Marty Niland: Grading out the Nats at the season's midway point

We've reached the midpoint of the 2014 season, and it's time once again to grade the Nationals on their performance so far.

This year, the team stands at 43-38, a half-game behind first-place Atlanta in the National League East. A year ago at this time, they were 41-40 and 6 1/2 games behind the Braves. An improvement of two wins may not seem like much, but the Nats have made much bigger gains in the individual components of their play, and appear to be on an upward curve.

Starting pitching: A: It's no surprise that every starter has a sub-4.00 ERA, and that none has fewer than five wins, but it is surprising to see who the leaders are. Tanner Roark, who was battling for a spot in the rotation in spring training, now tops the staff in wins with seven, and newcomer Doug Fister, who spent the first month of the season on the disabled list, boasts the top ERA among regular starters at 2.83.

Jordan Zimmermann has somehow managed only a 2-2 record in June while pitching to an ERA of 1.18 and a WHIP of 0.74 during the month. A team is in a pretty good situation when two highest ERAs on its starting staff belong to Gio Gonzalez (3.93) and Stephen Strasburg (3.70).

Relief pitching: A-plus: As good as the starting pitching has been, the bullpen has been even better. It's the primary reason the team's 3.07 ERA is the best in baseball by a wide margin.

Four of the Nats regular relievers - Rafael Soriano, Drew Storen, Aaron Barrett and Tyler Clippard - have ERAs of 2.00 or less. You can almost consider the game over when the starters have handed them the lead in the seventh inning. The Nats' ERA from that point on is 2.48, easily the best in baseball.

Hitting: B-minus: This remains the team's biggest weakness, but it's still much improved over 2013, when it mustered a barely passing grade. The team's .251 average is 20 points higher than it was at this point last year, and its .398 slugging percentage is up by more than 25 points.

The improvement is even more remarkable considering the injuries the Nats have endured this season. With Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Wilson Ramos all missing significant time, it's been up to the rest of the lineup to take up the slack. The biggest contributor here has been Anthony Rendon, whose .282/.339/.432 line is up sharply across the board from 2013.

Clutch hitting remains a problem, though. The Nats hit just .245 with runners in scoring position and .218 with two outs and RISP. Both figures are even worse than they were a year ago.

Defense: D: That's actually a pretty good grade for a team that led the major leagues in errors for most of the first two months of the season. Now the Nationals' 107 errors are tied with the San Francisco Giants for the third-most in the National League and the seventh-most in the majors. If they keep up the improvement, they could wind up in the middle of the league by the time the stretch run starts in September.

Ian Desmond's play at shortstop has shown the biggest improvement over the course of the season. Of his 14 errors this season, 10 came in April. He's made just one since May 25.

Management: C: Rookie skipper Matt Williams has been learning on the job, but he has kept the team in contention despite all the injuries. The decision to put Zimmerman in left field after his return from a broken thumb has been one of his best. However, Williams' insistence on aggressive baserunning has cost the Nats some games this season, and it may have been to blame for Ramos' recent hamstring injury. Now that all the regulars are healthy, it will be interesting to see how he implements his plan to have Zimmerman, Rendon and Harper play multiple positions.

Overall: B: This is a contending team that still has yet to play to its potential. The pitching is already the best in baseball, and the offensive and defensive numbers are trending in the right direction.

The biggest reason for optimism, though, is that on Monday, the starting lineup that emerged from spring training will take the field at Nationals Park for the first time since opening day. If they can remain healthy, and Williams can find the most productive combinations, the Nats will have a good chance to graduate to the postseason.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. Follow him on Twitter: @martyball98. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. 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.

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