How much have the Nationals improved?

Early this season, it was clear the Nationals had improved upon last year’s 59-103 team, both in personnel and in spirit. The team was winning close games, scratching out victories behind an impressive bullpen and a defense that was equipped with solid gloves all over the field in the late innings. Perhaps it should have been clear then that it couldn’t, and wouldn’t, last; the team had to overcome subpar starting pitching on too many occasions, the defense was still on the precipice of making errors in bunches and the offense was underachieving. But when the Nationals got to 20-15 with a 14-6 win over the Rockies on May 13, even they seemed to believe they were headed toward something better.

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Since then, the Nationals have looked a lot more like an updated version of the 2009 squad - different faces, same results - than an improved version of it. They are 42-73 since then, which would put them on a 59-103 pace for 162 games. Essentially, this has been the same team for three-quarters of the season and a better one for the first quarter of it.

There’s no question this team is more talented than last year’s and in a better position going forward. The Nationals were trotting out a middle infield of Cristian Guzman and whoever they could find at second base last year, whether it was Willie Harris, Ronnie Belliard or Anderson Hernandez, who went into spring training as the unquestioned(!) starter at second base. This year, they have a pair of promising rookies in Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa, players who are prone to errors, yes, but who also have the range to make up one of the most athletic double play combinations in the game, as Espinosa showed last night with his back-to-the-infield catch in the sixth inning.

They’ve also got Roger Bernadina and Michael Morse, a pair of late bloomers who look like they could be part of the future. The Nationals’ bullpen is still one of the best in the National League, a far cry from last year’s slapdash assembly.

But when you look at the final result, the numbers either reveal the same problems, or new ones in different places.

Let’s start with the offense, which was better last year by most measurements. That group, which had walk machine Nick Johnson hitting second for much of the year, was sixth in the NL with a .337 on-base percentage and had a 9.8 percent walk rate. This year, those marks have slipped to .320 and 8.0 percent, as low-OBP rookies like Desmond and Bernadina are in the lineup. There’s also the matter of Nyjer Morgan, who’s gone from the Nationals’ catalyst to a conundrum they must figure out. He has a .318 on-base percentage, after hitting .351 in 49 games last year. This offense is speedier - it is third in the National League with 104 steals, and has only been thrown out 39 times - but that’s about the only thing the Nationals are doing better. They’re scoring 4.4 runs a game, about the same as last year’s 4.38 mark.

The bullpen is the unquestioned success story of this year; it’s undergone a complete makeover from the one that started 2009 and ranked as the National League’s worst, and currently has the fourth-best ERA in the National League. The Nationals have a deep stable of arms, which has allowed them to survive after trading Matt Capps (though the closer situation is much less secure), and they have walked only 200 batters last year after issuing 288 free passes last year. And the starting staff has cut its ERA by almost a third of a run, dropping to 4.68 after posting a 4.97 mark last year.

But the Nationals’ defense is still rickety; it could lead the league in errors for the third straight year, though its Ultimate Zone Rating has improved by 3.5 runs. And the end result, in terms of wins and losses, looks like only a modest improvement.

Essentially, this has been a team good enough to win a few more games, and get blown out a lot less than it did last year. The Nationals have only been outscored by 81 runs, a scant margin when you consider last year’s group was bludgeoned by 164 throughout the season. Mostly, though, they’re losing the close games; they’re 17-27 in one-run games, after making close wins their m.o. at the beginning of the year.

And it’s worth asking: If you have to peel back the numbers to see improvement over a 59-103 team, is there all that much to be excited about?

“I think people have gotten excited about some of the nice players we’ve put out there,” manager Jim Riggleman said. “But when you lose too much, people are going to get disillusioned with it.”

I’ll close this with a couple questions: Do you see clear-cut improvement over the last two years with this team? And if so, is that enough to give you some hope for 2011?