The Washington Nationals finished the agreed-upon — if not statistically genuine — first half 54-36, 18 games over .500, and six games up on the New York Mets in the National League East. They tied the 1994 Expos for most wins before the break in franchise history. By any standard, the best way to sum it up may be “so far, so good.”
They have done all that without playing their best, or at least that’s what Nationals Manager Dusty Baker has said many times, and statistics support the claim. Ben Revere’s career numbers suggest he is a hitter 70 points better than his current average. Bryce Harper is slowly finding rhythm again. Ryan Zimmerman produced very little, and Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth were quiet early. Jonathan Papelbon was hurt. Stephen Strasburg hit the disabled list. The Nationals survived and, at times, thrived.
“I think we’ve played well. We’ve always liked the team, coming out of spring training, but I think there’s more in there,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said this weekend in New York. “There’s guys, their track record says they’re going to have better second halves than they had first halves. So I feel good about our roster. The starting rotation has been solid. The bullpen and the offense has been good, and the defense has been great.”
Rizzo said he has been particularly impressed with the defense, which leads the league in fielding percentage and, he believes, has helped the pitching staff a great deal in the process. In particular, he pointed out Daniel Murphy, who joined the Nationals with a reputation as a shaky defender at second base but has not cost the team often.
“I think the main cog in that is the way Murph is playing defensively is really a nice pleasant surprise,” Rizzo said. “He’s been terrific defensively. [Shortstop Danny] Espinosa and Murphy have been a great double-play combination.”
Murphy enters the break as the league’s leading hitter. Catcher Wilson Ramos is having the best offensive season of his career. Some have wondered if the Nationals may need to add a bat to their lineup, or depth to the back end of their bullpen given Papelbon’s early wobbles. The trade deadline is three weeks away, and Rizzo said he does not see any glaring weakness in need of patching. “We don’t have any immediate needs,” said Rizzo, who then ran down each unit of his team.
“I think the bench is solid. I can’t see what upgrade we would get on the bench that’s on the market. It’s balanced, it’s productive, they’re great guys, and they’re versatile defensively. They’re good, veteran players. All of them have been everyday players in the big leagues in the not-so-distant past,” Rizzo said. “So it’s a good bench.”
Statistically, his bench has the third-most pinch-hit RBI and second-most pinch-hit homers in baseball. Anecdotally, that bench has allowed Baker to rest regulars that seem to have benefited from the breaks. The rotation has been equally strong.
“The rotation I think is solid,” Rizzo said. “We’re deep. Four starters. [Joe] Ross and [Lucas] Giolito, that’s six. [Reynaldo] Lopez knocking on the door is seven. [Austin] Voth is eight. And you could always throw [Yusmeiro] Petit as a guy if you had to. I like our depth in pitching.”
Even with injuries to Strasburg and Ross forcing occasional creativity and experimentation, Nationals starters have the third-best fielding independent pitching (FIP) in baseball. They also have the second-best ERA. The bullpen has been solid, and we’ve got some reinforcements if we have to go down to the minor leagues and get some,” said Rizzo, who then pointed out (accurately) that the Nationals’ bullpen is at or near the top of the National League in many categories. As of Sunday, Nationals relievers led the league in FIP, sat third in inherited runners left on base, and second in strikeouts per nine innings.
“So, I don’t sense any need,” Rizzo said. “That’s not to say that we’re a perfect team and we couldn’t upgrade if the right possibility comes.”
In the past, the Nationals have been wary to add payroll at the trade deadline. The move they made for Papelbon in late July last season, polarizing though it was, did signal some willingness to take on future salary if a value arose. In the case of Papelbon, the Nationals got one of the most statistically effective closers in the past decade for a mid-level prospect because they agreed to pay him in 2016, if not in 2015. Rizzo expects to be able to add present or future value this season, too.
“I think we’ll have options to make moves,” Rizzo said. “We’re going to make prudent moves. If that means taking on salary and not giving up a prospect, we would consider that. But we like the team that we have, and I don’t see a lot of needs to improve ourselves.”