Washington Nationals: 5 questions for the second half of the season

July 13, 2012
What happens when the Nationals shut down Stephen Strasburg?

At the All-Star Game, Stephen Strasburg, below, said in a radio interview that the Nationals will have to “rip the ball out of my hands.” But the decision has been made. Once Strasburg’s season ends, likely after about 165 innings in early September, his starts will likely be transferred to left-hander John Lannan, a capable veteran who has gone 6-8 with a 4.60 ERA at Class AAA Syracuse. In the National League, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler still stack up against any contender’s rotation. But Strasburg sets them apart, and only time will tell the impact his absence will have on the team’s play and clubhouse morale.

Who’s the closer?

Drew Storen saved 43 games last year, and so the Nationals will have a very accomplished set-up man when he returns from elbow surgery as the second half starts. Tyler Clippard has become the closer, allowing one run in 181 / 3 innings since he took over the role. The decision for now is easy — Clippard has been great and Storen hasn’t pitched all year. The Nationals will ease Storen back into the majors. From there the roles will shake out based on performance and keeping each reliever fresh. Either way, Storen-or-Clippard is a good problem to have.

What will the Nationals doat the trade deadline?

Despite their status as a contender, the Nationals are still approaching the trade deadline with an eye on the future. The Nationals could look to trade for a top starter to replace Strasburg, but they are staunchly against selling the farm for a rental player. The Nationals would like to add offensive depth, ideally a left-handed bat. When he worked for the Diamondbacks, General Manager Mike Rizzo drafted outfielder Justin Upton, who reportedly is available, which may spark rumors or even real interest in a megadeal. The fit seems unlikely. Upton is still only 24 and finished fourth in MVP voting last year, so the price would be astronomical. The Nationals would have to revamp their roster if they added an everyday outfielder — Morse or Adam LaRoche would have to go. The Nationals are looking to upgrade, not to overhaul.

How will Jayson Werth affect the lineup?

No matter what happens at the trade deadline, the Nationals will receive a boost around July 31, when Jayson Werth is expected to return. The Nationals will use an everyday outfield of Michael Morse, Bryce Harper and Werth, making Steve Lombardozzi a utility player off the bench. Manager Davey Johnson would prefer to make Danny Espinosa the everyday leadoff hitter, but Werth himself could hit leadoff against right-handed starters if Espinosa does not improve hitting from the left side of the plate.

Will Ryan Zimmerman’sshoulder hold up?

Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, below, changed the Nationals’ offense in mid-June and offered a reminder: When he’s healthy, he rakes. Now he just has to stay healthy. Zimmerman’s surge over the past 14 games — he’s hitting .333/.394/.683 — began when he received a cortisone shot in his inflamed shoulder joint. Zimmerman hopes rest over the break means no more procedures. But if necessary he’ll receive another shot, and relatively minor offseason surgery remains possible.

— Adam Kilgore

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