May 15, 2014, 6:00 AM EST
The Nationals now have played 40 games, roughly one-quarter of their season. And what conclusions can be drawn about this 21-19 team at this juncture? Not a whole lot.
Some things have gone well. Some things have not. And some things really have not.
We’ll try to put it all into perspective by breaking down the events of the last 40 games into three categories: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly…
THE GOOD: Adam LaRoche, Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon
All three got off to strong starts at the plate and haven’t let up, which has proven invaluable given the onslaught of injuries that has befallen the Nationals’ lineup. LaRoche (now on the DL with a strained quad) entered the season a major question mark after a terrible 2013, but his .925 OPS is 72 points better than the number he posted two years ago while winning the Silver Slugger Award. Werth picked up right where he left off at the end of 2013 and is now hitting .310 with a .393 on-base percentage over his last 1,000 plate appearances. And Rendon has blossomed into an elite big-league hitter, a doubles machine who has delivered time and again in the clutch while proving adept at both second and third bases.
THE BAD: Ian Desmond and Denard Span
Desmond figured to be the last guy on the roster the Nationals needed to worry about entering the season, but he has struggled at the plate and in the field. Even with a recent uptick, he’s hitting just .226 with a paltry .275 on-base percentage. On top of all that, he leads the majors with 10 errors. Club officials remain confident he’ll turn it around, but the time has come for that to happen. Span, meanwhile, hasn’t been able to continue what he did during a strong finish to 2013. His .286 OBP is worst among all big-league leadoff men with at least 100 plate appearances. His importance to this lineup can’t be overstated, and his eventual improvement is critical for this team’s long-term success.
THE UGLY: Injuries
An astounding five members of the Opening Day lineup have spent time on the DL, with three currently incapacitated by injuries (Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, LaRoche). Wilson Ramos broke a bone in his hand on Opening Day. Span spent a week on the DL with a concussion. And don’t forget Doug Fister, whose season debut was delayed six weeks due to a lat strain suffered on the final day of spring training.
THE GOOD: The bullpen
This figured to be a strength, and it has proven to be just that. The Nationals’ bullpen sports a collective 2.28 ERA (third-best in the majors). Rafael Soriano didn’t give up a run in his first 13 appearances. Drew Storen’s 0.57 WHIP is second-best among all big-league relievers. Tyler Clippard, after a rough start to his season, hasn’t allowed an earned run in more than a month. Aaron Barrett has been an absolute revelation. Jerry Blevins has been exactly what the Nats needed him to be. Craig Stammen continues to do whatever the Nats need from him.
THE BAD: Defense
Matt Williams preached improved defense from the very beginning of his introductory news conference, and the rookie manager added a coach to his staff (Mark Weidemaier) whose sole purpose is to position the defense. Yet the Nationals have been charged with 36 errors in 40 games (most in the NL) and rank near the bottom in just about every measurement of defensive performance available. Some of the errors (ie. dropped popups) have been downright hideous, and plenty of other gaffes in the field haven’t technically been errors but have been just as ugly and damaging.
THE UGLY: Drew Storen and Ross Detwiler’s roles
Williams has two pretty potent weapons at his disposal in these former first-round draft picks, but the young manager hasn’t been able to figure how to use either reliever to maximize their performance. Storen, as stated earlier, boasts the second-best WHIP of any reliever in baseball and basically has been unhittable. Yet he has thrown the fewest innings (12 1/3) of anybody in the Nationals’ bullpen to date. That makes no sense. Even more confounding is Detwiler’s usage. Williams explained the club’s somewhat controversial decision to convert the left-hander into a full-time reliever by touting him as a potentially huge weapon late in games. But Detwiler has been treated like a glorified mop-up man, having appeared only twice with the Nationals leading a game (each time by at least five runs) while appearing five times with the Nats trailing by at least three runs.
THE GOOD: The bench (other than Nate McLouth)
One of the Nationals’ biggest problem areas in 2013 was overhauled during the offseason and has now become a key strength again. Kevin Frandsen, Danny Espinosa, Tyler Moore and Jose Lobaton have been forced to play more than expected due to injuries, and all have contributed in significant ways.
THE BAD: Nate McLouth
The lone exception to the improved bench, unfortunately, is their highest-priced reserve. The Nats signed McLouth to a two-year, $10.75 million contract in December believing he would be among the best fourth outfielders in baseball. Instead, the veteran finds himself hitting .117 with one RBI and only one stolen base. With Harper out at least another month-and-a-half, it’s imperative that McLouth produce at least at serviceable levels.
THE UGLY: Roster management
The Nationals have made some curious roster decisions already this season. Barrett was sent to Class AAA despite a brilliant first week of the season just so the club could add a fresh arm in Blake Treinen, who wasn’t really needed in the end. Fister’s rehab schedule wasn’t coordinated to allow the right-hander to make his debut on a day when the club needed him and instead was forced to recall Treinen to make one emergency start. And the Nats spent their entire, just-completed road trip carrying three catchers for no apparent reason. The explanation was that they wanted to free up Ramos to DH in Oakland and Lobaton to pinch-hit in Arizona. Neither wound up happening, leaving Sandy Leon on the active roster for the last week despite never once coming close to being needed.
THE GOOD: The 9th inning
There’s something about this team that makes it a nightmare for everyone else with the game on the line. The Nationals are outscoring opponents 19-3 in the ninth inning of games this season. That’s a tribute to their resiliency, their strong bench and really strong bullpen.
THE BAD: The 1st inning
On the other hand, this team has shown an inexplicable penchant for digging itself into early (sometimes insurmountable) holes. The Nationals are being outscored 39-18 in the first inning. They’ve given up three or more runs an astounding nine times in the opening frame.
THE UGLY: Inconsistency
Perhaps the best description of the 2014 Nationals through the first 25 percent of their season is that they haven’t seemed to find themselves yet. They win four in a row, then they lose three straight. They win 5 of 6, then they lose 6 of 8. They’ve had to deal with plenty already this year, much of it out of their control. And they’ve managed to keep their heads above water (barely). But at some point, this team is going to have to go on a sustained run. We said the same thing one year ago, and it didn’t happen until it was too late. The Nats can only hope it comes much sooner this time around.
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
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