How many Nationals should be all-stars? The numbers say one, maybe two


At the eight everyday positions, only one Nat has genuine stature near the very top of the sport at his position — shortstop Ian Desmond. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist July 3, 2013

During Fourth of July week, baseball fans have their last chance to vote for all-star teams at the ballpark, punching as many ballots as they can beg or swipe from fans who don’t want to fill out their own. Or they can vote online as many as 35 times. In part, this is an annual exercise in bad-faith ballot-stuffing to get hometown players in the starting lineup.

But it’s also an education, sometimes a sobering one if fans, like those of the Nats, are honest about where their players really stand in the game.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

At the eight everyday positions, only one Nat has genuine stature near the very top of the sport at his position — shortstop Ian Desmond. He’s on pace to hit 29 homers and drive in 96 runs after having 25 homers last year. Troy Tulowitzki is clearly the game’s best when he’s healthy, but Desmond has played twice as many games since the start of last season.

Even the case for Desmond illustrates how easy it is for home towns to have myopia. This week, the Brewers and Padres are at Nats Park. Who are their shortstops? Answer: Jean Segura (.325, 11 homers, 24 of 27 steals) and Everth Cabrera (.305, 31 steals). In 2013, they have better stats than Desmond, but he’s proven himself while they’re still establishing career norms. Punch Desmond ballots all you want, but wins above replacement may demur.

Someday soon, if he stays off the disabled list, Bryce Harper may challenge Carlos Gonzalez and Mike Trout as baseball’s best left fielder and give the Nats two shots at bragging rights. Despite missing 37 games, Harper has all-star credentials, sort of. Per game, Harper is the fifth-best outfielder in the National League in WAR, according to fangraphs.com. Yes, that’s fudging. Pirates left fielder Starling Marte may deserve the all-star pick more. See, education.

What Nats fans may learn as they analyze their ballots is that some of their best-known and best-paid players are not near the top at their positions.

The Nats are deep in talent with an average-to-very good player at every position while most teams have true weak spots. That’s why the Nats, when they play at their best and get bench contributions, can look so good, as they did last season. It’s not an illusion. But synchronicity is needed.

The team’s starting pitchers are the defining stars. The past two years, Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann rank fourth, fifth and seventh in baseball in pitching WAR. They might light up any October.

To get there, they need help. The Nats’ lineup has quality and potential but, so far, lacks the greatness of most title teams. The all-star test shows it.

Since he became a National, Jayson Werth ranks 79th among all outfielders in WAR, just behind Norichika Aoki and just above Andy Dirks. That low rank reflects his bad ’11 and the 112 games he’s missed in ’12 and ’13. The more generous view of Werth is that his .805 on-base-plus-slugging percentage the past two years would rank fifth best among NL right fielders this year. When intact, he’s still valuable.

Ryan Zimmerman may be the hardest National to evaluate. His hitting, last year and this, perfectly mirrors his whole fine career. His .832 OPS now is sixth best among MLB third basemen in ’13, just behind the Orioles’ Manny Machado. He’d be on a 100-RBI pace if not for a DL trip.

But Zimmerman’s throwing errors this year (worst third-base fielding percentage) drag him down to an overall below-average defender in the view of FanGraphs. It ranks him 15th in WAR among third basemen this year and 11th the past two seasons combined. Not a lot for a new $100 million deal. For years, when his defense shone, he blew the roof off this WAR stat.

Adam LaRoche led all NL first basemen in homers and was second in RBI last year. That, plus a Gold Glove, meant that if all-star teams were picked after the season, he might have made his first one in ’12. This year, after a horrid April, he’s still only 19th in RBI among MLB first basemen and would be perhaps the NL’s sixth- or seventh-best player at his spot.

Denard Span is average. WAR includes defense and base running. It ranks him 16th among center fielders in ’13 and 17th over the past four years.

Among starting catchers, overworked Kurt Suzuki is the third-worst hitter this year by OPS and has the second-worst percentage of thrown-out base stealers (12 percent). He’s so agile he’s allowed only 12 wild pitches and no passed balls; so he saves about 30 balls a year from going to the backstop vs. an average catcher. That compensates for the thievery.

Last season, Danny Espinosa ranked second among NL second basemen in extra-base hits and steals — the power, speed combination — while making only six errors. Then, he plummeted back to Class AAA this year.

If we look candidly at these six everyday positions, we see why the returns of Harper and catcher Wilson Ramos from the DL, and Anthony Rendon’s eventual development at second base are so vital to the Nats.

Once again, the Nats have slipped to next to last in baseball in runs per game. When fans wonder, “How can that happen with so many ‘good’ players?” They should look at the all-star ballots they have been handed. There are no pitchers — the Nats’ strength — included there. Instead, there are eight everyday positions. Second base was a cipher for months. Four other starting spots have lost 151 games to injury with zilch value in bench help.

Because the Nats, when healthy, have no voids in their lineup, it’s easy to overestimate the sum of all their respectable parts. A batting order needs stars. And it needs serious thump. All the Nats’ center fielders, second basemen and catchers (except Ramos) have batted more than 1,000 times with only seven home runs. That’s a huge weight for five other everyday spots to carry, especially when most of them are good, but not great players.

For now vote for Desmond. And, maybe, stop right there.

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/
boswell
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