Let's start with the positives. The Washington Nationals won their second straight game on Wednesday night, defeating the Colorado Rockies 4-1. In what's been a disappointing second half so far, this marked just the second time since the All Star Break that the Nats have won consecutive games. Their only other consecutive wins in the second half came on July 29-30 when they took the final two games of a series in Miami. They've yet to win three straight since the break, but they'll have a shot at a three game sweep on Thursday night before returning to D.C. for a nine game homestand against three sub-.500 opponents.
While the Nats won their second straight and gained ground in the standings for the first time in two weeks, there was one omission from the lineup that may be cause for concern. Anthony Rendon sat for the second night in a row. It was the third time in the Nats past five games that Rendon hasn't started (he appeared as a pinch hitter in last Friday's game). The club also had an off day on Monday, so he's started just twice in the past six days.
Given the injury problems that Rendon has dealt with in 2015, it seems natural to speculate about whether he's dealing with another injury. Rendon missed most of Spring Training with a sprained MCL in his left knee. While rehabbing, Rendon tweaked his oblique muscle, postponing his 2015 debut until June 4. Upon returning, Rendon started slowly, but finally seemed to be hitting stride near the end of June before heading back to the disabled list for another month with a quadriceps strain. The biggest question mark surrounding Rendon when the Nats drafted him sixth overall out of Rice in 2011 was his durability. He's certainly had trouble staying healthy this year.
Nats manager Matt Williams tried to put the fears that Rendon might be injured again to rest before the game....
For those wondering, Williams said Rendon is healthy (if struggling with timing at the plate somewhat). Wanted to stick with what worked.— Chelsea Janes (@chelsea_janes) August 19, 2015
Rendon has certainly struggled with timing (or at least he's struggled with something) at the plate this season. He's batting just .247/.329/.322 thus far this season, in part due to a .208/.287/.286 line in 87 PA since returning from the disabled list on July 25. Rendon is currently in a 1 for 14 funk at the plate and his power has been non-existent all season long. After turning in a .186 ISO a season ago with 21 homers and 39 doubles, Rendon's 2015 ISO stands at .075. He's managed just 9 extra base hits in 167 plate appearances so far this season. Just one of them left the yard.
All of that said, Rendon showed last season that he's a key piece for the Nats to build around moving forward. In just his second big league season, Rendon hit .287/.351/.473 on his way to finishing fifth in the MVP balloting. As Bryce Harper turned in a disappointing, injury riddled 2014 campaign, some felt that Rendon had surpassed him as the most important player for the organization to build around. At the very least, Rendon and Harper figured to provide the Nats with one of the more dominant combination of young core players in the game.
If Rendon is healthy, it seems out of character that Williams would bench him two days in a row (or three times in five games). Williams has shown throughout his tenure that he tends to stand by his starters. He stuck with Ian Desmond earlier this season when Desmond couldn't seem to hit his way out of a paper bag for three months, and has been rewarded by seeing Desmond flourish in the second half. He made a significant shift to the lineup in an effort to get Jayson Werth going on Tuesday despite the fact that Werth (36 and recovering from significant injuries himself) has been far less productive than Rendon has been this season. He's stood by Wilson Ramos in spite of his 66 wRC+, which ranks in the bottom fifteen among all position players in the major leagues.
If Anthony Rendon is healthy, he's not only more talented than any of the three players mentioned above at this point in their careers. He's also the one that is most important to the future of the Washington Nationals. Desmond is a free agent at year's end, and looks like he's gone in the offseason. Werth has two more years remaining on his contract, and those are years where he's expected to see some age related decline anyway. Ramos is a free agent after the 2016 season. Anthony Rendon has four more years of club control remaining after this season and his career arc projects to be on the upswing.
Perhaps Williams' reasoning is that Rendon's backup provides a stronger replacement than those other three players. With Denard Span on the disabled list, the Nats are already starting their fourth outfielder regularly, so Werth doesn't have much behind him in the lineup. There could have been some logic in benching Desmond for Danny Espinosa earlier in the season, but when Desmond was struggling, Espinosa had to play second base regularly because Rendon was on the shelf. Jose Lobaton is a backup catcher who has hit like exactly that (68 wRC+, slightly better than Ramos) and isn't as strong defensively as Ramos is.
In the case of Anthony Rendon, the Nats have a stronger backup option. Danny Espinosa has revived his career so far in 2015, batting .248/.318/.422. He's come back to earth in the second half (.224/.264/.373), but he's played well over the past week. He hit two home runs in the series against San Francisco, once in the game that he started in place of Rendon and another in a pinch hit appearance. Espinosa took advantage of the opportunity to get back in the lineup on Tuesday as well, going 3 for 6 with a pair of doubles in a blowout win. He's also a better defender at second base than Rendon... in fact, UZR/150 rates Espinosa as the top defensive second baseman in the majors this season.
We've been clamoring for the Nats to find a spot to play Espinosa semi-regularly once the starters returned for a while now. He's struggled in the second half, but he's still been slightly better than a league average hitter by wRC+ (101) while providing an outstanding and versatile glove. Espinosa is best used at second base, but he's also lined up at first base, shortstop, third base, and has even worked out in left field. He seems like the supersub that the Nats have been looking for, and could still provide an excellent way to give Ian Desmond, Yunel Escobar, Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, and even (maybe) Jayson Werth the occasional day off to keep them fresh.
Still, if Espinosa is starting in Anthony Rendon's spot three or four times a week (when he's capable of spelling other guys) and Rendon is healthy, that doesn't seem like it's going to be a way to help Rendon fix what's ailing him at the plate. One day off in five days makes sense. Two days off in five days seems like they'd rather err on the side of caution with Rendon's health. Three days off in five games sure makes it seem like either Rendon is injured or Williams is making a more permanent change to the lineup. To do that with a 25-year-old who is under club control through 2019 and finished top five in the MVP voting last season seems curious.
Let's focus on the positives, though. Williams did change the lineup around the other day in an effort to help Jayson Werth going. That's worked (so far). It's possible that he thinks that a few extra days off will help Rendon. Perhaps even if he's actually healthy, Rendon has been battling fatigue and/or soreness as he tried to reacclimate himself to playing every day. As strong as Espinosa has played this season, he's no match for a healthy and sharp Anthony Rendon. It's possible that Williams is trying to expedite the process of getting Rendon to where he needs to be with some outside the box thinking.
The Nats have won two straight. They have a chance to sweep the Rockies on Thursday and head home on a winning streak. Let's be happy that the Nats are winning again and hope that it continues to build......