07/12/12 10:00 AM ET
Nationals look to improve from within at Deadline
With players returning from injury, Washington likely to remain quiet for stretch run
By Joey Nowak / MLB.com
The National League East leaders do not figure to be buyers or sellers at the upcoming Trade Deadline, but they will rather simply rely on the mix of players that have carried them to first place already this season and look at the return of some other key players as a boost.
The pitching staff carried the club for much of the early season, as Washington overcame injuries to Wilson Ramos, Jayson Werth and Michael Morse to sit atop the division for 85 of 95 first-half days. By the All-Star break, the offense had come around, averaging 6.9 runs per game over the last 12.
Werth is expected to return by early August, and utility man Chad Tracy is expected back shortly before that. Werth, in his second season with the club, was looking to rebound from a rather disappointing 2011, but has been set back with a fractured wrist.
Tracy, who is rehabbing with the Class A Potomac Nationals after tearing a right groin muscle on May 26, is hitting .265 with a .837 OPS this season, with three homers and 12 RBIs. He's 6-for-18 as a pinch-hitter on the year, and nine of his RBIs have come in the pinch.
"The bench has been outstanding," manager Davey Johnson said. "And it's gonna get better when Tracy gets back."
As for the pitching staff, it should receive a boost from reliever Drew Storen when games pick back up on Friday. Storen, who saved 43 games last year, has missed the entire year after having a bone fragment surgically removed from his right elbow in early April.
It's uncertain whether he'll return to the closer's role, since close friend and fellow reliever Tyler Clippard has taken over and been excellent (14-for-15 in save opportunities, 1.93 ERA) in the recent weeks.
"I'm preparing to close, regardless," Storen said. "And I know, coming in, the plan is to have me set up when I first get back, which needs to happen. It's part of the acclimation process and it's just a matter of kind of getting your feet wet at each different level. You start out and just keep building on it. I know what I need to do and I'm treating this like Spring Training right now."
The team seems to have no reason to unload any key pieces -- the organization has exceptional depth at the catcher position, but has needed those pieces to fill in with Ramos' absences -- and seems set in just about every department.
Overall, the pitching staff is the best in baseball (MLB-best 3.19 ERA) and the bullpen has five arms with ERAs under 2.00: lefties Sean Burnett and Michael Gonzalez, and right-handers Clippard, Craig Stammen and Ryan Mattheus.
The bench is deep and powerful with hitters like Mark DeRosa, Rick Ankiel and Tyler Moore, and the regular lineup is rounding into form.
"We've had a lot of close games," Johnson said. "Everybody on the ballclub, from the offense to the bullpen and starting pitching, has been outstanding."
If the Nationals can keep up their pace, they'll have little need to add any serious pieces and would likely be hesitant to drop any. After all, many say the chemistry of the club is what has led to the great success this year.
"It's just one of those things that we're all rooting for each other," Stammen said. "When you have a team that's rooting for each other -- you go through the Minor Leagues and everybody's competing to get to the big leagues, and there are people who aren't rooting for each other because you're looking out for your personal goals -- we have guys with the right mindset, team-first mentality. You can see the success that when you come together as one, you can kind of do anything."