Last year at the all-star break, the Nationals had a 2 game division lead on the Mets and we were preparing for a playoff run. We all know what happened next- the Mets traded for a bat, the Nats imploded, Papelbon Papelbon’d, and Matt Williams was fired. But it’s a new day, yes it is, and there are plenty of reasons why this season will be much different.
For one, the division lead is 6 games for Washington (over both the Mets and the Marlins). Also, and this might be the biggest difference, we no longer have Matt Williams at the helm of the ship – he mismanaged practically everything last year and while, traditionally, Dusty hasn’t been regarded too highly, he has proven to be leaps and bounds better than Williams. Finally, this team is more talented than last year’s group of guys and the injury bug hasn’t hit DC anywhere near as bad as it did last season, knock on wood.
So here is my first half report card. The grades relate to talent level, as well as second half expectations. For example, a bum with a 4.30 ERA might earn a higher grade than an ace with a 3.90 ERA through the first half. Here’s the report card:
I don’t have enough good things to say about Murphy. He has been the wind beneath my wings and has already shattered his top season home run total. Murphy has absolutely crushed the ball and doesn’t really show many signs of slowing down, especially against the Mets. It’s been a real pleasure watching Murphy his .325 with 3 big homers against his former team already in July. His fielding which was his biggest issue has been very good as well. The odds are pretty good for another postseason appearance for Murph and we all know what he did last season.
SP Stephen Strasburg: A+
Strasburg’s 2016 is a stark contrast to the first half of 2015 and his 12-0 record is the first time that a National League pitcher started the season with twelve straight victories in over 100 years (since Rube Marquard in 1912). Maybe we should have expected Strasburg’s tremendous start to the season based off of his Cy Young-caliber second half last year. I love Strasburg’s contract extension and the sky is the limit – with injuries really being the only thing that could hold him back. He might not finish the season with 0 losses but I don’t see a reason why he won’t continue his dominance throughout the rest of the season.
A year ago, in last year’s first half report card, I said “I’ve always had a soft spot for Ramos after he was kidnapped by crazy Venezuelan socialists in 2011 but he just isn’t that great of a player.” And it’s pretty clear that I was wrong. Ramos has turned into a great player, partly because he Nate’d and had offseason LASIK. After struggling for years with injuries and general non-performance, Ramos has put it all together and has developed into one of the best catchers in the game. Sure Ramos’ BABIP is regressing and might continue to regress a little but he has made legitimate changes to his game and is now walking more and K-ing less with better contact AND better power. The only real issues with his season is his impending free agency and the fear of an injury.
SP Tanner Roark: A
Roark is doing the damn thing and, really, when has he not been doing the damn thing? In 409.1 career innings as a starter, not a small sample size, Roark has a tasty 3.14 ERA – this compares favorably to studs like the Indians’ Danny Salazar over the same period of time. Roark might really be the most underappreciated starting pitcher in the major leagues (I’m actually curious so if anyone thinks someone else is more underappreciated, let me know in the comments or on twitter – Jose Quintana has a case but he did make the all-star team eventually). Roark has done most of his work by limiting the extra base hits and I am a firm believer that his success will continue into the second half.
The Bullpen: A
The Nationals’ pen as a whole has the 3rd lowest ERA in all of baseball and there really isn’t one guy who you can point to as being the dominant one because practically all of them have been great. Blake Treinen, Shawn Kelley, Sammy Solis, Matt Belisle, Yusmeiro Petit, and Pap have all been very effective this season. I expected much much more out of Oliver Perez but I still think he turns in a dominant 2nd half if he is used properly. Felipe Rivero really broke with an awful June but he was being over-used and if his appearances are managed properly, he could return to the dominance he had in 2015.
I don’t think that I’ve really hidden that I wasn’t particularly fond of Danny Espinosa as the starter – I’ve been advocating for Trea Turner over him for almost a year now – but it’s impossible not to recognize what Espinosa has been doing. Espinosa is 2nd among SS in homers, OBP, and WAR over the past 30 days and he’s 2nd on the Nationals in homers all season. Espinosa has developed into a power-hitting and strong defensive shortstop and has completely defied all of my low expectations for him this season. The batting average might not be great but part of this ranking is associated with just how much Espinosa has over-achieved. He has become the most dangerous #8 hitter in all of baseball.
GM Mike Rizzo: A-
Rizzo has had some good and some bad this season but it is difficult to argue with .600 baseball and a 6 game division lead. I disagreed with him on his handling of Trea Turner but Espinosa has been good defensively and is approaching 20 homers. I love the Strasburg extension as well. Going back to the offseason, Rizzo must be glad that Brandon Phillips didn’t want to leave Cincy because Daniel Murphy has to be the signing of the offseason. One move that I hated at the time and hate even more now is the Yunel Escobar trade. Sure our infield is set but you can’t tell me that a 3rd baseman who is hitting .317 this year (after .314 last season) is less valuable than a AAA reliever. Gott was never that good, he could never really get the strikeouts and it’s difficult to trust any young reliever, let alone one that throws hard and doesn’t get the Ks – it probably isn’t a huge deal in the big picture but I just never understood that trade. It will be interesting to see what Rizzo does before the trade deadline and I’m hoping for a new first baseman by August 1st but I guess we will see what happens.
SP Max Scherzer: B+
Scherzer had a pretty rough month of April and his pitching line looks pretty similar to an Adam Dunn batting line (Scherzer’s 21 homers allowed are the most in baseball but his 164 Ks also lead the league) but Scherzer has been absolute nails since his incredible 20 strikeout performance and now has a 2.23 ERA in the 12 starts since that game. He has been even better since the start of June, with a tiny 1.66 ERA in the 54 innings since the month began. The Nationals have two very legitimate aces atop their rotation and while its difficult to give him this low of a grade, I can’t completely discount his rough April. There are always a few of those kids who start their semester slow then improve so that their teachers think that something clicked and they’re working harder now.
Dusty hasn’t been a disaster and that’s all we could have really hoped for. The team is atop the division and everybody seems to be having a good time so I can’t really bash him. There are a few things that I still strongly dislike about the way that he has managed the team and it frustrates me that he won’t fix those simple simple simple things but ¯\_(?)_/¯. Whatever is going on in the leadoff spot has to be fixed – Nats leadoff men have a .255 OBP this season, that .255 OBP is .008 points lower than Freddy Galvis’s .263 mark which is last (167th out of 167) among qualified batters. We cannot continue to do this, this is giving away games. A six game lead is great but imagine how much better we’d be if we had even the 2nd worst leadoff OBP in the National League (that would be the Reds who’s leadoff hitters are reaching base at a .314 clip) The discrepancy here is almost too crazy to be true, yet it is. On top of that, I don’t like how Dusty has handled Felipe Rivero and the results of that overuse have already reared their ugly head. In total, Dusty has been better than I anticipated and it isn’t like we are going to teach an old dog new tricks so I’m ultimately happy with what he has given us.
SP Joe Ross: B+
Joe Ross’ numbers may not look too different from his statistics last season and he has struggled in his most recent outings (5.45 ERA since the start of June vs. 2.37 ERA in his first 10 starts) but I think that he has taken a step forward this year. Ross should right the ship when he returns from injury (which, by all accounts, should probably be when he is next needed on July 22nd). 2017 could be an even better season for the 6’4 right-hander who could develop into a top-of-the-rotation arm (though it’ll be difficult to be more of a #4 in DC with Stras, Scherzer, and Giolito).
Before we get into Harper’s 2016 season, let’s take the time to appreciate how good Harper was last year. Daniel Murphy is having a pretty phenomenal year in 2016, while last year Harper had 8 more homers and was slugging more than 100 points higher than Murph at this point. Harper has still been a superstar and sits among the NL leaders in walks, homers, and OBP. Its tough to give Harper a low grade because even his ‘off’ first half is still producing one of the best seasons in the National League but these grades incorporate how we thought Harper would produce this year and, truthfully, we thought he’d be a lot better. It speaks a lot to how great Harper is that he starts in the all-star game and earns a B. *Last year, Bryce and Nina Agdal were in a few commercials so I decided to toss in some pictures (NSFW) of Nina, might as well do it again.
LF Jayson Werth: B
At this point last season Jayson Werth had played in just 27 games and, considering his abysmal production, the team would’ve been better off if he didn’t play in any. Werth has played in 3x as many games in the first half this year and has just played better than he did last season. He isn’t the Werth of old and he isn’t necessarily earning his paycheck but he has been a suitable starting Left fielder and his .348 OBP and double-digit homers are a nice sight to see. And he’s the undisputed best post-game interview in the game.
CP Jonathan Papelbon: B
Pap is injured right now but you’ve got to give him some bonus points for not choking our MVP out yet this season. There have been a couple games where the closer has you shaking your head at the end of the 9th but he’s been pretty productive all things considered and is getting the job done. There has been talk of the team trading for an ace reliever like Aroldis Chapman or maybe Andrew Miller and while I would certainly welcome such a trade, I wonder how something like that would affect Jonathan Papelbon. Before Rizzo pulls the trigger on a reliever through trade, I propose we bring top prospect Reynaldo Lopez up and allow him to toss triple digits right in our opponents’ faces.
This is the 2nd straight year that Rendon has underachieved compared to expectations and I’m worried that this might be what he is going forward. Rendon has not been bad this season and is nipping on the heels of double-digit homers and double digit steals. While I’m still expecting something similar to Rendon’s 2014 season, he is still an above average Major League player and has a shot of approaching his 2014 stats with a hot month and good health.
The Bench: C
The Nationals have hit so many clutch homers that I have to give them a ton of credit for that but, aside from those shots, it has not been too good. Stephen Drew (.308 OBP) is the only guy who gets on-base at least 30% of the time and the other guys just have not played as well as I would have liked. Hopefully they can string together a better 2nd half because these guys are more talented than what they are producing and we saw evidence of that just last season.
SP Gio Gonzalez: D
If Max Scherzer is the guy who improves throughout the year, then Gio is the one that starts hot and can’t keep up. Things were looking real real good in April for Gonzalez and his 1.42 ERA was among the best in the league but, in his last 13 starts, Gonzalez has been well below replacement level. His 6.25 ERA and 3-7 record shouldn’t fly on any team in the majors. A Scherzer-Strasburg-Roark-Ross-Giolito rotation looks a hell of a lot better right now than one with Gio at the end and don’t you give me the shit about Gio being owed 12 million dollars so you’ve got to start him. That money is lost, we do not have it any more so we should play the best team and, if Gio struggles for a couple more outings, the best team would be one with him outside of the rotation. Not to mention he could be a very solid left-handed arm out of the pen.
CF Michael A Taylor D-
Taylor’s lack of production is surprising to me because I really thought he would take a step forward. I still have faith that Taylor could develop into a major league starter but he’s 25 and is apparently no where close to deserving of a starting role. He was demoted to AAA earlier in the season and, if he continues to post OBPs that are significantly below .300, that might be where he’ll spend most of his career.
Many times when a team has an aging star who has meant so much to their organization, they are tasked with a difficult decision: 1. keep trotting the star out there and potentially lose some production but maintain the legacy or 2. Bench the player and risk ruining a legacy. Fortunately, the Nationals won’t have to deal with this difficult choice because Zimm has been SOO bad that they are almost obligated to acquire a replacement. I’ll always appreciate Zimmerman for what he has done in the past but he isn’t a starting 1B and, depending on how long he stays on the DL for, he might never be the team’s starting 1B again.
CF Ben Revere: F
Revere did not have a memorable first half with the Nats (though it isn’t like Drew Storen and his 5.63 ERA north of the border fared much better). The most disgusting aspect of Revere’s season is actually something that he can’t directly control: his place in the lineup. Revere has started all 50 of his games in the leadoff spot despite his .268 OBP (Pitcher Joe Ross has a .308 OBP on the year). I’m really hoping that Revere turns it around and he gets a bit luckier with some of his slaps but this was not a good first impression.
SS Trea Turner: INC
Admittedly, it is tough to complain about Turner’s lack of playing time when Murphy and Espinosa have been so good lately but I am excited that Turner is finally taking the field in DC and believe that a Turner-Murphy combo is probably a lot better than a Murphy-Zimmerman combo (but that keeping Daniel Murphy at 2nd and trading prospects for a 1st baseman would be even better). I’m excited to see what Turner can do the rest of the way and it sounds as though he has been good in center for AAA Syracuse.
TEAM GRADE: A
This team is dominant and has proven tht it can handle long losing streaks without falling apart. The Nationals are a team with few weaknesses and plenty of stars. There really aren’t too many things that are holding back this first-place team from an A+ grade but the lack of production at 1st base and the abysmal and embarrassing statistics coming out of the 1 hole (and transitively center field) are the two major areas of concern. I can foresee the acquisition of a 1B before the deadline but I’m not as sure that the team will add a starting CF so Revere and Taylor (or better yet, Trea Turner) had better step it up.