The Nationals Need to Play Better
There are a lot of teams in the history of baseball that have had poor Aprils and then have gone on to make the playoffs. Some of those teams had outside forces or prospects help them and some just started playing better. The former isn't much of an option for the Nationals, but the latter is. The downside to having a roster built to win for the long-haul is when that roster under performs changes aren't easy to make. The Nats biggest offensive issue is the lack of production from the middle of the order. No, check that. The biggest offensive issue is from everyone in the line-up who isn't Bryce Harper. The only two line-up spots the Nats are getting above a .700 OPS from is third and eighth and only from eighth because there is no reason to pitch to the Nats number eight hitters with the pitcher on deck and no one on base.
Without Ryan Zimmerman the line-up has become a discombobulated mess. Werth was moved out of the number two spot and now that line-up spot is worth a paltry .576 OPS. The Nats are stuck in a position waiting for the players they have to play like the talents they can be. There is really nothing else to do. The strength of the Nationals was thought to be how well the roster was set-up not just for 2013, but for the years to come, and now that is turning into a weakness. If LaRoche were only on a one year deal it would be no big deal to platoon him with Tyler Moore or sit him on the bench so that the Nats can get something better than a .500 OPS from the most important offensive positions. Under the two year deal that isn't much of an option as LaRoche is here this season and next and it is too early to say he is a complete waste and buy out his deal like the Mets did with Jason Bay.
Right field, another offensive position, is also a mess for the Nationals. Jayson Werth looks more like 2011 Jayson Werth than 2012 Jayson Werth and has hit with power in the two spot and OBP in the four spot. Werth's .722 OPS is exactly .100 points lower than his career average and just about in line with the .718 OPS he put up in 2011, and again the Nats have nothing they can do with him but watch and hope he starts hitting at least to his career numbers.
Collective offensive slumps like the Nationals are suffering are nothing new to baseball, but this is starting to reach a level of ridiculousness. In the month of April the Nationals score 3.56 runs a game which good enough to be the fourth worst in the NL with only the Cubs, Dodgers, and Marlins below them. The Nationals strength, their run prevention, is only preventing runs at a league average pace leading the Nationals to having been outscored 115 to 96. If the Nats play to this level for the entire season they are a 66 win team. That is unacceptable from a team that was expected to be the best in baseball coming into the 2013 season, and still patience is the only solution.
While the Nationals wait for their offense to stop being the third worst in OBP, the fourth worst in OPS+, and third worst in OPS they need to stop making mental errors. In 2012 the Nationals rated last in BSR with -17 runs, but that was mainly due to being mostly a slugging line-up that was slow on the bases. This season the Nats are doing better at taking the extra base, but worse at making dumb mistakes. The Nats have a stolen base success rate of only 63% and have been picked off 6 times. This is far below the accepted stolen base rate of 75% and the Nats were only picked off a total of 16 times in 2012. Base running is a controllable issue that the Nats need to work on.
Mike Rizzo made the roster and the Nats are going to have to live with it. There are very few players that can be replaced and most that can offer nothing more than a cosmetic change. If the Nats could make a trade for Robinson Cano or Anthony Rendon could suddenly reach his offensive ceiling and learnt to play second that would help, but neither of those are likely to happen soon enough. Everyone not named Harper is struggling to do anything productive with the bat and this is the Nats biggest problem. If changes can't be made with the players then perhaps it is time to make a change with the personnel to send a message to the players.
Davey Johnson is one of the best managers or all time, should be in the Hall of Fame, and the best man to manage the Nats this season, but all that being said a manager matters little if the talent isn't playing up to their abilities and sometimes a sacrificial lamb is needed to send a message and motivate the players. It is a terrible idea, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and while firing Rick Eckstein may please the fans I am not certain it would send the proper message or actually help the team to hit.
The best news for the Nats and Nats fans is that regression to the mean is a real thing, and eventually all players will play to their true talent level. Hearing it is early and to be patient is tiresome, especially when the Nats continue to play poorly and sink further in the standings. It can only still be early until it is too late, and the Nats are reaching that point at a rapid pace. It doesn't help that they have played the Braves five times and are already half way to losing the season series. The division is slipping away and doing so quickly and it is only May. The only real solution for the Nats is for them to take a good deep breath, settle down, and start playing like the Washington Nationals. This roster was built to solidly to change rapidly, and the players on it are too talented to continue to play this poorly, but for the sanity of the Nationals fan let's hope the mean is regressed to sooner rather than later.