Five stories to watch in the Nationals’ second half

The Nationals begin the second half of their season tonight in Atlanta, facing old nemesis Tim Hudson in what could actually be classified as a meaningful series. This is the latest in a season the Nationals have been at .500 since 2005, and because baseball’s post-All-Star break schedule starts so late in the season - there are only 70 games left - the Nationals have to get right to work if they have any hope of running down the Braves for the National League Wild Card.

But even if they don’t - and the guess here is they probably won’t - there’s still plenty to watch in the second half. Here are the stories to keep an eye on:

1. Can Werth rebound? Even the strongest critics of the Nationals’ decision to sign Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million deal wouldn’t have guessed he’d be this bad; a .215 average, .681 OPS and just 10 homers in 88 games. Werth has typically been better in the second half, but even to approach his career averages, he’d have to hit over .320 in the second half, going on the kind of tear that could propel the Nationals for weeks. He was capable of doing that in Philadelphia, but is he in Washington? We’ll find out.

2. Pitching switches: By the end of the season, the Nationals’ rotation is likely to look at least marginally different than it does now, and there’s a chance it will undergo significant changes. Jordan Zimmermann’s superb season has 45 innings left, meaning he’ll likely be done working sometime in late August, and there’s at least a decent chance the Nationals trade Jason Marquis to a team looking for veteran pitching later this month. Who would be there to replace them? It seems likely we’ll see Chien-Ming Wang at some point, and Ross Detwiler could hop back into the rotation. There are also September options in Tommy Milone, Brad Peacock, Bradley Meyers. Oh, and there’s that Strasburg kid (more on him in a minute).

3. Espinosa’s Rookie of the Year push: Right now, Danny Espinosa leads all National League rookies in home runs, RBIs and Wins Above Replacement, and he hit more homers in the first half of the season than any rookie second baseman has ever done. With a strong second half, he could be in line to be the first Nationals player to win Rookie of the Year honors. He’ll have competition from the Braves’ Freddie Freeman and the Cardinals’ Allen Craig, but right now, Espinosa is likely the front-runner.

4. Strasburg on the mend: You wanted to know more about Stephen Strasburg? You’re not alone. The Nationals’ phenom is still in Florida, working through rehab from last September’s Tommy John surgery, but he’s throwing off a mound, inching closer to full velocity and throwing a few breaking balls. He could start to pitch in simulated games soon and if he starts a rehab assignment by mid-August, it’s not out of the question that we’ll see him at Nationals Park in September. He won’t have anywhere to pitch in the minors after early September, and the Nationals wouldn’t mind letting him re-establish himself against major league hitters if everything goes well. So keep an eye out - Strasmas could be coming back.

5. Decisions for the future: As much as anything else, the Nationals’ second half will be about trying to get things settled for 2012. They need to decide if Michael Morse is a first baseman long-term, or if he goes back to the outfield in the future. They need to see if Roger Bernadina can be a fixture in center field, or if he’s better as a reserve. Ian Desmond needs to come back from a disappointing first half and prove he’s the answer at shortstop. And manager Davey Johnson will be taking stock of it all, trying to decide if at 68, he’s got the energy to return for a full season as manager, or if he wants to step away from it after three months.

As you can see, there are lots of things for the Nationals to figure out in the second half - and we didn’t even mention a word about Bryce Harper, who very likely could be playing on the same team with Strasburg when his rehab assignment swings through Harrisburg.

Let us know what you think of those stories, and what you’re looking to see in the second half.