The Washington Nationals lead the NL East by two games with a 48-39 record as we head into the second half. While I think that many expected a more dominant performance from the Nats this season, they're right where they want to be. It's difficult to imagine that a team that has suffered as many injuries as the Nats have in the first half performing quite as well as they were expected to in the preseason anyway. Let's have a look at some of the things that we should be expecting of the Nats as they have a (hopefully) healthier second half and try to defend their NL East crown.
1) Ian Desmond will look more like Ian Desmond in the second half
Desmond had an absolutely miserable first half of the season, batting just .211/.255/.334 with 7 HR and 5 SB. His strikeout rate has stayed at last year's ridiculous 28%+ level, while his walk rate has declined. His Isolated Power has sunk back to where it was in his first full season in 2010. He's even stopped running as regularly and has been one of the worst defensive shortstops in the league. Can he possibly continue to be this bad in the second half? It seems unlikely.
Despite the fact that his production over the last few weeks heading into the All Star break looks poor overall, Desmond showed some minor signs of life in the week leading up to the break. He had a brutal 0 for 22 streak heading into the week, but reached base in four straight games prior to going hitless in the first half finale. In those four games, Desmond did a couple of the things that seem to have disappeared from his game for most of the year. He drew walks in back to back games. He also stole three bases against Cincinnati and Baltimore, after having swiped just two all year.
It won't be difficult for Desmond to improve upon his first half numbers. Don't expect for his season-long numbers to end up where we've seen them the past few years, as F.P. Santangelo somehow always seems to imply they will. However, it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect him to perform somewhere close to the level that he did last season. If he can bring the walk rate back up to its more normal 7% level, we can hope for a .250 average with a .310 OBP in the second half. Hopefully some of the power comes back with it.
2) Yunel Escobar's batting average will hover around .300 by the time the year ends
Escobar has been a tremendous find for the Nationals in the first half, batting .321/.369/.407. He's kind of done it with smoke and mirrors, though. Escobar has been predominantly a singles hitter, and he's done so by hitting a ton of ground balls. In fact, his 57.9% GB rate ranks seventh highest in the majors. The players above him are predominantly burners who often try to drive the ball into the ground because they get their fair share of infield hits... players like Christian Yelich, Dee Gordon, Jean Segura, Norichika Aoki, etc. Escobar has never really been a burner, though, and he's now dealing with hamstring issues.
Escobar finished the first half with a .360 BABIP, which seems extremely high even for those speedsters that rack up the infield hits. That would even seem a bit high for a player that rips a ton of line drives, which (to his credit) Escobar has done a bit more successfully than he has throughout his career. That said, Escobar hasn't had a season in which he's finished with a BABIP of higher than .317 since his rookie year in 2007.... when he, oddly enough, had kind of a similar batted ball profile to what he has had so far in 2015.
Still, it's hard to imagine that he's going to maintain the skill set that he showed in one of his peak seasons as he's battling nagging injuries in his age 32 season. Expect more of the ground balls to find a glove in the second half. Expect a few less line drives. Escobar should hit well enough to keep his season average above .300, but it's doubtful that he performs as well in the second half as he has so far.
3) The Nationals will acquire a late-inning reliever and a first baseman on the trade market
I won't name names, but I do think that Mike Rizzo will go for it and add a strong arm at the back of the bullpen. Despite saying the other day that I didn't think they really needed to do that, I think they were headed in that direction already. The news that David Carpenter, who had been providing the best (non-closer) production out of a right-handed reliever late in the first half, hit the disabled list with shoulder inflammation only seems to enhance their need for another proven arm.
The performance of Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman when they were healthy (enough to play) earlier this season indicates that the Nats will at least need to improve their depth at one/both of those positions, if not find someone capable of providing better production as a starter. Zimmerman, specifically, is dealing with an injury that tends to linger and is likely to continue to hinder his production even when he's ready to return. With four core members of the team slated to hit free agency after the season, Mike Rizzo will push harder at the deadline this season and try and improve the roster... even if replacing Zimmerman for the rest of this season won't be a popular move.
4) Doug Fister will not make the postseason roster
Fister doesn't appear to be the type of starter who will add a lot if moved to the bullpen in a postseason series, and he's looking like the clear number five on this roster. While some of it may be due to injury, he's struggled with his command quite a bit this season, resulting in a career worst 40.7% GB rate. This isn't something that plays well for a starter that doesn't overpower hitters and pitches to contact. It's also something that hasn't really improved since his return from the forearm strain that cost him over a month.
Fister isn't only giving up better contact than he has in previous seasons, though. He's also dealing with a significantly worse defense behind him than we're accustomed to seeing. Danny Espinosa is an elite defensive second baseman, while Michael Taylor and Denard Span provide plus outfield gloves. Apart from those three (and Bryce Harper), the Nats don't really have a very strong defense. Yunel Escobar is subpar defensively at third base. Ian Desmond has gone from average(ish) to being one of the worst defensive shortstops in the league. The combination of Clint Robinson and Tyler Moore would be improved upon defensively if a banged up Ryan Zimmerman were able to return. Still, when you're relying on pitching to contact and throwing ground balls, it's best not to have defensive liabilities at three of your four infield positions.
I'm not expecting a big bounceback from Fister in the second half, but I do still think he's the most likely free agent to re-sign with the Nats in the offseason. While a number five starter isn't all that valuable come playoff time when there are extra off days, Fister seems like he could be a reasonably priced veteran who can provide the Nats some depth at the back of the rotation while youngsters like Lucas Giolito, Joe Ross, A.J. Cole, and Reynaldo Lopez develop.
5) Trea Turner will get the call in the final week of August
Once the Nationals were finally allowed to actually acquire Turner, the speculation began. With Ian Desmond struggling mightily and Turner tearing up the minor leagues, some thought that Turner might actually be up fairly quickly. Given that I believe Desmond will improve in the second half, I don't think that Turner is going to be coming up any time in the immediate future. However, I do think that the Nats may try and find a spot for him before September 1, as he could prove to be invaluable as Desmond insurance and a pinch runner on the playoff roster.
We saw last season just how valuable a 75/80 runner on the scouting scale could be as the Royals just ran all over the A's in the wildcard game and led all teams in the postseason (by 10!) with 14 SB. We've seen how Dave Roberts helped turn an entire series around against the Yankees a decade ago with a stolen base in the ninth inning of a playoff game. We've seen players like Chone Figgins help push themselves into more meaningful roles after coming up to basically be a pinch runner in the postseason.
Trea Turner could be that kind of weapon off the bench for the Nats if they make the postseason, so calling him up before September so that he's eligible for the playoff roster would seem like a wise move. He can (and will) be much more than just a pinch runner down the road, but that will be a good opportunity to get their future shortstop some experience.
Buckle in for an exciting second half Nats fans. The Mets haven't given any indications that they're going to go away, so the Nats may have a dogfight on their hands.