The Nationals are about to wrap up their best first half in franchise history. At 45-32, Washington has the best record in the National League, is 3.5 games ahead of the second place team in the NL East, and is on pace to win 95 games this season.
What has been perhaps most impressive about the team's run so far this year is that when former cellar-dwellers come out of nowhere in this fashion, they usually do so on the shoulders of one identifiable superstar. Whether it be a franchise player who finally comes into his own, or a longtime steady veteran that finds something in his game he never had before, it is very rare to see every player on the team improve at the same level to the point where there is no obvious MVP.
So who has been the team's most valuable player for the first half? Below I've listed my top five candidates.
5. Adam LaRoche - If this article were written in the middle of May, LaRoche would be at the top of this list. The left-handed slugger who was all but written off entering this season was the Nationals' only form of offense for the first month and a half of the season, bursting out of the gates with a .329/.415/.549 mark in April, and a .247/.350/.506 mark in May. June and July have not been kind to him, however, as he is now struggling to keep his season batting average above .250, and his OBP above .330.
4. Ian Desmond - If you had told anyone at the start of the year that you believed Ian Desmond would be selected as a National League All-Star, no one would have believed you. It appears, however, that the 26-year-old has finally put together all of the pieces that excited scouts for such a long time. Periodically this season, you could easily make the argument that he was not only the team's best fielder, but also its best hitter. He still refuses to walk, but he is currently leading the team in batting average, runs and hits.
3. Bryce Harper - Harper came up when the team needed him most, and he acted like anything but a 19-year-old. He gave the team an offensive boost, a jolt of morale at a time when the thought of a winning season was still very fragile. He has continued to improve on his production. Through 57 games this year, he has hit .274/.348/.471 with eight home runs and 38 runs scored. That is not easy to do for a kid who has a target on his back.
2. Gio Gonzalez - There was a stretch this season where Gonzalez was hands down the best pitcher in baseball. He has cooled off a bit, but his 112 strikeouts and 11 wins are still among the league leaders. Perhaps most importantly, he has added some veteran presence, as well as energy, to a very young and talented rotation. You may not be guaranteed a win every time Gio takes the hill, but you know that you will at least get a fight.
1. Stephen Strasburg - Aside from his last outing, it would be hard to argue that Strasburg hasn't been the best starting pitcher in the National League this year. His strikeout rate is off the charts, and his control is still unbelievable for a man who had to completely reconstruct his arm just over a year ago. At 9-3 with a 2.81 ERA and 122 strikeouts, Strasburg would be a legitimate Cy Young candidate if here weren't likely to be shut down later this summer. While losing Strasburg in September would be a huge blow, the fact that he is producing at such a spectacular level while he is available is a major win for Washington.
Will Yoder blogs about the Nationals for The Nats Blog, and offers his viewpoints as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.