Correction: This article about the Washington Nationals incorrectly said that no Washington baseball player has won a most-valuable-player, Cy Young or rookie-of-the-year award since 1925, when shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh was named American League MVP. The Senators’ Albie Pearson and Bob Allison were AL rookies of the year in 1958 and 1959, respectively.
No matter what happens from here on out, the Washington Nationals have already assured themselves of their most compelling second half since 2005, when Washington’s first major league team in a generation entered the all-star break with the best record in the National League East.
They have not eliminated themselves from contention, a rare feat for them in July, and, at 46-46, these Nationals could become the first winning major league team in the District since the 1969 Senators finished 86-76.
In reaching .500, the Nationals answered several important questions. Could they still entertain without Stephen Strasburg? They’ve played 36 one-run games, going 18-18, while going 28-18 at Nationals Park. How would Jordan Zimmermann pitch in his first full season after Tommy John surgery? He has a 2.66 ERA, seventh-best in the majors. How would they handle Jim Riggleman’s resignation, one of the most bizarre managerial departures in baseball history? They’ve gone 6-8 so far.
During a memorable first half, the Nationals created plenty of other questions:
1The two weeks of games coming out of the all-star break could sway General Manager Mike Rizzo’s thinking with regard to the July 31 trade deadline. If the Nationals come out scorching, they may find themselves a few games out of the wild-card race. If they start slowly, with the way the Atlanta Braves have separated themselves in the wild-card race, the Nationals would be hard-pressed to consider themselves a contender.
One of the Nationals’ top priorities for next season, if not their top priority, is to find a leadoff hitter and center fielder. Davey Johnson will play Roger Bernadina every day to know, one way or another, if he’s it. But the Nationals have shown interest outside the organization. They expressed interest earlier this season in Astros center fielder Michael Bourn, according to a National League source. The interest reached the desk of General Manager Ed Wade, but discussions never started.
If the Nationals decide they’re out of the race and want to sell veterans, Jason Marquis, who is 7-4 with a 4.05 ERA, would be a classic trade chip — a veteran starting pitcher whose contract is up at the end of the season. But one high-ranking major league executive predicted Marquis would finish the season with the Nationals. The executive said a wide gulf exists between how the Nationals and the rest of the league perceive Marquis’s value.
In the end, the best bet to be traded is probably Todd Coffey, who has a 3.28 ERA, 27 strikeouts and 14 walks in 35 2 / 3 innings. Just about every contender could use bullpen help, and the Nationals need to clear a spot for a second left-hander in their bullpen.
2The brightest subplot of the Nationals’ first half was the development of their young talent, and no one represented that more than Espinosa. By hitting 16 home runs, more than any rookie second baseman in history before the all-star break, and playing elite defense, Espinosa made himself perhaps the leading contender to win NL rookie of the year.
Judging by national consensus, Espinosa is running neck-and-neck with Braves closer Craig Kimbrel, who has struck out 13.7 batters per nine innings and saved 28 games in 33 chances for the team with the second-best record in the NL. Kimbrel is a worthy contender. Espinosa, though, even with a .242 batting average, is putting together a remarkable rookie season.
With his slugging and defense, Espinosa has racked up 3.3 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs.com, putting him on pace for 5.8 this year. That would be the most by a rookie since 2001, when Albert Pujols (7.7) and Ichiro Suzuki (6.1) both won rookie of the year. Since 1990, the only other rookies with more than 5.8 WAR were Mike Piazza in 1993 (7.6), Nomar Garciaparra in 1997 (6.6) and Kenny Lofton in 1992 (6.3).
Espinosa’s rookie of the year chase will provide a rare thrill. The last time Washington claimed an MVP, Cy Young or rookie of the year was 1925, when shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh won the American League MVP. Ryan Zimmerman came closest in 2006, narrowly finishing second to Hanley Ramirez for rookie of the year.
3On Saturday, four days after Johnson said he thought Werth had “bottomed out,” Werth reached a new nadir when he grounded into a game-ending double play with the tying run on first base. The moment serves as his single worst moment, but his numbers delved even lower in the final game of the first half, when he went 0 for 3.
Werth finished the first half hitting .215/.319/.362, following an 18-for-122 (.148) slump since June 4 that includes just two homers. Even those who panned Werth’s seven-year, $126 million contract could not have envisioned Werth’s first half-season in Washington unfolding so poorly. On the National League OPS leader board, his .681 ranks 57th out of 73 qualifying players, right between Ryan Ludwick and Ryan Theriot.
The Nationals were able to withstand both Werth’s ineffectiveness and Zimmerman’s injury. For them to equal their first-half success in the coming months, though, Werth will have to contribute with more than mere “presence.” With a fresh start, Werth figures to improve in the second half. For him to approach his career norms, Werth must hit fewer groundballs and more line drives — he is striking out at roughly the same rate as the rest of his career, but he’s putting the ball on the ground more than ever.
Werth will naturally decline with age as the latter stages of his contract plays out, but at 32 it would be a surprise for him not to bounce back in the second half. After four days to collect himself and rest nagging injuries, Werth now has a second chance to make a first impression.
4As Strasburg’s rehab from Tommy John surgery enters its final stages, it seems more and more clear that it will be a success. He is throwing all his pitches in bullpen sessions now, with smooth mechanics and familiar life on all of them. Soon, he will face a hitter in live practice in Viera, Fla. A minor league rehab appearance won’t be far off.
The Nationals have discussed dates for Strasburg’s first minor league game, but, holding to their approach since he tore his ulnar collateral ligament, they have been careful not to make any distinct timetables. If Strasburg is ready pitch in the majors this season, he will. If he is not — or if there is any small indication he might not be — then he won’t.
If Strasburg doesn’t return this year, the Nationals have other compelling pitching possibilities. This month, Chien-Ming Wang could make his first major league appearance in two years. Brad Peacock leads all minor leaguers in strikeouts. Tom Milone, their 2010 minor league pitcher of the year, has struck out 107 batters and walked just seven at Class AAA Syracuse.
The Nationals will likely provide a glimpse of their starting pitching future in the second half — even if Strasburg makes his major league return on opening day 2012.
5Johnson wants to get his arm in shape so he can throw batting practice to his slumping players, like he used to do in the ’90s. He often repeats his mantra of “managing today with an eye on tomorrow.” He is invested in the Nationals for 2012 — even if he doesn’t know if he’ll be the manager or not.
If Johnson wants to manage next season, it would be a shock if Rizzo, who has immense faith in and respect for Johnson, does not retain him. But Johnson, 68, will evaluate his 2012 role for himself at the end of the season. At this point, he does not know if he wants to be a consultant or the manager.
It is obvious that he loves what he’s doing. Johnson has already tinkered with roles in the Nationals’ bullpen and focused on giving young players, like Bernadina and shortstop Ian Desmond, a chance to prove whether or not they’re long-term answers. He’ll guide the Nationals as they try to answer whether or not they can finish 2011 with a winning record. What he does next, most likely, will still be a question even after that one is answered.