Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Watch out, NL: Here come the Nationals
By David Schoenfield
Two weeks ago, the Washington Nationals were 25-27. Now they've won nine of 11, are 34-29 and riding some amazing starting pitching. The pitching staff as a whole has allowed more than two runs just twice in those 11 games -- four runs both times -- and the starters have allowed more than two runs just once (and two of those four runs that Stephen Strasburg allowed on June 4 were unearned).
Here's the collective line for the rotation over those 11 games:
77 IP, 55 H, 14 R, 10 ER, 73 SO, 6 BB, 3 HR, 1.17 ERA
Focus on that walk column. When Doug Fister walked Brandon Hicks leading off the seventh inning on Tuesday, it snapped a streak of 51 consecutive innings Nationals starters had pitched without issuing a walk. Sure, the first part of this stretch came against the Phillies and Padres, but they also just beat the Giants 9-2 and 2-1 with two games left in the series (followed by another big series in St. Louis).
Fister has quietly been effective. After allowing seven runs in his first start returning from the DL on May 9, he's gone 5-0 with a 1.83 ERA. Strasburg has a 2.04 ERA since April 20 (although that's helped by seven unearned runs). Jordan Zimmermann scuffled early but is coming off back-to-back dominant, scoreless outings, including a 12-strikeout shutout against the Padres in which he registered nine of the K's with his fastball.
Oh ... and the bullpen leads the majors with a 2.20 ERA.
Remember that the Nationals have suffered through their share of injuries to position players. On Opening Day, the lineup featured Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos, Bryce Harper and Adam LaRoche. That's the only time all four have played. Three of the four have played together just 15 times ... and Ramos left Tuesday's game with tightness in his right hamstring.
Injuries certainly aren't an excuse, especially considering Ramos, Zimmerman and Harper also battled injury issues last season, but it's fair to point out that Nationals haven't been operating on all cylinders yet. The bench hasn't been the disaster it was last season, but backup outfielder Nate McLouth, signed to a $5 million contract to provide depth has hit .179 with one home in 106 at-bats and Jose Lobaton and Kevin Frandsen have given sub-.300 on-base percentages.
Bryce Harper -- who may play center field when he returns from his handy injury with Zimmerman in left -- is expected back in late June or early June. He told the Washington Post a few days ago that he'd like to play center when he returns:
I really have no idea what they’re going to do, how they’re going to do it. I think everyone knows I love center field. That’s where I like to be. My numbers are a lot better in center field. I feel good there. But you know, of course we have Denard Span, who’s one of the best center fielders in the game, if not the best.
As that article points out, Harper's defensive metrics were actually very good in center when he played there as a rookie in 2012, while being below-average in left. Span rates about average in center over the past two seasons. Considering the uncertainty of Zimmerman's ability to play third due to his shoulder, I would say the Nationals' best team features Zimmerman in left and Harper in center. Span can rotate in as needed, with Zimmerman also playing some first base for LaRoche against lefties.
Getting Harper back shouldn't be viewed as a problem. Have more flexibility will be a good thing for manager Matt Williams. I don't view the switch from Harper to Span as hurting the defense and, if anything, it allows the Nationals to be stronger defensively at three positions (Danny Espinosa at second over Anthony Rendon; Rendon over Zimmerman at third; and Harper over Span).
And a better defense could make the starters even better.
Not good news for the rest of the NL East.