One of the reasons for the success of the 2012 Nationals was their bench, and one of the main reasons for the disappointment of the 2013 Nationals was their bench. As it stands right now, the 2014 Nats bench is directly in the middle. The combined contributions of Danny Espinosa, Kevin Frandsen, Tyler Moore, Zach Walters, Jose Lobaton, Scott Hairston, Nate McLouth, Sandy Leon and Greg Dobbs have been nothing and that is great. At a combined 0.0 fWAR the Washington Nationals bench has played exactly to replacement level, but by playing to that level, they've allowed the positive contributions of Anthony Rendon, Ian Desmond, Adam LaRoche, and Jayson Werth to remain meaningful.
The 2013 bench did no such thing. Jayson Werth's 2013 OPS of .931 is the second-best OPS produced by a National in at least 500 plate appearances to Nick Johnson's 2006 OPS of .948. Overall in 2013, Werth contributed 4.6 fWAR to the Nationals, but the majority of it didn't count because of the negative contributions of the bench. The 2013 Nationals bench was so bad that the five main members of the 2013 bench (Roger Bernadina, Steve Lombardozzi, Moore, Chad Tracy and Kurt Suzuki) were worth a minus-2.5 fWAR. That means that more than half of Werth's positive contribution to the Nats went to covering the underperformance of the bench.
The 0.0 fWAR contribution of the 2014 Nats bench doesn't sound good, and compared to the positive 4.0 fWAR of the 2012 bench, it isn't. But what it has done is not cancel out any of the performance of the Nats regulars.
In 2013, no Nats bench player had a higher OPS than Lombardozzi's .611. So far in 2014, both Espinosa and Hairston have bettered that, and the members of the Nats bench that have failed to hit have at least played defense well, something that the 2013 Nats bench couldn't do. The biggest contributor to the positive defensive improvement by the Nationals bench is Espinosa. While filling in for injured players, Espinosa has hit at a below-average pace, but his defense has allowed him to make a positive contribution to the team. Most importantly, he has been the safety net that the 2013 Nats bench couldn't be when that team suffered injuries.
Through 77 games in 2013, the Nationals were 39-38, five games back of the Atlanta Braves, and waiting for Wilson Ramos and Bryce Harper to return from injuries. The 2014 Nationals aren't far off that pace with a record of 41-36, but there are a few key differences. The 2013 Nationals had scored 273 runs and allowed 300, while the 2014 Nationals have scored 309 runs and allowed 271. Both the offense and the pitching of the 2014 team has been better, and the zero sum contribution of the bench has allowed the 2014 Nationals to better deal with injuries.
The Nationals bench could still use some improvement. They will get some of that with the returns of Harper and Ramos, pushing Espinosa and Lobaton back to the bench, but with both McLouth and Frandsen floundering offensively, the Nats may make smaller moves during the month of July to improve on fourth outfielder, left-handed hitting off the bench and back-up corner infielder. The most logical way for the Nationals to do this is to acquire a second baseman, keep Ryan Zimmerman in left field and make Denard Span the fourth outfielder. While it would be difficult to eat the remainder of McLouth's contract, the front office waiting too long to fix mistakes was one of the contributing factors to the vast underperformance of the 2013 bench.
When the best thing that can be said about the unit of a team is that they've had no impact at all, it hasn't been good, but as demonstrated by the 2013 Nationals, no impact is a lot better than a negative one. Because of the non-factor of the 2014 bench the contributions of the everyday players have held up and that has helped the Nationals to reach first place in the National League East. With Ramos and Harper on the verge of returning and four of the five series (the home-and-home versus the Orioles is one series) before the All-Star Break are against under-.500 teams, the Nats are poised to go on a run.
In 2013, when they had fought back on July 7 and were heading on the road to play the Phillies and Marlins, the Nats were poised for a run, but limped to a 2-5 road trip and went into the All-Star Break at .500. This season is a different year. The run differential is positive and the bench hasn't been a negative, and there is no reason to believe the 2014 Nats will limp into the All-Star Break the way the 2013 Nats did.
David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals at Citizens of Natstown. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHuzzard. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. 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 regular roster of writers.