5 Biggest Takeaways for the Washington Nationals Following MLB Opening Week
At the start of spring training, Bryce Harper threw down the gauntlet for the Washington Nationals when he jokingly asked reporters (h/t Nats Insider), "Where's my ring?" Now, one week into the season, the Nats have a 2-4 record and a multitude of questions to answer before they can get to Harper's.
Washington's loaded roster notwithstanding, some of these early growing pains were anticipated. Injuries decimated the Nationals in spring training, and they've suffered for it both offensively and defensively.
We're just six games deep in a 162-game season, so kindly stow your panic buttons for now. But it's understandable to file Washington's first week under worst-case scenario.
The start of the season hasn't been completely void of encouragement. Ryan Zimmerman is playing like he's been a first baseman his whole life, and Max Scherzer has logged a couple $200 million starts in his first season with Washington.
If you're already pulling your hair out over the results of opening week, you're in for a long, bald season, pal. But sometimes you can extrapolate trends from the early stages of the season, and that's why we make lists like this one.
The following are several observations from Washington's first two series, ranked based on their relative unexpectedness and the impact they could have on the team in the days and weeks to come.
Dan Uggla has displaced Danny Espinosa in the lineup
This situation was completely reversed back in January. Danny Espinosa was Washington's prohibitive starting second baseman, and Dan Uggla wasn't sure if he'd ever play a major league game again.
Now, after the acquisition of Yunel Escobar and a maelstrom of injuries shuffling the deck, Uggla has started at second base in five of the Nationals' six games. Espinosa, suddenly a man without a role, has earned just one start.
But once Anthony Rendon returns to the lineup, both men should be able to enjoy each other's company in the dugout.
It's April, so Ian Desmond is a defensive liability again
Ian Desmond has an uncanny ability to forget how to play defense for one month at the beginning of each season. The tradition continues in 2015 with the Nats' shortstop leading MLB in errors with four in the first week of play.
"He has committed 122 errors in his career, 30 of them in April," The Washington Post's Chelsea Janes wrote. "He has committed seven or more errors in three of the past four Aprils, and is well on his way to a fourth in five this season."
5. Bryce Harper's Breakout 2015 Is Progressing as Scheduled
Bryce Harper will spend his fourth major league season in a pressure cooker while the public scrutinizes his numbers and decides whether or not to label him a bust. And through six games, he's been able to meet the high standards that come with being named Bryce Harper.
He finished Washington's season-opening series against the Mets batting .364 with four hits and a home run. Since then, he's come back to earth with a .261 average through six games, but he did tack on another homer Sunday in Philadelphia.
One thing that won't show up in the box score is how comfortable Harper looks in right field. One week into his first season manning that corner, he's put the fear of god in some baserunners with his high level of awareness and the cannon hanging off his right shoulder.
Harper's fast start would be higher on the list if he maintained the absurd numbers he stuck on the Mets, but he's simply doing what's expected of him for now, however lofty those expectations are.
4. The Bullpen Is Completely Unpredictable
Washington has sent a reliever into the game with an opportunity to register a save five times this season. But the Nationals only have two saves in their six games played, and both of them belong to Drew Storen.
As severe as the problem is, this storyline should surprise exactly no one. Almost verbatim, it recites the concerns that emerged as soon as Tyler Clippard was shipped off to Oakland: The loaded rotation will deliver a low score to about the seventh inning, then the bullpen may or may not throw it all away.
Now the Nationals are stuck waiting for Casey Janssen's shoulder to heal up so he might add some consistency to the late innings of games.
The erratic nature of the bullpen is no more surprising than Harper's production to date. The reason this item is higher on the list is the impact it can have on games going forward.
"For the second straight night, a Nationals starter handed the bullpen a late-inning lead. For the second straight night, it could not preserve it," The Washington Post's Chelsea Janes wrote after Saturday's loss to the Phillies.
The Nationals almost followed the same script Sunday, when Xavier Cedeno gave up a game-trying homer in the seventh. Unlike the previous two games, Washington managed to grind out a win in extras.
The bullpen has collapsed before, and the bullpen will continue to collapse as the season progresses.
3. Max Scherzer Is as Dominant as Advertised
With all the money Max Scherzer is making, he's not really allowed to be anything less than fantastic.
That level of expectation is tough to live up to, but somehow Scherzer has managed to do it without earning a win in either of his two starts. The righty's .066 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 13.2 innings of work have earned him a 0-1 record.
You didn't have to be Nostradamus to predict Scherzer would excel with the Nationals. He has a Cy Young Award on his resume and he's coming off an 18-win season with Detroit. But for folks in Washington who haven't been invested in watching him pitch before, his stuff is mesmerizing.
The win/loss stat is probably the most overrated way to measure a pitcher. But if you're into that sort of thing, Scherzer is bound to start racking up wins at his usual clip as the season progresses. And every fifth game, Washington can count on him to at least put it in a position to win.
2. Ryan Zimmerman Has Gold Glove Skills at First Base
If there's such a thing as a baseball mixtape, Ryan Zimmerman almost has enough material to make one a week into the season.
Blake Treinen was the beneficiary on the mound of one of Zimmerman's diving stops in Game 2 against the Mets, and the reliever offered some positive reviews for his first baseman after the game.
"Phenomenal," Treinen said, via The Washington Post's James Wagner. "[Zimmerman's] play hasn't changed. He's making highlight-reel plays and just doing an unbelievable job."
Zimmerman held down first base throughout spring training without raising any red flags, but no one could have predicted what kind of circus act he would put on come opening week.
Those unexpected gems are what earned Zimmerman's play the No. 2 spot on this ranking, supplemented by the massive benefit Washington gains from knowing it has such a reliable first baseman as the team's identity starts to take shape in the coming weeks.
1. Injuries Have Crippled the Offense More Than Expected
Washington needs its top three hitters back and it needs them right now.
Denard Span, Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth were penciled in as the first three batters in the Nationals' lineup, but instead the trio headed to the disabled list before camp broke.
With a patchwork lineup that includes several players who were a shoo-in for minor league assignment, the Nats would probably have better luck herding cats for nine innings than trying to put runs on the board. As of the end of the early games Sunday, Washington is 26th in runs scored and 28th in team batting average.
That's the bad news.
As for the good news, the Nationals can see the light at the end of the tunnel for all of these injuries. According to manager Matt Williams via The Washington Post's Chelsea Janes, Rendon is close to starting a hitting program, Span will begin a rehab assignment in the coming days and Werth could return to the lineup as soon as Monday.
The reason this situation offers the most to take away from opening week is the utterly destructive effect it's had on the results of games.
Sure, one plus one equals two, and Washington's lineup minus three of its stars equals less scoring. But 13 runs in six games is essentially half the rate at which the Nationals scored last regular season, when they averaged more than four runs per contest.
In a league where scoring is down as a whole, the Nationals are bringing up the rear while they wait impatiently for their starters to recover.
*All stats courtesy of MLB.com
Danny Garrison is a Washington Nationals Featured Columnist on Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @DannyLGarrison, where you can reprimand him for jinxing your team and hold him accountable for any wrong predictions.