The National League East has been a bloodbath so far this season, with surprises left and right from the still-competative Mets to the currently-in-last Phillies, but no one has caught the attention of Major League Baseball like the Washington Nationals. We’ve previously discussed how the Nationals are having success, by relying on a hard-throwing, talented, strikeout-oriented pitching staff, which has propelled them to a 22-14 record. The Nationals have allowed the fewest runs in baseball, a testament to the talent of guys like Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Gio Gonzalez. But their are some rather large underlying issues in play here, particularly the startling lack of offense because of a rash of injuries that has wiped out nearly every productive bat.
The Nationals’ offense, which had been ranking around the middle of the league for a good part of the young season, has fallen of the wagon, ranking 27th in scoring. Injuries have robbed Washington of some of its best and most powerful hitters. The issues at catcher are among the most pressing of any team in the league. Wilson Ramos, the Nationals talented young catcher, is out for the season after he tore his ACL. His backup, Sandy Leone, also was hurt a couple of nights ago and had to be put on the DL. The Nats are now stuck with Carlos Maldonado, a 33-year-old career minor leaguer, who has hit .185 in 60 plate appearances spanning the 2010, 2007, and 2006 season, or Jesus Flores. Flores is a 27-year-old career .251 hitter who has received some backup innings for the Nationals over the past few seasons, and he will now get the lions share of the playing time. This platoon of the two could probably suffice as a stopgap, but as a long-term solution they would probably be combine to be the worst catcher in the league, and a complete black hole on offense. No team is without a blemish, but this is a rather unsightly one.
In the outfield the problems are nearly as catastrophic. Michael Morse, a powerful 30-homerun hitter a year ago, has yet to play a game, and probably won’t be back until mid-June. Jayson Werth broke his wrist in brutal fashion and won’t see action for a couple of months. That leaves the Nationals with a starting outfield of Rick Ankiel, Roger Bernadina, and Bryce Harper, with Xavier Nady as the 4th outfielder. All three of the starters are about league average as players, with each having an OPS+ between 90-101. The bigger issue is that none of the outfielders are hitting above .260, and none are getting on-base at an acceptable rate either because they all have OBPs below the league average of .318. Harper has shown some good pop and excellent base running skills, but he is very unrefined, has little command of the strike zone, and struggles to get on-base. All of this is expected from a 19-year-old. Defensively they are mediocre at chasing fly balls down, but Ankiel and Harper each have plus arms, which helps prevent base runners from taking bases at will. The sooner Morse gets back, the better, because the Nationals outfield will be making a lot of outs over the next month.
In the infield, star 3rd base man Ryan Zimmerman has also dealt with some injury problems, costing him 12 games already, and hurting his performance. The normally potent Zimmerman is only hitting .230/.346/.332 with only 1 homer in 100 plate appearances. If he can get back to his normal .287 with 20+ homers, while playing Gold Glove defense it would go along way to curing some of the Nationals’ ills. If they can get 2nd baseman Danny Espinosa (only hitting .211) going as well, the Nationals could probably scratch out enough runs with their pitching staff to remain in the playoff chase. If Zimmerman can’t turn it on and the hot hitting combo of Ian Desmond and Adam LaRoche cool off, the Nationals are in trouble. Their depth has been tested over the past week and it will continue to be tested over the next month. How the Nationals’ backups respond will go a long way to determining the fate of season for this franchise.