Prior to the season, very few people might've believed that going into the All-Star Break the Nationals would be one game over .500 while the Dodgers would be at .500. But that is where these two teams stand prior to their three game series against each other. Patrick Reddington of Federal Baseball recently took the time to answer some questions about the team in the nation's capital.
DAVID: To get a better understanding of who you think the best player or players are on the Nationals so far this season, who do you think the teams' MVP and Cy Young would be if the season ended right now? It can be a pitcher for both, or a pitcher and a hitter.
PATRICK: Ian Desmond is the Nationals' first-half MVP in my opinion. He's played 94 of 95 games. Among NL shortstops he's second in hits with 100, first in doubles with 24 and first in home runs with 15 in 389 PA. He's first in fWAR at +3.5 at the Break. He has a .281/.328/.486 line which is down slightly from his .292/.335/.511 breakout season last year though it's up a bit from his career .273/.316/.435 line. He's been by far the most consistent position player. His defense is vastly improved from his first few seasons. No doubt in my mind he's been the team MVP thus far. As for the Nats' Cy Young, it's Jordan Zimmermann after the first half of the season. He's (9-0) with a 1.75 ERA at home in D.C., where he's unbeaten since May 2012. He's got three complete games, a 2.58 ERA at the break, a 49.0% GB%, which is a career-high and just 1.22 BB/9 in 132 1/3 IP. He's held opponents to a .220/.253/.341 line. He pounds the strike zone and is just a relatively emotionless, unflappable force. And he just gets to quietly go about his business while Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez get most of the press. No issue in my mind calling him the Nats' best starter or the team Cy Young so far.
DAVID: What do you think Washington needs to trade for, or trade away, at the trade-deadline?
PATRICK: I'm not 100% confident in Dan Haren at this point. I'm worried about Ross Detwiler's trips to the DL. I like right-handed rookie Taylor Jordan and Nathan Karns impressed at times when he was up in the majors and since he's been sent back to Double-A. But I'm not sure how comfortable I am with any of the above starting a must-win game late this season. In a perfect world you'd add another starter to the mix along with Strasburg, Gonzalez and Zimmermann, but I'm not sure if that pitcher is out there right now or if the Nationals have what it would take to get that sort of arm without gutting the minor league system. If they can't get a starter, a bench bat and fourth outfielder would probably be at the top of my list because the bench has been a major disappointment this season.
DAVID: What do you think the Nationals need to do to make the postseason?
PATRICK: Beat the Braves in most if not all of the nine games they have left with the NL East's first place team. They're 3-7 against Atlanta so far this season. They have to stomp on the Marlins like they did early this season, beating them in five of the first six games before dropping two of three in Miami to end the first half. They have to beat the Mets, against whom they're 4-4 so far this season. Basically beat their divisional rivals and win each series. They've dug themselves a bit of a hole in the first half. They're going to have to win 42 of the last 67 to get to the 90-win plateau you'd expect to get them into the postseason. That's going to be difficult. Don't see it as being impossible.
DAVID: Bryce Harper and Yasiel Puig are similar in that they play the game with a lot of intensity. Do you like how hard Harper plays? Or would you rather he "takes it down a notch?"
PATRICK: Bryce Harper "taking it down a notch" is not Bryce Harper. The thing I like most about Harper is that it's genuine effort. He doesn't seem to know any other way than all out all the time. That incident in LA was ugly, admittedly. I thought he hurt himself a lot worse than he did when he ran into the right field wall in Dodger Stadium, but it ended up being pretty bad all the same. Davey Johnson essentially said afterwards that it's just who Harper is as a player. He's going to run into walls, slide headfirst and run over catchers, you just have to accept it as part of the package. He hasn't been the same player at the plate since he returned from the DL (.196/.328/.333 in 14 games), but he makes a difference just getting on base with his patient approach. Taking it down a notch might be better for his career long-term, but trying to convince a 20-year-old of that is probably not easy to do.
DAVID: Jordan Zimmermann is arguably having a better season right now than Stephen Strasburg. Why do you think that's the case? Could you see Zimmermann being better than the former number one overall pick over the next couple of years?
PATRICK: Zimmermann's two years older, has 37 more starts on his resume and is a year ahead of Strasburg in terms of each pitcher's recovery from Tommy John surgery. Seeing Zimmermann this year gives plenty of reasons for hope for what the future holds for Strasburg. Strasburg's struggled with his fastball command since coming back, especially late last season and again at times this year, whereas Zimmermann's control has returned to pre-surgery levels of precision. Though the run support has been an issue for all of the Nats' starters, Strasburg's got the least run support per start (2.94 RS) in the National League to Zimmermann's (4.53 RS) or Gio Gonzalez's (4.63 RS). I think Strasburg's got better stuff, but Zimmermann's a better pitcher right now. Along with Gonzalez I think they give the Nats a top three that should keep them competitive for the next few seasons.
DAVID: There has been a lot of talk that Davey Johnson will retire very soon. Who would you like to see as the next manager of the Nationals if Johnson was to retire this offseason?
PATRICK: Don Mattingly? Kidding. Sort of. There were some rumors about that possibility earlier this season when everyone was thinking he was on his way out in LA since the Nats' GM reportedly loves Mattingly, asked to interview him before, etc.. For the record, Johnson's stated clearly this will be his last year, and no one's backed away from that stance yet. I would have liked to have seen Bo Porter get a shot, but don't think the Nationals could ask him to hang around and wait when he was offered the Astros' job. The rumor mill says the Nationals will go outside the organization for a new manager. Mike Rizzo had a convenient replacement available in Davey Johnson when Jim Riggleman walked out in 2011. Randy Knorr and Trent Jewett are both coaches in the majors now, they've both been in the organization and managed affiliates so they're probably the likeliest the in-house candidates. Tony Beasley is managing the Nats' Triple-A affiliate. I honestly have no idea what direction they're going in next if they don't promote someone after Davey. If they stay in-house those are the top three candidates in my mind.
DAVID: After last season, many people expected the Nationals to be playing much better than they are right now. Why do you think they have "under-performed so far?"
PATRICK: Why have they underperformed? Injuries, which are of course part of the game, the offense in general and specifically the offense from the players they've turned to when the starters have been out. Tyler Moore, Steve Lombardozzi, Roger Bernadina and Chad Tracy all exceeded expectations last year and they've underperformed this year. The Nationals also gave Danny Espinosa, who has a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder and suffered a fracture in his wrist, every opportunity to sort things out at the plate before they went to Anthony Rendon a little sooner than they probably would have preferred developmentally. Rendon's been impressive since he came up for a second time, but before that Espinosa provided next-to-nothing offensively for the first few months of the season. The pitching hasn't been quite as strong as it was last season. It took a while to get the bullpen sorted out. But the offense has been the problem this season.
DAVID: Do you think Harper's injury hurt this team a lot while he was out? Do you think the NL East standings would be significantly different if Harper didn't miss time?
PATRICK: He had a .287/.386/.587 line before the injury with seven doubles and 12 HRs in 44 games. He was the three-hole hitter. Losing his bat definitely hurt, but what really killed the Nationals was not having another outfielder who could fill in while he was out. When Espinosa didn't produce the Nats were able to turn to Rendon. When Harper went down it was Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore and Roger Bernadina filling in for him and they didn't come close to matching what they did last year or what Harper added to the lineup offensively. Do I think having Harper in the lineup during the month he was out would have resulted in the team winning more games? Of course. But the backups not performing hurt the Nationals more than anything else.
DAVID: He is a former Dodger so I figured I would ask about him... what do you think of Jayson Werth's performance so far this season and since the Nationals signed him?
PATRICK: Since returning from a DL stint for a hamstring injury earlier this season, Werth has a .326/.401/.515 line with seven doubles and six home runs in 37 games and 152 plate appearances. Have to like that. He's a little slower. Some of the power's gone. He's missed a lot of time with injuries, He's still under contract for another four years at $83M. It took a while to get past his Philly past, but even if he hasn't put up the same numbers as he did with the Phillies, and even if some people mock the idea that he "changed the culture" in the nation's capital, he's made a difference since arriving in Washington. They clearly overpaid for him, but they had to at that point to get him to sign in D.C. Can't say I regret the signing now. Over the next four years?
DAVID: Series prediction?
PATRICK: The Nationals haven't won the season series with the Dodgers since 2005. After dropping 2 of 3 in LA, they'd have to sweep to do it this year... I say the Nats take two of three, win this series, and tie it up for the year. When you get to see Ricky Nolasco vs Strasburg, Gonzalez vs Zack Greinke and Zimmermann vs Clayton Kershaw going head to head in one series, I won't exactly say who cares who wins, but it will be fun to watch no matter what.