MLB Handicapping: Washington Nationals Struggles
by Trevor Whenham - 5/24/2013
Don’t the Nationals realize that they are supposed to be an elite team? Don’t they know that I picked them to win the World Series? They sure haven’t played like they do. Despite coming into the season with massive expectations befitting the preseason favorites to win the National League, they currently sit just one game above .500 at 24-23. They sit 4.5 games behind the Braves in the division and five games behind the Pirates and Reds in the wild-card hunt.
Things could certainly be worse — just ask the people who made futures bets on the Blue Jays, Angels or Dodgers this year. Still, this is far from how things were supposed to turn out. So, are we on the path for a lost season for the team that wound up with the best record in baseball last year? Or this just a team trying to find its inevitable stride before making a late charge? Let’s take a look
If Strasburg was just a random young pitcher with a great fastball and a history of injuries, then his season would be solid. His 2-5 record isn’t very good, but run support factors into that in a big way this year. He has a 2.66 ERA, a 1.12 WHIP, and opponents hit just .218 against him. He also has the best average velocity of any starter in the league.
The problem, of course, is that Strasburg isn’t just a random guy — he’s supposed to be the Next Big Thing. By that measure he isn’t cutting it. He’s not even the ace of his own staff, he hasn’t taken a step forward from last year at all, and he looks like he is fighting himself too often.
It’s far from fatal, and I remain confident that he will get on track and meet his massive potential at some point. It just clearly isn’t that point yet. His anticipated breakout was a big reason for the public love affair with this team, so his relative struggles have had a big impact — both on the scoresheet and surely on the psychological makeup of the team as well.
The rest of the rotation
Jordan Zimmermann. Wow. He’s 7-2, and should be 9-0 because he has allowed just two runs in his losses, but his team can’t score. His ERA of 1.62 and WHIP of 0.87 are spectacular. He has truly exceeded expectations. Unfortunately, beyond him and Strasburg the rotation has not been good.
Gio Gonzalez has proven that what seemed likely — last year was an overachieving mirage — seems to be true. Dan Haren has been a disaster. Ross Detwiler deserves to be a major leaguer but not one that will excite anyone who watched him.
The depth of the rotation was a question heading into the season, but there were reasons to be optimistic if everything worked out as it could. It really hasn’t.
Harper has been the bright spot for this team. He leads in all the offensive categories that matter and is showing just how good he can be with time.
There are plenty of problems, though.
The guy is barely old enough to shave, so it’s not a wonder that he is struggling with consistency at times and doesn’t always make the best play. He is also dealing with some injury issues, and an epic collision with the wall hasn’t helped his body or mind.
He’s been solid. He’s special. But he can’t do it alone, and he can’t handle all of the offensive pressure the team has piled on his shoulders.
The rest of the bats
Yuck. Just yuck. They are at or near the bottom of the league in every stat that matters offensively, and that’s even with good numbers from Harper. Ryan Zimmerman has been mediocre, but no one else is carrying their load. They are just terrible at the plate, and they are hanging their pitchers out to dry.
Just not good enough.
Span isn’t as good as he should be. LaRoche, Espinosa and Werth have been lousy. The bench is like a horror movie. Until we start to see signs of life from these bats, there is just no way you can consistently trust this team.
It’s just one small story, but it speaks volumes about this team right now. Earlier this week closer Rafael Soriano called out Harper in the press, saying that he was positioned incorrectly in the outfield, and that he could have avoided a game-tying triple if he had been where he was supposed to be. It was a petty statement, and it had no business being made anywhere other than in the clubhouse. Soriano fell back on the lamest excuse in sports — he claimed that he thought the discussion with the media member was off the record. It just shows, though, that this team is not in a good, cohesive place right now — not when a closer is calling out the young star publicly.
Last year part of what made this team work so well was their infectious enthusiasm. They need to find that again in a hurry.
Last year Washington was the most profitable team in the National League to bet on and trailed just Oakland and Baltimore — two incredibly unlikely success stories — in the league overall. This year you would have lost money by betting on them in every game, but not as much as you might guess — they sit 18th in the league.
What’s striking about that is how quickly the public was able to adjust and accept that the team wasn’t as good as expected. If it was a team that the public was blindly loyal to then the prices would have stayed higher, and the struggles would have been far more costly. What that means in turn is that if the team starts to show signs of life there could be some very nice value until the public catches onto the improvement and accepts that it could be sustainable.
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