The Washington Nationals entered the 2015 season as heavy favorites to win the National League East. While preseason expectations suggested the Nats would have more than a three game lead as we approach the All Star Break, it's difficult to be anything but satisfied given the multitude of injuries that they've had to overcome. In the first three months so far this season.....
- Jayson Werth has played in just 27 games. He started the year on the disabled list, hadn't really gotten going at the plate, and broke his wrist when he was hit by a pitch in San Diego in May. He hasn't played since.
- Anthony Rendon has played in just 18 games. He started the year on the disabled list with a knee injury, then injured his oblique while rehabbing. Once he finally got back, Rendon played for about three weeks before straining his quadriceps.
- Denard Span began the year on the disabled list after having core surgery this offseason. He's had several instances where he's missed a few games due to back spasms. This appears as if it may require another trip to the disabled list.
- Ryan Zimmerman has battled plantar fasciitis all season long, an injury that finally sent him to the disabled list in early June. Zimmerman has yet to resume running.
- Craig Stammen was lost for the year with a torn flexor tendon in early April.
- Stephen Strasburg has hit the disabled list twice now, once with neck tightness and once with a strained oblique.
- Doug Fister missed a month with forearm tightness.
- Aaron Barrett has missed a month with a bicep strain.
Throughout most of the season, the Nats lineup has been missing two $100 million players (Werth and Zimmerman, neither of whom looked like themselves when "healthy") and a player who finished in the top five in the NL MVP voting a year ago (Rendon). Combine those three losses with the fact that the NL's three time defending Silver Slugger at shortstop has been an absolute sub-replacement level shell of himself and leads the club with 337 plate appearances, and it's a miracle that the Nats are in contention... much less leading the division.
The non-waiver trade deadline is just three weeks away, and the Nats should be players in the market this season. General Manager Mike Rizzo has always shown patience and has calmly snuck in an under-the-radar pickup or two in the past few years, but 2015 feels a bit different. Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Denard Span, and (yes, that underachieving shortstop) Ian Desmond are all free agents after the season.
The Nats have a core that's still appears to be ready to contend beyond this season, but there comes a time when it makes sense to throw your chips in and go for it. With four players who could be key contributors in leading this team beyond the first round of the playoffs seemingly on their way out the door after the season, now seems like as good a time as any to do just that.
We're not going to look at specific targets today, but focus more on the areas where the Nats look like they could use the most improvement. We'll look at the position players today and the pitching tomorrow. Let's go down the list position by position.....
Catcher: Wilson Ramos and Jose Lobaton - .252/.295/.394, 1.2 fWAR (13th in MLB)
Catcher doesn't appear to be a serious need for the Nats... provided that (knock on wood) Ramos can stay healthy. He's had trouble doing so in the past, but in a year where almost everyone else has broken down, he's been able to remain on the field. The Nats catching tandem has been just a touch above average.
First Base: Ryan Zimmerman, Clint Robinson, Tyler Moore - .226/.287/.375, -0.6 fWAR (28th in MLB)
I know that nobody wants to hear this, but first base has been a major part of the problem offensively for the Nats so far this season. The leader (?) in the battle of attrition at first base has been Zimmerman, who has hit just .209/.265/.346 when healthy. He's actually responsible for -0.7 fWAR himself. Robinson has been a net positive so far this season, batting .255/.333/.409 and leading all Nats at the position with 0.3 fWAR. Moore has pretty much been replacement level.
We can talk about how Zimmerman has been battling injury all year all we want. Plantar Fasciitis is an injury that tends to linger. It not only affects his running, but it's also likely one of the culprits behind his struggles at the plate. The injury is in his (left) front foot, so it's possible he just hasn't been able to get comfortable driving off of his front foot after his leg kick. Whatever the problem is, the Nats ideal first baseman among their internal candidates is currently dealing with an injury that figures to plague him the rest of the year and he was ineffective when he was healthy enough to play.
There have to be some questions about how much the Nats can rely on Zimmerman coming back and looking like... well... Ryan Zimmerman the rest of the way. Robinson has given them a solid month at first base with Zim out of the lineup, but it's an awfully big risk to take for a team with designs on winning in the playoffs if a 30-year-old rookie who has been league average is the only backup plan they have in place.
Second Base: Danny Espinosa, Anthony Rendon, Dan Uggla - .252/.338/.400, 2.4 fWAR (5th in MLB)
Espinosa has been fantastic this season. The trio of Espinosa, Rendon, and Yunel Escobar still inspire confidence covering second and third base. Even with Rendon currently injured, assuming that Escobar really is just day to day, the Nats can adequately man those two spots. There are other holes in the lineup that seem more pressing.
Shortstop: Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa - .213/.254/.341, -0.7 fWAR (28th in MLB)
There's no way to sugarcoat it. Desmond has been absolutely terrible this season. In fact, Desmond (along with Zimmerman) is tied for 515th (out of 546 players) in fWAR with -0.7. He hasn't been as poor with the glove as he was in April the past couple of months, but he's still second in the majors with 20 errors. His strikeout rate rose dramatically to a career high (by 6.1%) 28.2% last season... a figure which has carried over into 2015 (28.8%). Unfortunately, he's coupling that with a career low 4.5% walk rate this year. His line drive rate (15.6%) is at its lowest point since his first full season, a full two points lower than last year. His hard hit ball rate (27.0%) is more than five points lower than it was in any of the previous three seasons. There's very little in this year's peripherals that inspires confidence that he's going to turn this around the rest of the way.
That said, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot that the Nats can do here. They can sit Desmond more often in favor of Espinosa (assuming, of course, that Escobar and Rendon can stay healthy and on the field), but that's probably about it. No team that is selling is going to want an underachieving 29-year-old shortstop who is a free agent at the end of the year. The Nats could try and find some other team in contention that needs help at shortstop, but it's difficult to imagine a scenario where a team gives them more value back for Desmond than they would get by tendering him a qualifying offer at the end of the year. The Nats could get creative and try and find someone who will push Desmond to the bench, but it's hard to imagine him being traded anywhere.
If there's one positive about Desmond, it's that his approach has led to a lot of streakiness in the past. He's never really had a strong enough approach at the plate to consistently work deep counts and wear a pitcher down. He's always relied on getting that first pitch that he likes and trying to drive it. For one reason or another, Desmond hasn't been able to do this nearly as successfully this season as he has in the past. Hopefully that player that he's been the past few years is still in there just waiting to bust out. I'm not holding my breath, though.
Third Base: Yunel Escobar, Anthony Rendon, Danny Espinosa - .310/.367/.397, 1.4 fWAR (14th in MLB)
Just like second base, they're fine here.
Left Field: Jayson Werth, Michael Taylor, Clint Robinson, Tyler Moore - .232/.294/.367, 0.5 fWAR (19th in MLB)
Once again, the ideal starter has been the biggest problem here. Jayson Werth (.208/.294/.287) has been sub-replacement level with -0.6 fWAR so far this season. He's also recovering from a broken wrist, which could have a negative impact on his already dwindling power production (2 HR, career worst .079 ISO anyway) when he returns. Taylor (.241/.294/.377) has been the runaway leader for the Nats at the position with 1.3 fWAR, which ties him for third among position players on the Nats with Denard Span.
The fact that Werth was ineffective before his injury and that he's currently injured combined with Denard Span's recurring problem with back spasms indicates that trading for a corner outfielder might not be the worst idea in the world.
Center Field: Denard Span, Michael Taylor - .274/.333/.405, 2.7 fWAR (9th in MLB)
Span and Taylor have both been fine when called upon. Span has been dealing with back spasms for most of the year after having core surgery over the offseason. Taylor is a terrific fourth outfielder who could start for most teams, but with two of the starting outfielders ahead of him seeming a bit shaky/injured as we near the deadline, it would make sense for the Nats to improve upon their depth. They're more likely to find an impact bat (cheaper) at a corner spot.
Right Field: Bryce Harper - .325/.444/.656, 5.4 fWAR (1st in MLB)
Where on earth would the Nats be without Bryce Harper this year?
Offensively, the Nats appear to need upgrades/stability at three spots in the order. It seems that their best chance of improving at one of those spots (shortstop) is already on the roster. While it certainly appears that the black holes at first base and left field could be filled by Werth and Zimmerman, they have both poor recent performance and current injuries going against them. It seems awfully risky to assume that they're going to come back and suddenly be at the top of their game.
On the positive side, the Nats could be able to hedge their bets here. The Nats primary focus offensively at the deadline should be to find a hitter... regardless of position. The position(s) that the Nats would likely need that bat to fill, after all, are the two lowest positions on the defensive spectrum. It wouldn't quite be accurate to say that Clint Robinson or Tyler Moore (both natural first basemen) have learned to play a good left field, but neither of them are really butchers out there. Heck... Even Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham played... well... OK... they stood in left field. These are spots where you hide your poor defenders, and they're the spots where the Nats are getting the lowest offensive contributions.