Tonight, the Nationals begin the second half of their season. The first half was marked with ups and downs, and more downs, and plenty more ups. Ultimately, the team stands at 46-46 as they get set to take on Tim Hudson and the Braves at 7:35.
The Nationals have had their fair share of surprises, both good and bad. The biggest pleasant surprises are highlighted but a highly consistent starting rotation, as well as the emergence of 1B Michael Morse and rookie 2B Danny Espinosa.
The biggest letdowns are highlighted by the team's lack of consistent run production and the struggles of offseason acquisition Jayson Werth.
I recently wrote about what the Nats could do on the trade market to make the playoffs, and now I'll focus on who needs to step up in-house for them to shock the baseball world and earn their first postseason berth in the Nation's Capital.
Jayson Werth is hitting just .162 against left-handed pitching in 2011
Any good baseball fan knew that Jayson Werth's contract was initially a bad one. No one could have realistically predicted that Jayson would do as poorly as he has done this season and that he would be doing so little to "earn" it.
Werth is hitting .215 with 10 HRs and 31 RBI in 88 of the club's first 92 games. Werth has hit everwhere from first to seventh in the Nationals order. If the Nationals are going to the postseason, they need Jayson to improve upon his .213 BA with RISP and his awful .167 BA with the bases loaded.
Werth has begun to stare at perfectly good pitches and hasn't been seeing the ball well at all. He needs to have a controlled aggression at the plate and be willing to swing at the first pitch if it is a good one. It seems to me that the "scouting report" on him is to throw him strikes at the knees, because he rarely swing at a first-pitch strike or a low strike, and to this point that has held true.
When Jayson is right, he is a prime five-hole hitter, and that is exactly where the Nationals need him. He has cost the Nationals a plethora of run scoring opportunities and potential wins for the National League's sixth best pitching staff.
Key No. 1 to the Nationals postseason berth is Jayson Werth becoming the run producer the Nationals paid for.
Say what you want, but Ryan Zimmerman IS the face of the Nationals.
He has won a Gold Glove and two Silver Sluggers and is arguably the best defensive third baseman in either league. That being said, Zimmerman has missed most of the season with an abdominal injury, and it's been a month since Ryan has returned from the DL, and he still hasn't had a hot stretch of hitting yet.
Zimmerman is hitting .254 with four HRs and 15 RBI and needs to return to being the Nationals biggest run producer and clutch hitter.
I believe it is only a matter of time before Zimmerman is back in top form, but his performance in the second half of the season is without a doubt a huge key to his team's success.
Key No. 2 is Ryan Zimmerman being vintage Ryan Zimmerman.
Ian Desmond has struggled at the plate, much like his teammate Jayson Werth. He is hitting a dismal .223 but coming into the break had started to show signs of life hitting, going four for his last nine with a triple and two runs scored.
It is worth noting that Desmond's defense has improved a lot since his rookie campaign. He has committed 12 errors this year, which is still high, but compared to his 34 (league leading) all of last year, Desy's defense has improved dramatically.
Desmond hit .269 in his rookie campaign and drove in 65 runs. He now sits at just 22 RBI. Desmond needs to up his game dramatically at the bottom of the Nationals order.
Key No. 3 is the awakening of Ian Desmond's bat.
As great as the Nationals pitching staff has been collectively, it is not without its holes. Sean Burnett might be the biggest one in their bullpen.
Despite having a great campaign in both 2009 and 2010 for the Pirates and Nationals, Sean Burnett has struggled mightily. With RISP, Burnett's BA against is a whooping .382. Sean has been OK against lefties with a .226 opponents BA but has allowed eight runs against lefties in just 15 innings of work, and that doesn't include inherited runners.
Righties have really hurt Sean as well, as they hit .309 against him and hit him for 11 runs in 16 and two-thirds innings.
Sean Burnett has to recapture his previous magic where he has held opponents to .220, and .181 collectively and once again become a reliable late-inning LH reliever.
Key No. 4 is the return of the old Sean Burnett.
Jordan Zimmerman has been nothing short of stellar going 6-7 with a 2.66 era in 115 innings in his first full season since Tommy John surgery
Jordan Zimmermann has been the Nationals best starting pitcher this year and should be a fixture in the team's rotation for some time to come. The problem is that Zimmermann is on an innings count following his Tommy John surgery in 2009.
Jordan's innings count is reportedly around 150-160 innings, which Jordan is 35-50 innings away from or about seven starts away from. That would put Jordan out sometime around late August to early September (just an estimation), meaning the Nationals need to have a starter that can replace his workload and not miss a beat.
This key is the hardest one for the Nationals to fill, but it is an important one.
In terms of prospects, the Nationals have two young arms at their AAA affiliate that could potentially fill that void.
LHP Tom Milone was the team's Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2010 and was named to the AAA All-Star Game. At AAA Syracuse this year he holds a mark of 7-5 over 103 innings (16 starts), holding opponents to a .233 BA and striking out 107, while walking just seven.
The second candidate is RHP Brad Peacock, who recently played in the Futures Game with Bryce Harper. Peacock was promoted to AAA Syracuse following that game. At AA Harrisburg he simply dominated going 10-2 with a 2.01 era over 98 and two-thirds innings, striking out a Minor League leading 129 batters and holding his opponents to a jaw-dropping .179 BA.
The most likely replacement will be that of Ross Detwiler given that neither of the two prospects mentioned resides on the team's 40-man roster.
Detwiler has had his ups and downs since being drafted in the first round in '07, but he has shown promise at times and has been solid in seven and two-thirds innings since being called up this year.
Key No. 5 is Jordan Zimmerman's replacement.