Every Major League starts out every year saying the same things. Even the Nats, not really built to compete this season, had high hopes. On the eve of Opening Day, Mike Rizzo said, speaking on the team’s behalf, “we expect to win.”
Of course, quietly, behind closed doors, Nationals’ brass did not expect the 2010 team to be playoff-bound. After 35 games, when the Nats where five games above .500, some modest talk of competing circulated the city. This was going to be the year they captured Washington’s hearts and became a legitimate powerhouse.
Well, not so much. The high averages of Pudge and Cristian Guzman came back to earth, Matt Capps’ and Livan Hernandez’s miniscule ERAs slowly became modest, and Willie Harris showed that he was, well, Willie Harris. Beat writers and players still held on hope for bouncing back (if they just win this series, or take seven of ten), but as they team sits 14 games back and chasing four teams in the NL East, most of those kinds of conversations have ended.
Still, Stephen Strasburg has earned the team a much broader fanbase (or at least more recognition), but the second half goals and expectations are clearly different than those of the first half. Let’s look at some things to look for in the second half.
Get things Done with Dunn: Starting you off with a pun – you knew I could not wait too long. But seriously, the team needs to figure out what it wants to do with Adam Dunn. You know how I feel about it, and even the Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore has indicated the team should hold onto its best offensive player (and Willingham, too).
The danger for the Nats know is that they are stringing the Big Donkey along somewhat. Dunn has said he hates being in trade rumors and wants to stay in DC. As the team continues to float his name, however, he may become a bit disillusioned by things in the District. If he is not signed to an extension by the July 31 trade deadline (two weeks from Saturday), he may decide to hold off on a new deal until the offseason. At that point, the Nats would have to deal with Dunn in an open market.
Additionally, the fans want to see Dunn stay. In a Post poll, 69% of readers wanted Dunn and Willingham to both stay, and only 17% said Dunn should be dealt. Here on dampfang.com, 36% said the team should make no moves at the deadline, and not a single reader wanted Dunn to be traded.
Lock up Harper: Bryce Harper was recently given the Golden Spikes Award (given to the best amateur player in America), and has seen some playing time for Team USA. Despite all of this recognition, he has not as of yet talked to the Nats about a deal. Scott Boras will obviously drag this out as long as humanly possible, but all indications are that Harper wants to play now (he left high school early so he could get drafted right away) and so there is no need to worry about a deal.
Start working on that 2011 rotation: The team has a host of pitchers rehabbing right now, and would love it if most (if not all) of them got some significant Major League work in this season. If so, they can start figuring out who was able to fully recover and who will fill out next year’s rotation. Scott Olsen, Chien-Ming Wang, Ross Detwiler, Jordan Zimmermann, and John Lannan (not technically injured) will hopefully all be ready before the end of Auguest.
If you do the math, that is five starters. With Strasburg entrenched in the rotation (unless he blows throw his allotted innings) and Livan Hernandez likely staying too (not to mention Luis Atilano and J.D. Martin possibly earning the right to stay), there might not be space for them all to get multiple starts in. Needless to say, if they do all come back, Steve McCatty and Jim Riggleman might have to get real creative in figuring out their pitching rotation.
Find some hitters: In an odd twist, the one position the team thought was hopeless in April (right field), is maybe their deepest right now. Roger Bernadina is looking more and more like an everyday guy (at least on a middle-of-the-road team) and Mike Morse is hitting everything he sees (of course, this does not mean Bryce Harper should not be put in right field from day one). While most of the Major League lineup is adequate at the moment, the offensive depth in this organization is pitiful.
The best four hitters at AAA Harrisburg (Jason Botts, Josh Whitesell, and Chase Lambin) are 30, 28, and 31, respectively. The only marginal hitting prospects in the organization are at AA (Danny Espinosa, Chris Marrero) or A (Derek Norris). It really is sad. If the team moves any pieces at the deadline, they may need to deviate from their usual practice (which is normally very smart) of acquiring pitchers and look for a bat or two.
Moral victories: Cheering for a team that is out of the race is never easy, but can still be worthwhile. Strasburg will start at least ten more times, and some other good pitchers should pop up as well. At the end of the day, sitting at a beautiful ballpark watching baseball beats almost anything else you can do in the summer…
As always, check out my home page for all of my thoughts on the Nationals. Please share your thoughts, complaints and comments below. For daily updates, you can subscribe to these articles (top of the page, at no charge) or follow me on Twitter (@Neuman85). Tune in tomorrow for another game preview as we kick off the second half..