I admit: I got caught with some bad timing on this one. When the Washington Nationals fell to the Philadelphia Phillies on Monday, despite tagging Roy Halladay for three home runs, I figured they would also play poorly enough to end the series in the same bad mood they entered it. Instead, the Nationals pounded Cliff Lee, then got a series win with a classic 2-1 victory on Wednesday. So now, when I write this optimistic article about the team, it will look, well, opportunistic.
So you'll just have to take my word for it that this was something I was thinking about as far back as two days ago. Or don't. Either way, here we are.
Anyway, as we jump past the Memorial Day marker of the MLB season, I think we need a reality check on the struggles of the Washington Nationals. Granted, the Nationals' series win over the Phillies came at a time when pretty much nothing was going right. The Nationals had lost 10 of 12 games coming into the game on Tuesday, and tempers were flaring. Jayson Werth, the $126 million man who had an abysmal April, had already spouted off about the need for things to change. Jim Riggleman, managing without a long-term contract, had already moved squarely onto the hot seat and was picking battles against anyone who felt he was a "small-ball" manager. Mike Rizzo, meanwhile, was away scouting the draft and giving ridiculous interviews where he thought the team was much better than it actually is.
The Nationals had essentially faded back into being one of the worst teams in baseball, and nobody liked it. And yet, as all this angst was happening, people were forgetting one key thing: the players that really matter for this team this season were actually playing pretty well.
Back when this season started, I wrote about how the success of the 2011 Nationals had nothing to do with wins and losses and had everything to do with the development of key youngsters. Ultimately, this year was all about guys like Danny Espinosa, Ian Desmond, Drew Storen, Wilson Ramos, Jordan Zimmermann and (though he's not young) Michael Morse. Everyone else on the team was essentially either window dressing or a given. We know Werth is going to be here for a while. We know Ryan Zimmerman is awesome. We know pretty much everyone else is a veteran on a short-term contract that probably won't play a huge role in the Strasburg/Harper era.
Those six, though, had a lot to prove. If the Nationals are to have enough complementary pieces to be a contender in the future, those six needed to be them. So how are those six doing?
- Espinosa, even before his explosion the past two days, was among the league's top rookies. A spectacular fielder with good pop in his bat, the only thing really dragging Espinosa down was a horrible Batting Average on Ball In Play mark, which killed his batting average. In other words, bad luck. (Though it's not quite that simple). Maybe Thomas Boswell overshot it when saying Espinosa will be "compared to Zimmerman himself," but he's still an above-average second baseman already and still young.
- Ramos is also one of the league's top rookies, with a .739 OPS from the catcher's position. He's slumped a bit recently, but Hardball Talk still would pick him as the NL Rookie of the Year right now. This despite him splitting time with Ivan Rodriguez even though Ramos is very clearly the superior player.
- Storen, after a rocky start, is the team's best reliever, with 10 saves, an ERA right at 2 and an ERA+ of 188. Earlier this season, he went 21 and 2/3 innings without giving up a run. He's allowed a total of 18 hits all year with a WHIP of 0.9 and over eight strikeouts per nine innings. It's hard to argue that he's not one of the best young relievers in the game based on how he's playing.
- Morse started horribly, but has turned it on since Adam LaRoche went down with an injury and now has a 10-game hitting streak. After a horrible April (.211/.253/.268), Morse was lights out in May (.403/.422/.774). Obviously, he's not as good as he has played this month, but if you split the difference between the two months, you get a line of .307/.337/.521 with 21 home runs and 72 RBI in under 400 plate appearances, which is not that bad at all and probably something most Nationals fans would take.
- Zimmermann hasn't been lights out, but he's been better than his 2-6 record indicates. His ERA of 3.88 is decent, and for a No. 3 or No. 4 starter, it's not the worst thing in the world. He's also played better recentlywith Ivan Rodriguez doing most of the catching.
- Desmond has been the disappointment of the group, posting an abysmal .228/.270/.354 and failing as a leadoff hitter.