) and Carlos Pena (.211-0-4), have both struggled early, so it seems that LaRoche was the right choice for the Nationals after all.
Adam Dunn hasn’t had much success thus far with the White Sox. He missed a week with appendicitis, and in the nine games he’s played he’s hit just .182 with a couple of home runs.
Danny Espinosa (.256-2-14)
Espinosa has been providing the highest-quality defense at second since he took over as the team’s starting second baseman last September. During that brief tryout, he hit a lot of home runs and struck out a lot of times. But it was obvious that he was going to be special.
This year, he is on track to hit .256 with 26 home runs and drive in well over 100 runs. His strikeout rates are still a little high, but time and patience will take care of that. I doubt he will ever be a high-average hitter, but he will provide enough power and quality defense to anchor the infield for years to come.
Ian Desmond (.217-2-6)
I’m not too worried with Desmond’s poor offensive start. By season’s end he’ll have hit somewhere in the vicinity of .275-15-69 with 20 steals. As it is he’s on track to hit 22 homers and drive in 65 runs.
Defensively, he’s still a season or two away from getting his errors under 20, but the mental mistakes seem to have stopped. Once he stops dropping one-hop grounders hit right at him, he’ll have become a very special player.
Ryan Zimmerman (.357-1-4)
He’s missed several games because of his leg strain, but once he returns, he’ll continue to hit home runs and drive in runners. By the end of the year, he will have won his third Silver Slugger and second Gold Glove award.
He’s doing just fine, thank you.
Michael Morse (.205-0-4)
I am perplexed by Morse’s struggles this season. It’s not that he can’t hit major-league pitching. In 657 at-bats, Morse has a career .286/.349/.443 mark with 21 homers and 92 RBI. My guess is that he worked so hard to win that starting position that he’s placed too much stress on himself to keep it.
A couple of things could happen here. He could suddenly find his stroke and by September we’ll all giggle at his difficult April, or the team stays close enough to respectability that they either platoon Morse with Roger Bernadina or give Bernadina the job entirely.
It’s possible that Laynce Nix could take over the left-handed platoon as well.
Personally, I still think Morse will finish 2011 with 20 homers, 80 RBI and a .275 batting average. But he doesn’t have that much time before the wave of changes that occurs in May sweeps him away.
Do the Nationals miss Josh Willingham? I’m not so sure. He’s currently batting .214/.297/.411 with three homers and 10 RBI. He’s also struck out a league-leading 22 times.
Rick Ankiel (.211-1-4)
Ankiel isn’t giving the Nationals much offense early on, but really, based on his career .246/.311/.435 numbers, offense isn’t what the former pitcher brings to the table. He has played tremendous defense, and his rocket arm has kept many baserunners from taking an extra base.
The Nationals don’t really have many options if they feel they need to replace Ankiel in center. They could certainly use Bernadina there, but manager Jim Riggleman has said several times that Bernadina’s defense in center isn’t particularly great. Corey Brown, the heir apparent obtained in the Josh Willingham trade, is still bothered by a sprained ankle and is hitting just .161/.235/.226 at Triple-A Syracuse.
If Ankiel can keep his average around .245, provide occasional power and keep on playing quality defense, the Nationals can afford to keep him playing every day. But Michael Morse and Jayson Werth have to begin to hit if Ankiel is to remain in center.
Nyjer Morgan, who was traded to Milwaukee during spring training, is hitting .455/.500/.727 for the Brewers and seems to have regained his stroke. But Morgan was hitting .277 for the Pirates when he was traded to Washington two years ago but batted .351 for the Nationals until an injury ended his season in August.
Again, he joins a new team and looks like an All-Star.
It would seem that Morgan is a great player when focused and when he has something to prove. After a while, though, his mind wanders, and he starts throwing temper tantrums in the outfield and bowls over catchers at home plate.
Let’s see how he’s doing in September.
Jayson Werth (.200-2-2)
Over the last three years, Jayson Werth has averaged .280-32-91 and 20 steals. He didn’t just forget how to hit. By season’s end, he’ll have put together a quality offensive year.
That said, his offensive numbers are just part of what he brings to the Nationals. He is teaching his teammates how to win. He singlehandedly won Friday night’s game against Milwaukee by stealing third with one out and then scoring on a grounder to first because he was leading off almost halfway down the line.
No, I don’t think he’ll ever come close to the numbers he put up in Philadelphia, but that has more to do with the spaciousness of his new home park than anything else. But if he finishes 2011 at .290-24-90, the Nationals will have made a wise investment in Jayson Werth.
Wilson Ramos (.414-0-2)
In 29 at-bats, Ramos has a .500 on-base percentage and a .483 slugging mark. In time, Pudge Rodriguez’ playing time will diminish as Ramos becomes the team’s everyday catcher.
As he gains major-league experience, Ramos will become a solid offensive catcher with a tremendous glove. He will join Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa to provide the Nationals four infielders with possible All-Star futures, all under the age of 25.
This frigid offense will have to thaw out at some point. Each player who is having a difficult time has had success at the major-league level. When Michael Morse, Adam LaRoche and Jayson Werth start to hit, the Nationals will be a potent offensive team.
The question is when that will happen and whether the Nationals will give Ankiel and Morse enough time to find their stroke.
I think the answers to those questions will come quite soon.