Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell
Columnist

Washington Nationals haven’t met expectations, so what now?

Video: The Post Sports Live crew debates whether it’s better for the team if injured Nationals play through the pain.

Expectations are the context we impose on our experience. Maybe we would be better off with less of the darn things or even none. But that’s not our human way. We can’t stop expecting. We wake up, greet the sun and tell the world what we expect of it as if the very clouds were listening to us.

Then those expectations meet the day, and they evaporate. Or, in baseball terms, the Washington Nationals start the season as slight favorites to win the World Series; then one day they are 31-31 with the second-worst offense in the sport, the most errors, both Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg on the disabled list and opposing hitters sending taxis to make sure Dan Haren doesn’t miss his next start.

Video

The Post Sports Live crew looks at the issues plaguing the Washington Nationals, including injuries to Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg and the team’s poor defense.

The Post Sports Live crew looks at the issues plaguing the Washington Nationals, including injuries to Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg and the team’s poor defense.

Nationals Journal

Nationals Journal

Insight on the Nationals and all the latest news from Post reporters Adam Kilgore and James Wagner.

So what do we expect now? What’s the reworked framework of our anticipation? The number grinders say the Nats, who trail the Braves by 7½ games in the NL East and even trail the Pirates by 5½ games for the second wild-card spot, have about a 25 percent chance at the playoffs.

What I’ve learned is that, in baseball, you shouldn’t turn your analysis on its head every time it starts to look stupid. Better to be dumb just once. In ’78, I covered every game between the Red Sox and Yankees. On July 17, Boston led by 14 games. On Sept. 16, less than two months later, the Red Sox trailed the Yankees by 3½ games. They ended up tied.

From that, I learned this: Don’t tell baseball what it can and can’t do. Two years later, the Orioles started 28-30, slightly worse than where the Nats are now. Having learned nothing, I wrote them off. They ended up winning 100.

The Nats may be on the cusp of a historically disappointing season. As I wrote in March, 11 teams in the past 50 years have won as many or more games than the Nats’ 98 last season yet finished below .500 the following year. Will the Nats be No. 12? They are certainly trying to play like it.

But with 100 games left in the Nats season, I suspect this is the better question: What’s broken about this team that can’t be fixed in two weeks?

The answer is: nothing.

Before June is over, Harper and Wilson Ramos are expected off the disabled list. Then the Nats may have a healthy lineup of Denard Span, Jayson Werth, Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond, Anthony Rendon and Ramos. That lineup is more likely to score 4.5 runs a game than its current 3.5. The Nats averaged 4.51 last year after a very slow start.

With Strasburg and Ross Detwiler off the disabled list this week, the Nats will have a rotation that includes possible NL All-Star Game starter Jordan Zimmermann and 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez, backed by relievers Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen and Craig Stammen. That remains one of baseball’s best staffs. By then the bench will be deep.

However, the Nats do have real problems that will have to be solved — by the trade deadline or next year. If this 31-31 start has no other use, it can serve to underline mistakes.

The Nats began this year with expectations — too many of them, as it turns out. They expected Haren was a high-character star who would bounce back after his first bad year. Instead, he looks like a $13 million free agent bust whose stuff, dwindling for four years, finally has run out of steam. He’s getting worse, with a 5.86 ERA in his last six starts, not better.

The Haren bet also was a kind of double-down for the Nats. By giving him so much cash, they crossed their fingers and hoped their lack of starting pitching depth wouldn’t be exposed. It has been. Zach Duke and Yunesky Maya (both released), Chris Young (fizzle) and Nate Karns (not ready yet, back to minors) have added up to zero. By the trade deadline, if not sooner, the Nats probably will have to pay heavily for another starter.

The Nats also expected they had enough bats that they could sacrifice offense by trading for a slap-hitting leadoff man and center fielder in Span while moving Harper to left field and trading Michael Morse. On Sunday, Span got an important RBI triple and Ian Desmond said, “Welcome to the team.” That’s not good. It took Span 62 games to have an impact moment.

GM Mike Rizzo miscalculated. This is one time both the scouts and stat nerds were wrong. Scouts love the security of a gliding center fielder with a good arm and a leadoff who looks like he can run, slap hit and foul off pitches. That’s eye candy, not production. The geeks thought Span was worth a 5.1 WAR last season, close to superstar. This guy? With the .325 on-base percentage that’s almost identical to his .334 the previous three years? Don’t wait for Span to get better. It’s not his fault. This is just him.

The Nats also expected their reserves to duplicate ’12. That implied Roger Bernadina’s improvement was real, Tyler Moore wouldn’t slump, Goon Squader Chad Tracy was valuable and Steve Lombardozzi’s on-base-plus slugging wouldn’t drop 155 points. Wrong again.

Rizzo got one offseason move very correct. Nobody asked him to get a last-second $24 million free agent. But he did, and Soriano has saved a staggering bullpen with 16 saves and is probably an all-star.

Baseball seems to exist to expand our imaginations every summer. Whatever we anticipate proves to be far too tame for the sport’s reality. It’s too cheerful, too glum or just not outlandish enough, not enough fun.

In Sunday’s doubleheader, the Nats’ new second baseman, who has played fewer than a dozen games at the position since Little League but soon might be entrenched at the position for years, muffed a popup because he forgot to wear sunglasses and made an error on a ground ball. He also made a brilliant leaping catch, started a double play, made a cannon relay throw, walked, cracked two singles, doubled and drove in three runs as he raised his average to .367 in his last nine games.

He’s rookie Anthony Rendon, far, far ahead of schedule. Just as nobody expected.

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

 
Read what others are saying