When the Nationals begin the second half of the season tonight in Miami against the Florida Marlins, they'll have little more riding on it than a chance to move up in the standings and build some momentum for 2011. A playoff bid is all but out of the question, and catching the Marlins for fourth place in the NL East would register as an accomplishment.
But for a few players in the Nationals' organization, this second half is key to their futures. You know the obvious ones (Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham, whose zip codes could be changing in the near future, and Stephen Strasburg, who has a chance to continue a stellar rookie season). Here are the others:
Nyjer Morgan: Hitting .252 with a .314 on-base percentage at the break, Morgan still has the confidence of most people in the Nationals' organization, who think he can still be a successful leadoff hitter and center fielder. But another half like the first - where Morgan got caught stealing an NL-worst 12 times and made another 10 outs on the basepaths while struggling defensively - could convince the Nationals to look for a different answer, especially with Morgan up for arbitration after this year.
Roger Bernadina: Manager Jim Riggleman has said the Nationals want to give Bernadina a long look in right field, and so far, he's given them good enough production to hold the spot down most days. But he still isn't facing lefties (he's got only 23 plate appearances this year against them), and he won't be an everyday option until the Nationals are confident he can handle them. It's possible Bernadina could get more time in center field, too, if Morgan scuffles.
Scott Olsen: He's rehabbing at Single-A Hagerstown, and is on the way back from an inflamed left shoulder that's kept him out since May. The Nationals' rotation is going to be crowded in the second half, though, and it stands to reason Olsen won't be back next season if he doesn't do something impressive. He's also arbitration-eligible, though his $1 million salary this season could keep his price down. But the Nationals have enough hope for young pitchers (Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler) and enough veterans locked up for next year (Jason Marquis, possibly Chien-Ming Wang) that Olsen could become expendable after the season.
John Lannan: The Nationals' 2009 and 2010 Opening Day starter has gotten his walks back under control at Double-A Harrisburg (just five in four starts), and is getting batches of ground-ball outs again. One bad start has inflated his ERA to 4.50 there. But the Nationals don't seem to be in any hurry to get him back to the majors, and like many of the team's other pitchers, he can't afford to get lost in the wash. He's also likely arbitration-eligible after the year.
Ian Desmond: The Nationals are more impressed with the shortstop than his .691 OPS and 21 errors would indicate; he's shown the athleticism to play in the majors, has been cool in clutch situations and is well-liked in the clubhouse. But he needs to draw more walks, and cut down on the routine mistakes in the second half of his first year in the majors.
Tyler Clippard: What's he going to be? Is Clippard the dominating, deceptive setup man the Nationals saw for much of the first half, or the erratic reliever that will likely begin the second half in lower-leverage situations? With Matt Capps likely to attract some trade interest (or command a high salary in arbitration) and Drew Storen quickly getting more late-game chances, Clippard could find himself anywhere from the sixth and seventh to the eighth inning - or even the ninth, if the Nationals traded Capps and wanted someone to hold the closer's job before they gave it Storen full-time. But Clippard needs to get back in charge of the mechanics on his changeup. That was the pitch that made him so tough on lefties last year, and now that it's lost some of its bite, lefties are hitting .273 off Clippard, 71 points higher than righties and 56 points higher than they did last year.
Those are the players I'll be watching in the second half. Any others come to mind? Let me know.