We're now a month into the season and almost 20% of the way through with 2014 (Time flies doesn't it?) While April was all about patience, seeing if there were any interesting trends and keeping an eye on them, May is about planning. In May you need to stop casually watching things and start really focusing on them. You need to have an idea of what's an issue and what's not by the time May ends so you are ready to make moves in June if need be. Yes, even two months in is early to decide on things strictly speaking. But the baseball season does not last forever and if problems need to be addressed, the earlier this is done the better for your chances. Dragging your feet until the All-Star break only serves to waste over half your games. When one game could matter that's unacceptable.
So what are the problems (or any bright spots) that the Nats should be looking at addressing as we play through May?
Nate McLouth may not be able to shoulder burden of replacing Bryce.
Nate McLouth is hitting .091 / .273 / .182. Nate McLouth is your main "Bryce Harper replacement" while he is out injured. The Nats will make do versus lefties with Frandsen and Moore and Hairston getting at bats but against righties the job is McLouth's and he's not doing it. This is an immediate issue because, assuming Bryce heals as expected, Nate is only needed in this capacity until about the All-Star break. You wait until June then you've waited half the time.
Bad luck maybe part of it. His BABIP is .088 which is basically "Hit it where they is" batting. However a big part of that is the fact he's hitting weak GBs and lazy flies. His FB% is high (48.6%) and his HR%, which was never great, is low (5.9%). His LD% is down to 11.4%. You may not follow these things but that's LOW low. That means he's hitting nothing square. This is somewhat a product of small sample size right now. That LD% should come up. But will it come up enough?
Do you replace now? Can you replace now?
Ian Desmond isn't the All-Star version he's been the past 2 years.
The good news is that Ian hasn't had an error in 11 games. The bad news is that he still leads the league in them. While that might be an early season hiccup his early fielding numbers (range, zone rating) aren't so hot either. It's REAL early to judge these things (it's basically like judging batting stats after 2 weeks) but you do have to remember that prior to 2012 & 2013 Ian was not a great shortstop. That may seem inconsequential but often guys come into the league slick fielding. To play 2 years and go from ok to very good seemingly overnight is unusual. We have to consider that the 2 years were a bit of a fluke.
That wouldn't normally be a concern. You'd accept slightly below average fielding for having Ian's bat at SS. The problem is... Ian's bat. . 234 / .273 / .371 in 2014 so far. BABIP is a little low but nothing crazy. Remember when I talked about McLouth's LD%? Ian's is right there with him at 11.2%. (this would be 237th out of 247 qualified major leaguers). Whereas Nate just seemingly can't hit, Ian is more getting on top of balls. GB rate up to highest of his career (55.1%).
Combine the two issues and Ian is no longer in the "Well, not couting Tulo" conversations, he's in the "Well, not counting Ruben Tejada" ones. He's 26th out of 29 SS with at least 70 PAs in fWAR (stat way of saying - if I look at enough SS to get about one per team, Ian is among the worst of them). This is a real tough one to address is if continues through the end of May, though. Danny is already coming down to earth and without him killing the ball there isn't an easy answer for a replacement. And you probably wouldn't replace Ian anyway given how well he's done for 2 years. You can't let 2 months supersede that. Maybe a "DL" stint to give him a break? Or more time off? DHing him rather than Ramos to get him going? There just isn't an easy answer to the "a star is playing terribly" problem. Let's just hope he gets hot.
Denard Span can't hit.
He's not as bad as his season stats have him at now (.232 / .287 / .313) I think he's more like his past week stats (.273 / .304 / .409). Of course that isn't good either. He's a good fielder so with the Nats expected lineup they figured to carry him even with mediocre stats. With Bryce out and Zimm out and Ian struggling, however, Span's limitations at the plate are even more apparent.
The Nats gambled on Span being like 2012 Span. He's not. He's like 2013 Span or 2011 Span or 2010 Span. But for Span this is less about finding a replacement for this season. It's about auditioning guys to see if you want to keep his below average bat, above average glove for another year or cut him loose. You hoped it wouldn't be an issue while contending. It is. Now you've got to work these guys in. Bryce's injury and McLouth's struggles offer the perfect way to do it... if you are ready to gamble that one of those guys will be ok enough to help keep the team afloat.
Adam LaRoche looks refreshed.
Some good news! Maybe it was the sickness / weight loss / whatever. He's the opposite of McLouth and Desmond. He's hitting everything square (LD% up around 32% which is high). This is backing his high .370 BABIP. Like it should come up for McLouth and Desmond it should go down for LaRoche. History tells us that. But even with a decline you like what you are seeing from Adam. The walk-rate is up. The k-rate is down. The power is there. He won't hit 30+ homers but he's setting himself up for a year hitting .280ish with 25-30 homers, with a bunch more walks that usual. It's looking so far that this could be a year like 2012 in terms of production.
This causes an interesting dilemma for year's end. It was expected that LaRoche would struggle, the Nats would cut him loose and go with Zimm at 1st or something like that. But with LaRoche raking the ball do you try to extend him for a season? I doubt he'd do it - at 34 he's probably looking for that one last multi-year deal. But maybe if you give it to him early? Moore is almost certainly, as we've been thinking for years (at least us smarties), a low .200s guy with pop. Not really 1B worthy for a contender. Skole is crashing in the minors. With no easy replacement, with Zimm being the injury risk he always is, it's something you have to think about.
None of this has to be (or should be) decided today. But the next 3 weeks should be about planning with the above scenarios continuing in mind. If they turn around GREAT. Throw out the plans and move on. But if they don't turn around you have to be ready to act in some way or another.