So in anticipation for this weekend’s series against the Washington Nationals, I reached out to Andrew Flax, editor for District on Deck, to get his take on the Nationals and their less than spectacular start to the 2013 season. Unfortunately, Andrew didn’t respond to my Tweet until this evening, so we’re a bit late on this, BUT… we’re flexible here at Wahoo’s on First. Andrew also gave some great answers to some tough questions making it well worth the wait. You can follow him on Twitter @NatsNation21.
Wahoo’s on First: The Nationals had huge expectations for this season after winning 98 games a year ago. Unfortunately things just haven’t gone according to plan. Are injuries the biggest reason for the sluggish first half so far, or is this team not as good as we thought?
Andrew Flax: Injuries are probably the biggest part, and the biggest injury is absolutely Bryce Harper‘s. Without him the Nats a are 8-14, and with him they are 25-18. He’s absolutely integral to the struggling offense, and the Nats are having a rough time scoring without him. In addition, the Nationals have also dealt with injuries to Ross Detwiler, Stephen Strasburg, Jayson Werth, Ryan Mattheus, Ryan Zimmerman, and Danny Espinosa, which is a great deal more than they had last year. However, even if the Nats were fully healthy, I don’t think they’d win 98 games. Gio Gonzalez and Adam LaRoche both had career years that they were unlikely to repeat, and Dan Haren has struggled more than Edwin Jackson did last year. The Nationals, at full strength, are much better than their record indicates, but they aren’t the powerhouse that some expected them to be.
Wahoo’s on First: Bryce Harper appears to be the real deal. Is this officially his team or is everyone still holding out hope that Ryan Zimmerman is a franchise caliber player?
Andrew Flax: As much as Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg have raised the Nats’ nationwide profile, the older veterans are definitely still the clubhouse leaders. Werth, Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, and Ian Desmond are the guys everyone in the dugout looks up to, and Zimmerman’s nickname is still The Face of the Franchise. The Nats still hold Zimmerman in very high regard, as evidenced by the $100M extension he recently received, but the team isn’t any more “his” than it is any other veteran’s. Is Harper the best player on the team? Absolutely. But he’s 20 years old, and certainly not an ideological leader yet.
Wahoo’s on First: Why has the Nationals offense been so lack luster? Looking at the stats they’re ranked in the low bottom half in a lot of categories. Cause for concern or will they bounce back once everyone is healthy?
Andrew Flax: A major part of that has been the underperforming bench guys who have been pressed into everyday duty thanks to injuries. Tyler Moore, Roger Bernadina, and Steve Lombardozzi were semi-regular offensive players when Harper and Werth were both out, though their playing time has diminished with Werth’s return and the call-up of Anthony Rendon to play second base. Moore was hitting .158 before he was recently sent back to AAA Syracuse, Bernadina is hitting .194, and Lombardozzi is hitting .217 with a .505 OPS. The Nationals had one of the best benches in baseball in 2012, but it has regressed in a huge way this year. Most of the offensive regulars are doing fine, like Zimmerman, LaRoche (ever since he broke out of his prolonged slump), and Desmond. A few are just below expectations, like Denard Span (a career .282 hitter hitting .263) and Jayson Werth, who is hitting .246. However, the slight underperformances of these players cannot sink an offense as far as the Nationals’ offense has fallen, and most of the blame for that falls on injuries and sub par replacements.
Wahoo’s on First: Despite all the bad things I’ve pointed out, I apologize, how do you feel about this teams chances to not only repeat as division champs, but also make some noise in the playoffs?
Andrew Flax: Every comment you’ve made has been completely warranted, and I’m sure the Nationals players would agree that they haven’t been playing to the level of their talent. When Bryce Harper returns, I think the Nationals will make a run at first place in the division. They were trailing by 8.5 games not too long ago, and have cut it to 5.5 by winning four of their past five. Will the Nationals win the division? I don’t know, but I’d put the odds at over 50%. At the very least, they’ll make it a lot more interesting than it currently is. If they get in the playoffs, they’ll be as dangerous as anyone, especially because they’ll be able to cut Haren out of the rotation.
Wahoo’s on First: How do you see this weekend’s series playing out? Personally, I feel like the edge has to go to the Nats based on who they have pitching. What are your thoughts?
Andrew Flax: As I write this, thanks to my inattentiveness to my Twitter mentions, it’s a 1-1 pitcher’s duel in the seventh. This game is anyone’s to take, but I agree with your assessment that the Nats have an edge on pitching matchups. The Nats are always happy to have their three aces out in a series, especially as Strasburg returns from the DL. Scott Kazmir and Corey Kluber haven’t been that sharp this season, but with the Indians’ deep offense, anything can happen.