Monday, July 27, 2015

Looking Back/Looking Forward

The Nationals hold a 2 game lead over the Mets in the NL East following a 4-6 record since returning to play following the All-Star break. It seems like a good contingent of fans are disappointed in the start to the second and, on one hand, it’s hard to blame them for being disappointed in a sub .500 record. On the other hand, take a closer look at this stretch of games and your perspective may change. If I had told you during the break that the Nationals were going to go 5-5 against the Mets, Dodgers and Pirates (all teams in contention for the playoffs) while facing the murderers row of Kershaw, Greinke, Harvey, DeGrom, Syndergaard, Liriano, Burnett, and Cole over that stretch, I’ll bet most fans would have taken that. Don’t forget that the Nationals’ lineup during this stretch contained at least four players who started the year on the bench. The Nationals won 2 of 3 versus the Mets, the most important portion of the last 10 games, and were only one win away from playing .500 ball to start the second half. While 4-6 is a little disappointing, it’s not far off what expectations should have been.

The second half has seen the resurgence of Ian Desmond. Over this 10 game span, he’s hitting .333 while walking at one of the highest rates of his career and smacking four home runs, for good measure. Ten games is such a small sample size, it’s not worth reading too much into those numbers, but Desmond has looked more comfortable at the plate and has been laying off pitches he was chasing earlier in the year. Yunel Escobar has also been hitting .333 in the second half, carrying his hot hand from the first half of the year into the second. He has yet to take a walk in the second half, though, and missed two games with another wrist ailment, so it’s not quite all rainbows and unicorns. Bryce has only hit .250 over those 10 games, but has walked as much as he has struck out and chipped in two doubles and a home run. That’s about as close to a slump as Bryce has had all year. Joe Ross has filled in admirably for Stephen Strasburg, allowing only 5 runs while striking out 11 and walking only two. Not stellar numbers, but he doesn’t look out of place in the big leagues.

Of course, no 4-6 stretch is complete without some negatives to harp on. Wilson Ramos continues to sputter, hitting only .120 in the second half. Ramos joins Escobar in the no walk club for the second half of the season, but has chipped in 10 strikeouts just for kicks. Michael Taylor checks into the same club by failing to take a walk over this ten game stretch while his fifteen strikeouts keep the party going. Doug Fister, though he claims to be healthy, hasn’t pitched like it. His 7.20 ERA over his two second half starts have hung the already depleted Nationals’ offense out to dry. He’s allowing a .391 batting average to opposing hitters. His BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) allowed is a sky high .447, but he’s only inducing soft contact 18% of the time, so his struggles can’t be written off totally to bad luck. Fister is going to have to hit his spots much better going forward if he’s going to have any sort of success. Even the almighty Max Scherzer looked human to start off the second half of the year. His 4.91 ERA in the second half is due to another case of high BABIP allowed (.393) and a crazy 33.3% HR/FB (home run allowed per fly ball hit). He’s still striking out batters at a high clip and has been stingy with the free pass. The flip side of this coin is Scherzer’s xFIP (expected Fielder Independent Pitching) is 1.85, so not too much to worry about here other than two below average starts out of the Nationals’ ace that figure to be blips and not foreshadow of things to come.

The Weeks to Come
The Nationals are starting to get reinforcements just in time for a soft portion of their schedule. They travel to Miami where, although they face the filthy Jose Fernandez, should be heavily favored to take 2 of 3. They follow that series with three games at the Mets where they again will have to out hit the Mets lineup in what will likely be some low scoring affairs. Winning one is a must, but winning the series would be a great bonus. Finally, the Nationals return home for four games against the lowly Diamondbacks and three against the bottom dwelling Rockies. It’s a nice welcome back stretch for the reinforcements due to return off the DL. While Mike Rizzo and Nationals fans are treating this parade of players off the DL as the Nationals version of a deadline deal, don’t forget that, for a majority of the retuning players, they are essentially still in Spring Training mode. Rendon, while flashing some signs of life this week, only has 86 plate appearances to his name on the season after missing most of Spring Training proper as well. Jayson Werth has gotten 119 plate appearances on the year after also missing spring training, but what he showed during those at bats wasn’t pretty. He’s also dealing with the potential power loss that can accompany wrist injuries. It’s certainly exciting to get these two back, along with Ryan Zimmerman and Denard Span, but Nationals fans need to show patience while these guys gets their timing back.

Trade Deadline Thoughts
The Nationals have been linked to a lot of big name players this trade deadline. Most recently, the Nationals seem to pop up heavily in discussions of Tyler Clippard, Jonathan Papelbon, and Aroldis Chapman. While I believe the best course of action for the Nationals this trade deadline would be to add a complimentary bullpen piece (not a “proven closer” like Papelbon) and a bench bat, I also believe this is the most likely course of action for Mike Rizzo. Rizzo doesn’t have a history of making big deals mid-season. Last year, he subtly added Asdrubal Cabrera in a trade and picked up Matt Thorton off of waivers from the Yankees. In 2013, Rizzo grabbed David DeJesus from the Cubs, and quickly flipped him to the Rays soon after. In 2013, the Nationals only moves at the deadline were to trade for Kurt Suzuki and pick up Cesar Izturis off of the waiver wire. All of the guys Rizzo traded for ended up pitching in after being acquired (except for DeJesus), but none of those moves could be considered a blockbuster. Making moves at this point in the season is not part of Mike Rizzo’s track record. He builds his teams in the offseason and lives and dies by that roster.

Speaking of which, even the big moves that Rizzo makes in the offseason (signing Scherzer, trading for Ross and Trea Turner) usually come as a bit of a surprise. In the day and age of Twitter, major transactions like the ones the Nationals have been involved in under Rizzo tend not to stay quiet for very long. However, news of Nationals dealings don’t ever pop up until right before something goes down. For that reason, I don’t think the Nationals end up with Papelbon or Chapman or even Craig Kimbrel of the Padres. The Nationals have reportedly been inquiring on all three of those guys, and it’s been reported all over the twitter-spere. But for that very reason, I don’t think any of the names mentioned end up as Nationals by the time the trade deadline hits. If Rizzo was really interested in making a deal for one of those guys, that news would have been kept under wraps. 

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