What Does The Nationals’ April Tell Us?


Anyone who has followed baseball for a few years knows that evaluating players and teams requires patience and ruthless objectivity. When the Nationals lose games like they did Saturday night, when a storybook ending to Bryce Harper‘s debut looked certain with Henry Rodriguez having Dee Gordon down 0-2 and looking utterly helpless, one high fastball or change-up from a Houdini-like save with the ultimate Nats’ Houdini Chad Cordero watching, it is tempting to overreact and predict disaster coming.

Baseball doesn’t work that way. Every team has brutal losses that cause fans to bang their heads on tables and inventing new profanities to release their frustration. Remember last season, when the St. Louis Cardinals blew a huge 9th inning lead to the lowly New York Mets and looked all but dead? Then St. Louis skipper Tony LaRussa, acting even cooler than usual in the game’s aftermath said matter-of-factly, “Hey, our hearts are still beating. We’ve got another big game tomorrow and my club will be ready.”

Indeed. Eventually the Cardinals slipped into the playoffs and are now defending World Champions. For their part, the Nationals’ 14-8 record for April is, even with a 4-game losing skid, good enough for a share of first place with the streaking Atlanta Braves and the best start for the franchise in 10 years (the 2002 Expos ran off a 6-game win streak to match the Nats’ 2012 record).

While the Washington Nationals have a long, long way to go to even contemplate a similar run, manager Davey Johnson reacted in Larussa-like fashion after last night’s disaster. He calmly sipped coffee, feet propped on his desk in the Nationals’ clubhouse, and said to reporters seeking quote for their game stories, “That was a heck of a game last night, wasn’t it?”

Cool as a cucumber.

So, after a month of baseball, 22 games, barely a blip on the 162-game slog from Spring, through the dog days of Summer, and into Fall, what have we learned about the Washington Nationals?

Honestly, not much. If the season were a novel, we’re barely past the first chapter, but we do have a few character sketches and some possible plot themes to explore.

First, the starting pitching is fabulous. They are the first rotation since 1900 to pitch 34 scoreless innings, meaning they’ve already made positive history. Take away one bad inning from #4 starter Edwin Jackson and this staff would make folks think we’ve traveled back in time to the Deadball Era. Ross Detwiler‘s dominance has been a pleasant surprise to the team and the “Big 3” are pitching even better than expected.

The staff’s current history — making goodness is statistically unsustainable, especially with stronger competition — 2011 division champions Arizona and Philadelphia coming to D.C. next week. However, they are good – real good. All will have bad games, but, with this staff and Chien-Ming Wang coming back in late May, the Nationals will be competitive or better in almost every game.

The bullpen has depth and power, but suffers from injured closer Drew Storen‘s absence. The replacements for Storen are either on the downslope of their careers (Brad Lidge, out indefinitely with an abdominal wall strain) or learning on the job, sometimes with painful results (MPH-Rod and the wild, wild pitches).

While Lidge and Rodriguez have permitted Johnson to keep the rest of the pen in their normal, comfortable roles, persistent 9th inning failures may alter that plan. Sean Burnett did an adequate job in the closer’s role early last season and Johnson may have to return him to that role, perhaps in batter-by-batter match-ups or alternating with H-Rod as Lidge did before his injury.

Otherwise, the bullpen is excellent, but prone to some problems. The league is on to Tyler Clippard, so he will need to adjust to continue his effectiveness. Tom Gorzelanny and Craig Stammen can be dominant one day, useless the next. The two Ryan’s – Mattheus and Perry are power arms, but inexperienced and unproven under duress. With Lidge and Storen out, the depth from the minors is exhausted save for lefty Atahualpa Severino, who will be needed if another reliever goes down. Kudos to Mike Rizzo for building a staff deep enough to withstand injuries to three key arms — add Wang to the two closers — and more.

Now, to the bad news. Even in perfect health, the Nationals’ offense projected to be below league average and the team’s key weakness. While every starter has the potential to hit double-digit home runs, as a unit they strike out at an alarming rate and fail to get on base often enough to sustain rallies. So far, their situational hitting, especially with runners in scoring position, is abysmal, but sample sizes remain too small to judge. Heck, they still have 140 more games!

With Morse and Zimmerman healthy, the team will score more runs, but both swing and miss a lot. The wildcard is Bryce Harper, who debuted Saturday night, replacing the now injured Ryan Zimmerman. If Harper excels in getting on base and hitting for power, the Nats’ offense could reach league average levels.

The most glaring weakness the team has at-bat is the lack of a decent #2 hitter and the presence of a worse than replacement level leadoff hitter in shortstop Ian Desmond. Utterly incapable of patience, Desmond may well be the worst #1 hitter on a team with playoff aspirations since Pittsburgh had Omar “The Out-Maker” leading off in the 1970s. Of course, things worked out ok for the Bucs in 1979.

Right now, though, Desmond’s inability to get on base hamstrings the offense from the first pitch of the game, which he usually hacks at. The two best offenses in the NL so far are Atlanta and St. Louis. It is not a coincidence that the clubs boast high on-base percentage lead-off hitters in Michael Bourn for the Braves and Rafael Furcal for the Cardinals. Ironically, both were acquired in July deadline deals last season. To compete, Rizzo will need to find a new table setter from within the organization or make a deal. A trade will, no doubt, force the Nats’ GM to part with some of his precious pitching.

But it remains far too early in the season for such measures. The other factor hampering the Nationals right now is injuries. The team has six key players on the disabled list — Wang, Storen, Lidge, Michael Morse, Zimmerman, and Mark DeRosa. This sextet makes up a quarter of the 25-man roster. No team can withstand a quarter of its key players missing. Just ask the Phillies, waiting for Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Cliff Lee to get healthy.

No, it’s still early in the 2012 season. The story the Nationals are writing – already exhilarating and infuriating – has only begun. Have patience. Judge slowly. Enjoy the ride. Repeat as many times as necessary to retain sanity.