Of the Nationals' current healthy lineup, only Ian Desmond is performing above his career average OPS of .744 at .791, and Ryan Zimmerman is the only Nat with an OPS over .800 at .808. Everyone else is either on the disabled list or underperforming their career averages, some to a comical degree.
One of the largest problems with the Nationals is that their best player is currently on the DL and with no timetable for the return of Bryce Harper, the rapid descent into the depth of the NL rankings is cause for alarm. Harper's main replacement in the lineup, Roger Bernadina, is one of the Nationals that has underperformed his career numbers the worst. Bernadina has a career OPS of .678, which makes him nothing more than a fourth outfielder, but if he had numbers good enough to start, he would be starting somewhere. This season, his OPS is .542.
How much worse off are the Nationals with Bernadina than with Harper? Harper's wOBA (weighted on-base average) is .411 and Bernadina's .242. wOBA uses run values to give weights to each event that ends with a player on base. It is essentially the amount of runs that player is worth every time they reach base. In 2013, Harper has reached base an average of 1.5 times per game and Bernadina averages 0.5. That means that on average, Harper is worth .617 runs a game and Bernadina .121. That is nearly half a run a game difference. With that extra half-run, the Nationals would be averaging 3.97 runs a game which still is below the NL average of 4.08, but much better than their current 3.47.
Bernadina isn't the only bench player that is a problem. There is no current player on the Nationals bench with an OPS over .700 and Jeff Kobernus is the only player with an OPS over .600 at .687. As much as bench players aren't supposed to hit like starting position players, they should be able to muster something closer to acceptable than what the Nationals bench has shown this season. As a unit, they are hitting a combined .171/.219/.302.
With 37 players used this season, the Nationals rank somewhere in the middle of the pack in MLB with Toronto having used the most at 46 and Kansas City the least at 29. Every single division leader has had less players on their roster than the Nationals, but no team is at 25. Every team in the majors has dealt with injuries of some kind. The issue with the Nationals is that they have gotten no contribution from an unexpected source.
A quick glance at the rosters of the division leaders reveals that every one of them has at least one player having a surprise season. The Atlanta Braves have Evan Gattis with an .894 OPS, Romiro Pena (.773), and Jordan Schafer (.842). The St. Louis Cardinals have Matt Carpenter (.848), Matt Adams (.883), and Daniel Descalso (.789). The Arizona Diamondbacks have Gerardo Parra (.836), Eric Chavez (.956), and Will Nieves (.914). If we continue through the AL division leaders the story would be much the same.
Some of the players listed are prospects or were starters last season, but they have all been pleasant surprises for their teams. The Washington Nationals don't have a single player doing anything better than expected and Desmond is the only healthy position player from the opening day roster contributing what was expected of him. Anthony Rendon has come up and contributed an .893 OPS, but with so many other players underperforming and Harper injured on a nightly basis, the Nats roll out a lineup with three to four players with an under-.700 OPS and sometimes they have multiple lineup spots that are under .600.
The solution to this isn't simple, but of the 18 position players the Nationals have had, 15 of them have underperformed and many of those have done so to a comical degree. Of the 16 Nationals with more than 20 plate appearances, eight of them have an under-.700 OPS, six of them under .600, and four under .500. Teams that have won this season and in past seasons get contributions from surprising sources.
The Washington Nationals have gotten the exact opposite. Bench players aren't expected to be great. That is why they are bench players, but they also aren't expected to be .200 points below the league average OPS. Whether it is a wholesale call-up of a new bench or hoping that with the return of Harper and roles reestablished, something is going to have to happen, and with the Nationals seven games out of the division lead, 7.5 games out of the wild card, and two games under .500, whatever it is is going to have to happen soon.
David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals for Citizens of Natstown, 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.