After a horrific 5-16 (.238) April, we had to believe that things couldn't get worse for the Nats in the season's second month. They didn't get much better, either, though. The Nats went just 8-20 (.286) in May. While their performance in the second month of the season would at least look like a passable batting average, it continued to be increasingly clear that some changes need to be made.
Acting GM Mike Rizzo started the change Tuesday, when the club fired pitching coach Randy St. Claire. From a performance standpoint, the move certainly makes plenty of sense. The Nationals are currently last in the majors with a 5.67 ERA. The club also ranks dead last with a .285 Batting Average Against, a .370 OBP against (12 full points higher than 29th ranked Cleveland), 8 Saves, 15 Quality Starts, and a 1.34 Strikeout to Walk ratio. Seeing as how the problems with the walks have been well documented, I'll bring up that they're 28th in the league in Walks Allowed, slightly better than the Dodgers (who counter that with a leauge-leading .236 BAA) and the Indians. The staff also ranks 27th with just 297 strikeouts thus far. Yes.... the players are obviously harder to "fire" than the pitching coach, but it was clear that St. Claire just wasn't on the verge of turning things around. The staff got off to a poor start in April, but they actually regressed across the board in the season's second month.
The question regarding the St. Claire move, however, is this: Could this be a message that Manny Acta had better get it together quickly? Admittedly, I've been one of the more adamant critics of Acta all season long, so those of you who have read anything I've written already probably knew I was going here. Still, St. Claire's firing removes a crutch that Acta could have continued to use before Tuesday. If there's not a huge change in team performance by the end of June, I would be shocked if Acta is still running this club by the All-Star Break. I'm not necessarily talking about a winning month, but if the club doesn't play at least .400 ball, Acta's job should be on the line.
Moving along beyond the obvious move that was made in the past few days, let's take a look at May's performance vs. April's performance.
Though the Team OPS only jumped from .772 to .780, the improvement across the board offensively was noticeable. The Nats scored more than half a run more per game in May than they did in April, and it's clear that Rick Eckstein has been getting the job done with the hitters. The one negative that can be found with the performance at the plate is that, while the team boosted it's batting average nine points in May, their OBP actually dropped nine points, meaning that they weren't nearly as patient at the plate. In fact, the Nats went from drawing 4.57 walks per game in April to 3.97 in May. They made up for this by slugging a bit better in the season's second month (part of that is due to the boost in Batting Average, but not all of it), but it would certainly be nice to see the perfect storm where all three of those things collide. As alluded to above, the pitching was horrendous.
As for the run differential, the Nats have played below expectations according to it. According to Bill James' Pythagorean Theorem, the Nationals should have gone 10-18 in May (versus their actual 8-20) and 8-13 in April (versus their actual 5-16).
Note: Technically, both the 10 (May) and the 8 (April) were rounded up from being over .5. Their run differential through the first two months was that of a 17-32 team, as opposed to their actual 13-36.
Nick Johnson continues to hit like a man possessed, and continues to stay healthy. While many of you are of the opinion that trading Johnson wouldn't be in the organization's best interest, I disagree. With Dukes now healthy, and with the logjam surrounding the corner outfielders (one of which could play first base well [Willingham] and another who could at least try again [Dunn]), he's very replaceable. There were no delusions this team would contend before the season, and whoever was crazy enough to believe they would have seen those delusions dissipate. As long as he continues to stay healthy and hit, that only boosts his trade value. The end of his time in Washington is drawing nigh.
Thankfully, the Daniel Cabrera experiment ended. Cabrera was clearly a nice (relatively) low risk, high reward option added over the offseason. Once it was clear that the reward wasn't going to come, it was a good move to cut bait. That move, coupled with the injury to Scott Olsen, paved the way for two minor leaguers who may be part of the team's future. Neither Craig Stammen nor Ross Detwiler have been horrible, and it's a safe bet that at least one of the two (my money's on Det) will become a fixture in the rotation as we head towards the next decade. Cabrera wasn't helping anyone with his performance, and he was just blocking the progress of the youngsters.
Josh Willingham put a poor first month of the season behind him and showed why the Nats went out and got him this offseason. The Hammer had an excellent May as he worked his bat into the lineup, batting .303/.411/.684 with 8 homers in 87 plate appearances.
While the rest of the bullpen was in shambles, Ron Villone stepped forward and brought a nice veteran lefty into the fold. Villone's poor K:BB ratio (3:6 in May) alludes that he won't be able to sustain it, but hey... let's enjoy what we've got, right? Villone was 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 13 May innings. He also notched 2 holds.
With the exceptions of Craig Stammen and Ross Detwiler (who have no April to look back on), the entire pitching staff took a step back... or did it? There's definitely a mixed bag here:
The first guy we'll take a look at is Jordan Zimmermann, who was clearly thrust into a more demanding role than we'd hoped he would have to take on. Zimmermann certainly struggled on the whole, allowing 5 runs or more in five of his six starts. There were some positives to draw from this as well, though. First off, of the 29 runs he allowed in the month of May, a whopping 15 of them came in the first inning. For the most part, he looked stronger as the game wore on, and it's possible an adjustment to his warmup routine (which I've already seen discussed) could go a long way in helping to fix the problem. More importantly, Zimmermann did show some good traits statistically for a young power pitcher. He finished May with a 39:11 strikeout to walk ratio in 34.2 innings of work. That's more than a strikeout an inning, and a K:BB ratio of better than 3.5:1. He's only going to get better, and his more visible numbers (such as the ERA and WHIP) are going to start to belie the base numbers at some point in the near future.
A pitcher going in the opposite direction is DC lefty John Lannan. Lannan's never been known as a power pitcher, so the 16 strikeouts in 34.2 innings aren't necessarily a problem. What is a problem is that he walked 19 in that same stretch. It's incredibly difficult to sustain a strong pitching performance when you're walking nearly 5 batters per 9 innings. It's even more difficult when you're walking more hitters than you're striking out. Lannan somehow managed to improve dramatically on his 4.61 April ERA (a month in which he had an 18:7 strikeout to walk ratio) with a 3.89 ERA in May. His Batting Average Against held fairly steady (.286 April, .282 May), but his WHIP jumped nineteen points. The one positive is that Lannan kept the ball down a lot better, allowing just 2 homers in 6 May starts after allowing 7 dingers in 5 April starts. It's a matter where Lannan needs to try and put together the overall performance of April while keeping the ball down in May.
Speaking of a lack of strikeout production, Shairon Martis' weakness started to catch up to him in late May. After a 5-0 start, Martis was finally hung with a loss by the Phillies on Saturday. That was not, however, the first one he should have suffered. Martis has allowed 5 or more runs in four of his ten starts this season, including seven twice (both against the Phillies). More importantly, though, he has a 7:10 strikeout to walk ratio over his past four starts. The first of these starts was actually a seven inning gem against the Giants. The past three, though, have not been so brilliant. Martis has allowed 17 runs in his past 14 innings dating back to a May 19 start against the Pirates. He hasn't struck out more batters than he's walked in a game since May 8 at Arizona. Like Lannan, Martis figures to be a guy who is going to be more of a finesse pitcher, but it's difficult to survive in the majors when you're walking more batters than you're striking out.
Austin Kearns turned back into a pumpkin at midnight, and hit .222/.310/.302 in May.... Ronnie Belliard probably could have fetched the Nats a little something (probably not anything big, but something) over the offseason. After batting .167 in April and .178 in May, a bag of baseballs might be the best return they can expect at this point... Jesus Flores is done for three months (or, more likely, the year), leaving the team with a pretty dreadful platoon of Wil Nieves and Josh Bard behind the plate.
How to Fix the Problems
Again, this team is clearly a year (or two or three) away from contention. We all know it, though we'd like to see it happen sooner rather than later. I know a lot of you love the guy, and I'm a pretty big fan, too. Still, Nick Johnson needs to be traded for prospects. I know that people have brought up draft pick compensation if/when he inevitably signs somewhere else in the offseason, but unless we can be sure he'll be a Type A free agent (compensation is a first rounder [if the team that signs him picks in the bottom half of the first round] or a second rounder [if they pick in the top half] plus a sandwich pick), I think the return will almost certainly be bigger if they deal him. Now, while I realize that the Nats return on not trading Soriano was Jordan Zimmermann (used with what would have been the Cubs selection in 2007) and Josh Smoker (I think that's who they got with the sandwich pick... might have been Burgess, actually), I realize that the draft pick compensation could be a terrific way to go as well. Still, teams are only going to become more and more hungry to add a solid first baseman as the year wears on.
Dealing Cristian Guzman could also make sense. He's clearly not the glove man he was when he was younger, and his lack of patience at the plate discounts his strong skills from an average-hitting standpoint. It's not like he provides power or speed, but there are contenders out there (my home town of St. Louis comes to mind) that may be willing to part with something decent for the future in return for a solid shortstop.
Just think, though. One week from today, we can stop screaming for the Nats to draft Strasburg. At that point, we'll be screaming for them to sign him!