Nationals Baseball: What the next month will be about could start here.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

What the next month will be about could start here.

What did you think about the Nats and the NL East when the seasons began? That the Nats were slightly better than the Braves and that there was enough talent in the division that someone might surprise, but you also wouldn't be surprised if at least one of those other teams tanked?  Well Seventy games in (43% or so) and here we are.The Nats are a game and a half better than the Braves. The Marlins have surprised and kept pace while the Mets and Phillies take turns going after the worst record in the league. I'd argue that the whole division is about a half-step behind where I'd thought they'd be, but in comparison to eachother they are right on target.

Why are the Nats a half-step behind?  Injuries are a big part of it. Offensively, the Nats were equipped to handle two big injuries, OF & C, and they've had three (OF, C, and 3B) and one important minor one (1B). The injury replacements have offered no surprises, and for each "success" (Lobaton, Espinosa) there is a no quote needed failure (McLouth, Frandsen). But injuries aren't all of it. While Adam LaRoche has performed shocking well, Ian Desmond has fallen off his pace of the past two years and Jayson Werth has seen a dramatic loss of power with no wrist injury to blame. The sum of these parts is an offense that has struggled to be average. That would normally be big trouble for a team looking to win a division, but the Nats have been bouyed by a remarkable performance by the pitching staff, which the majority of staff sporting ERAs in the low 3.00s or lower. A combination of one big surprise (Roark) and nearly everyone else performing at the high end of expectations has made this the best staff in the NL. The net effect has been to pull the Nats a few games over .500.

Why are the Braves an half-step behind? A somewhat similar scenario. Injuries bit the Braves hard too, but for them it was in the rotation. Unlike the Nats they did get some surprising injury replacement help in the form of an amazing start from Aaron Harang.  The rest of the staff has been a mixed bag of performance but it's a talented staff and going forward like the Nats offense, they are expecting health to help this aspect of the team perform at a high level. Outside of a minor injury to Gattis the Braves offense has been relatively healthy, but mostly disappointing. Dan Uggla played his way out of a starting job while BJ Upton remains a lineup hole. Last season's miracle, Chris Johnson, is underperforming, while Jason Heyward remains unable to live up to his potential, and Simmons works through what they hope are growing pains. Even though Freeman, Justin Upton and Gattis have hit well, the total sum of the above is a team lucky to be .500.

Where does this leave these two teams? Well now that they are about as healthy as you can expect a team to be from their Opening Day rosters you have two teams trying desperately to prove they are who we thought they are. The Nats are trying to prove they belong in the "best team" discussion and looked to be trending in that direction with their impressive winning streak, but the St. Louis sweep keeps the old demons in play, the biggest one being their recent lack of success vs the Braves. The Braves want to show that despite the pre-season staff injuries they can compete for a playoff spot, but they are struggling to go anywhere flailing over the last 3+ weeks despite beginning to waive white flags on some expensive offensive pieces.

In short, this series could determine the Nats/Braves stories for the remainder of the pre-All-Star break season. Nats win 3+ games? They are looking to be crowned again with the Braves likely searching for external and internal answers to their offensive (and possibly pitching) issues. Braves win 3+ games? Atlanta probably feels confident enough to hope regression to mean cures most of their ills, while the Nats get caught up in silly off-field talk of leadership and heart and look to Bryce's return for another new starting point. Both teams need this series to go well for them or else the issues become ISSUES.


Anonymous said...

But what if it goes 2-2? Kind of seems the most likely scenario. I'd take it at the moment given our recent woahs vs the braves but 3-1 would definitely be heavenly

Donald said...

Good post. To me, tonight's game is pretty huge. If the Nats win, they gain some confidence and feel like a series tie or win should be absolutely doable. The Braves would be worried about even getting a series tie with Strasburg pitching tomorrow.

If the Nats lose, just ekeing out a series tie becomes the goal with a TON of pressure on Strasburg and the team to win on Friday. And the Braves become the team with confidence feeling like even if they lose on Friday, they have their ace the next game.

So will we get the Nats of the San Fran series or the Nats of the St. Louis series?

Jay said...

Braves just got swept by Philly. A big part of why Braves are above .500 is because of what they have done to Nats and Miami. If Nats and Braves both play their best then Nats should when 3 of 4. Having said that, I fully expect Braves win 3 of 4.

Thing is it might not matter. Braves have swung and missed in a bad way on a couple of players. BJ Upton and Dan Uggla (lot of money tied up in them). Is Justin Upton up for free agency in the next couple of years? Chris Johnson is ok. Heyward is very up and down. It's unclear if Simmons will consistently hit. Offense looks like Freeman and J Upton and sometimes Gattis. Teheran looks legit. Mike Minor is back to the guy with an ERA in mid-4's. Harang - stinks with some occasional good games. Santana is what everyone else thought - mid-4's ERA. I'm not convinced Gavin Floyd is anything more than average long term. Plus, it's not a given that things will be any better next year. Bullpen has been down except for Kimbrel. Long term things aren't looking so good for Atl either. Unless they go get some guys via trade or free agency.

Having said all of that Atl is a great franchise and will likely go get some guys to keep competing, but if they don't then there could be a slight downturn for them.

blovy8 said...

Now that you can take the ball out of the mitt after you catch it and not worry about it being an out, things may go a bit better.

Harper said...

Anon - that's why I say "could"! The Nats could also go 3-1, then get swept in MIL while the Braves eat up an easy sched. Just qualify everything you say and you are never wrong!

Donald - Yeah I look at tonight as a big game too - really more for the Nats. Everytime you enter a series it seems a bit "fresh" lose that first game and you can't help but think "here we go again"

Jay - Justin is up for FA after 2016. Bj and Uggla are killers especially BJ - longer, more crucial offensive position. yeah the hitting question marks have not been answered and could pose an issue - but don't forget a lot of TJ arms coming back. Rotation shoudl be fine.

Donald said...

Out of curiosity, does anyone have any Braves or Marlins blogs they follow? I don't want to troll or anything, but would be interested to get a sense of how they see this division. I'm assuming the Braves fans are a bit worried while the Marlins are probably feeling pretty good about this year.

Anonymous said...

For this Nats team, Span and Espinosa are x-factors. If they hit well, Nats will win. When these guys hit well, it pours. AS someone said, first game is very critical.

Kenny B. said...

Given Nats woes against the Braves, I won't be surprised at a 3-1 Braves result over the series. I know it's not quantifiable, but there really seems to be a mental block vis-à-vis the Braves and Cardinals. And really, I'll accept a favorable Atlanta result so long as no one gets hurt this time. I think the Nats can still win the division over the long haul if they stay healthy.

With that in mind, I propose everyone wear protective mittens on the basepaths and the Nats impose a "no sliding rule" during the series. All players will wear helmets while playing the field, and all hits shall be played on a hop to prevent diving.

Jay said...

Don't forget both Medlen and Beachy - this is their second TJ surgery. Recovery from that is much more uncertain. Pitchers that have come back from a second TJ surgery have all been relievers. It's not a given that either guy will ever make it back.

I fully expect Braves to take 3 of 4. However, I agree if Nats stay healthy it doesn't matter in the long haul of this season. I think a sweep by Atl would hurt (bc then they would really be in the Nats head. Anything else I think Nats (if relatively healthy) are the better team over the rest of the season.

Plus, Braves have had no injuries to everyday players at all. Nats have really come through a lot with injuries this year. Imagine where Atl would be if Justin Upton was out, Freddie Freeman was out, and so on. Nats have had 2 pitchers each miss a month. That is in addition to all the injuries to the everyday players.

Donald said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Donald said...

Honestly, while I'm bracing for the Nats to lose the series, I really don't think they will. The soulless automaton would figure we should win a minimum of 2 games and probably should win 3. We've got favorable pitching match-ups in the first 2 games and we aren't hugely overmatched in the third. And we're playing at home. Here's my prediction:

Game 1, we win 3-1 in a nailbitter.
Game 2, we win 6-2 -- scoring early and letting Strasburg coast.
Game 3, we lose 4-3 with our bullpen letting up a late run.
Game 4, we lose 5-0 with Roark giving up some homers and our bats falling inexplicably silent again.

Chaz R said...

There is no reason to think this Nats team should lose to this Braves team. I think this "mental block" "Braves are in the Nats' heads" stuff is foolishness.

Look, not long ago, this situation was reversed. In September 2011 the Nats took 2 of 3 from the Braves to contribute to their infamous September collapse. The 2012 Nats took 6 of the first 8 from the Braves and 10 of the first 15 while running away with the division. The Braves came back at the end of that season to sweep the Nats in September, take the top Wild Card spot in 2012.

This is certainly a big series and presents a chance to get some distance in the division lead and put losses on our divisional rival. If the Nats go 1-3 in this series they will be still be over .500 and a half-game out of first with the second half of the season and a completely healthy lineup coming up.

We don't need to win 4 games in a row, just win 1 game 4 times.

JWLumley said...

Nats will sweep, there I said it. This whole mental block thing is just some randomness. The Barves aren't good, they have a negative run differential even with most of their starters pitching way over their head and are regressing to their true talent level.

Fredi Gonzalez is one of the worst in-game managers in the MLB not named Matt Williams. So the 1-3 games over the course of the year Williams costs the Nats will be off-set by the 1-2 games Gonzalez costs the Barves.

I predict the Nats will have roughly eleventy strikeouts as a staff over the next 4 games. The Nationals have weathered the storm of injuries--or rather the Barves and Marlins haven't capitalized on it--and are much more talented as a team. Barring additional injuries they should run away with the East.*

*The preceding does not in any way, mean that Span should continue hitting leadoff, or playing everyday when Harper returns. It also does not mean that Tyler Clippard should go a week between appearances or that Greg Dobbs should be called on to pinch hit in anything resembling a high leverage situation. It also does not mean that the Nats couldn't use another bat.

Also, saw the Chiefs last night and watched Steven Souza, Jr. and really like his swing and approach. He makes a case that the Nats should move Zim to 1st so they can plug Souza in in left. Good kid too, he and T-Mo could not have been any more gracious with my 8 year old son. Very nice young men.

Dan said...

@Donald, is a pretty good blog on the Braves. You get a good mix of sabermetric guys and old-school thought.

Ok, as a Braves fan, can we trade Uggla and BJ Upton to you guys for Espinoza and Span?

And why did Matt Williams leave in Blevins to face the righty in Chris Johnson? Reminds me of when Johnny Gomes faced all three of the Braves lefty relievers in the Braves/Red Sox series a few weeks back....bad decisions.

Kenny B. said...

Yet again, a complete offensive disappearing act against a rival team making a kind-of-okay pitcher look like a Cy Young candidate. There's got to be something mental going on there. I don't know what it is, maybe it's the tomahawk or the little red bird sitting on a bat, but against the Braves and the Cards the Nats always look completely overmatched at the plate.

Clip&Store said...

Looks like your wrong on night #1 JW

JWLumley said...

Oh, did I type the Nats were going to sweep, must've fat fingered that one, I meant to say the Barves are going to sweep. After last night I've also re-thought my beliefs on clutch, clubhouse chemistry, momentum, RBI's, pitcher Wins and Jack Morris' candidacy for the HOF.

I have never seen so many AB's given away. It was like Floyd had a plan and the Nats hitters didn't. Ian Desmond is lost against anyone who can locate. And why oh why did MW bring in--and leave in--Blevins in the 8th. Sure it didn't wind up mattering, but seriously, you thought that was a good idea? I'm beginning to wonder though, if perhaps the Braves scouting department isn't the one who's in the Nats heads. They don't play the exaggerated shift to LaRoche, they feed Desmond breaking balls away and Espinosa fastballs up. When the Nats hit the ball hard there always seemed to be some Braves player standing there. Whatever, stupid baseball. I hate baseball.

Bjd1207 said...

I dunno what it is. I'm out of explanations...they just win against us.