After Sunday afternoon's 7-3, 11-inning win over the New York Mets, the Nationals have played nine games in the 2011 season, and won four of them, good enough to edge a half-game ahead of the Braves in the race for last place as they return to the capital for a homestand against the Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee Brewers.
It's difficult to write a column like this at this point in the season without some massive overreaction and projection. Nevertheless, each week throughout the season, I'll be giving you my choice for the three star men (or units) on the Nationals and the three that need to improve the most. I call it "Three Up, Three Down," and it begins after the jump.
1. Jordan Zimmermann--The man who the Nationals believe and hope will be the Johnny Sain to Stephen Strasburg's Warren Spahn has been the Nationals' best starting pitcher so far this season. He was left out to dry by his defense in his first start last Sunday against the Atlanta Braves and still managed to go six innings and allow just two earned runs on four hits. He put up similar numbers Friday afternoon against the Mets, allowing two runs on six hits and even helping his own cause with a single in the second inning. The only concern I have for Zimmermann at this point is his lack of strikeouts and ground balls. According to FanGraphs, Zimmermann's ground ball percentage so far this year has been an underwhelming 28.9% and his K/9 ratio is a mere 4.76. If Zimmermann doesn't rediscover that strikeout pitch that helped him to a 9.07 K/9 ratio in 2009, he'll get into trouble against better line-ups.
2. Danny Espinosa--Let's be honest, most of us expected Ryan Zimmerman to come out of the blocks flying this season (which is why this latest injury is so concerning). But Espinosa has been a real revelation for the Nats so far this season. Forget the massive home run he hit at Citi Field Saturday night and focus on his newfound patience at the plate. Consider: In 112 plate appearances last season, Espinosa managed just nine walks. He already has five free passes in 32 plate appearances this season. That's been the biggest contributor to his .406 on-base percentage and the main reason that I feel the second -year man's earned a look at the leadoff spot in the line-up ahead of Ian Desmond (1 walk in 39 plate appearances and a .256 on-base percentage, for the record).
3. The law office of Burnett, Clippard, and Slaten-- They've made a total of 17 appearances so far this season, pitched a combined 15.2 shutout innings and allowed just 13 of the 57 batters they've faced to reach base. Of course, five of those batters were Slaten's responsibility, which is why he's a junior partner at this point. But still, that's a pretty darn impressive start from a bullpen that has a lot of live up to this season.
1. Adam LaRoche-- I appreciate that he's not going to be a one-for-one replacement for Adam Dunn, as LaRoche himself has said from the moment he was introduced to the D.C. media. I appreciate that he's got a nagging injury, and I appreciate that he was brought here in large part for defense. Well, it's too early in the season to get a good handle on his defense, but I know darn well that a.306 on-base percentage and .290 slugging percentage in 36 plate appearances is not what you want out of your cleanup hitter. If it weren't for Desmond's sputtering start with the bat, and the struggles of the the next man on this list, it would be safe to say that LaRoche would be the member of the Nats batting order most under the cosh. But no. Step forward ...
2. Michael Morse-- It was reasonable to assume that Morse would struggle to match his output from last season when you consider that he got rather lucky on balls in play (His 2010 BABIP: .330). There's also not much reason to assume that his current dry spell at the plate will continue (His 2011 BABIP: .211). But, just seven appearances on base in 32 plate appearances does not behoove Morse to be in the five-hole at this point in the season.
3. Members of the bullpen not named Burnett, Clippard, or Slaten-- Specifically, Drew Storen, Todd Coffey, Chad Gaudin, and Brian Boderick, who have pitched a combined 17.2 innings and given up 19 hits, 12 walks, and 16 runs, 14 of them earned. Further comment, I think, is needless.