6/6/2013 11:03 A.M. ET
Snake-bitten Nats failing to meet expectations
Club must work through early-season struggles despite loss of Harper, Strasburg
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
While we don't yet have a catchy name for the opposite of Power Rankings -- the Inefficiency Index, perhaps? -- suffice to say, the Washington Nationals would hold a special place on the list.
Preseason darlings to sub-.500 bummer, the Nationals spar with the Blue Jays and the two Los Angeles teams for the unwanted title of 2013's Most Calamitous Club. And the frustrations have mounted considerably in recent days.
The transaction wire has been awash with desperation and disappointment on the part of the Nats. They finally acknowledged the extent of what Bryce Harper's trysts with outfield walls had wrought, placing him on the disabled list with knee soreness. They finally acknowledged that Danny Espinosa's wrist and shoulder woes weren't doing anything to help his plate woes, and so he, too, landed on the DL and will possibly end up in the Minors when he heals. And they finally acknowledged that Stephen Strasburg's lat injury was too serious to pitch through, putting their prized ace on the shelf.
Maybe all this acknowledgment will lead to fundamental changes in how the Nationals address even the most minor injuries. Criticism of their propensity to let guys play through their physical issues -- criticism that stands in stark contrast to the talking heads who ripped them for "babying" Strasburg last fall -- does seem to have merit in the wake of these moves.
But the primary issue at hand for the Nats is simply stringing together some victories. They jumped out to a 7-2 start this season and have largely struggled ever since. And so they awoke Thursday not only with the Braves' eight-game advantage staring them in the face, but with the Domonic Brown-aided Phillies standing between them and Atlanta.
The Nationals, then, are trying to climb back into coherence with neither of their No. 1-pick-provided franchise faces, and that's scary stuff, if only for the short term. It is now a sixth overall pick from 2011, Anthony Rendon, who could provide the pump that fixes the "flat tires" in the offense, as Davey Johnson has called them. But that's a lot to heap on a 23-year-old kid playing out of position, and who has just 57 games of Minor League experience above the Class A level.
Then again, Manny Machado, who arrived to the O's last summer in almost the exact scenario, offers a fine precedent within the Baltimore-Washington metro area.
While it's fine to fret about Strasburg -- even if this is not directly an arm issue -- the Nats are going nowhere if they don't start generating more runs. They're averaging just 3.41 on the season, leading only the misfit Marlins in that category. And more to the point, since April 30, the day after Harper's encounter with the Turner Field wall, they are averaging just 3.21 runs with a brutal .222/.276/.352 slash line.
Getting Jayson Werth back into the fold this week following his DL stint with a hamstring issue should provide a boost, but to what extent? Werth was an on-base machine when he rejoined the Nationals last August after a lengthy DL stay, reaching at a .394 pace and scoring 32 runs down the stretch. But this season, before the DL visit, his OBP was at a level (.308) even lower than his miserable first year in Washington. That OBP becomes even more noticeable when it's paired atop the order with Denard Span's .320 mark as a leadoff hitter, which ranks ranks 24th among those with at least 100 at-bats out of the top spot.
The upside for the Nats is that Adam LaRoche appears to have recovered from his slow start, batting .340 with a 1.045 OPS over his last 31 games to raise his season OPS by 347 points. Ryan Zimmerman has hit .312 with an .890 OPS in that same span.
But in the old value equation that will be addressed by many a Major League team at Thursday's First-Year Player Draft -- a middle-of-the-order bat vs. a frontline starter -- Harper and Strasburg thus far this season have provided an interesting case study. It really hasn't affected the bottom line much that Strasburg was statistically better than ever. Harper's offensive struggles as he played through pain had a sagging effect on the rest of the lineup, and the Nationals, as a whole, were going nowhere.
Now, you throw that value equation out the window, because the Nats are without both of their studs for the time being. The rotation could suffer without Strasburg as much as the lineup has suffered without a healthy Harper. The rotation has held up well throughout the drama of the first half, posting a 3.41 ERA that ranks third in the game. But Dan Haren's comeback bid seems to have hit a snag, and Washington has already had some trouble replacing Ross Detwiler, who should return soon from a strained oblique. Replacing Strasburg will be an even taller order.
Some teams just have a snake-bit quality to them, and it's hard not to view the Nationals through that prism. The depth of the rotation is being tested in a big way, as is Rendon's ability to seamlessly transition to the big leagues.
Those of us who predicted big things for the Nats did so with good reason. And much of that reason remains, once the fumes of this injury assault die down (or rather, if they do). But there's no question this club has been a perplexing disappointment.
At least they have company on that inefficiency scale.