The Nationals begin the second half of the season tomorrow, with 73 games to play and 11 National League teams in better playoff position than they are. It's a near certainty this season will end with the Nationals out of the playoffs for the sixth time in as many years in Washington. But this season, as much as any since the Nats have been in the District, will affect how the team is positioned for success in the future.
There is an underlying feeling in the organization that the Nationals have a chance to be competitive in 2011, but how they get there remains to be seen. They need more pitching, a long-term solution at second base and catcher and possibly, once again, a leadoff hitter. The team could also stand to be better defensively, and the question of the moment is whether or not the Nationals take steps to get there by unloading one of their in-demand veterans, Adam Dunn or Josh Willingham. That storyline, and several others, make this an interesting second half. Here are the top five storylines to watch:
1. What to do with Dunn and Willingham? What is possibly the Nationals' biggest story of the second half is also their most immediate. They'll have to decide before July 31 whether or not to part with Dunn (who is a free agent after the year) or Willingham (who is entering his final year of arbitration) via a trade that could bring back the kinds of prospects the Nationals need to build, or whether they should hang on to one or both players and try to keep the National League's best heart of the order intact. General manager Mike Rizzo has said a deal for Dunn would be painful, both for the Nationals and any team trying to make a move for him. But the Nationals also don't have the contract extension in place that would keep Dunn locked up, and they're running out of time to get something done.
2. The Harper saga continues: Following closely on the heels of the trade deadline is the fast-closing window for the Nationals to sign No. 1 overall pick Bryce Harper, who must be in the fold by Aug. 16. A few reports have trickled out about negotiations not having made any substantive progress yet, but that's to be expected at this stage of things. If this follows the course of the Stephen Strasburg negotiations last year - which followed the course of most Scott Boras negotiations - it will be decided a few minutes before midnight on the 16th. And the guess here is the Nationals get their man.
3. Strasburg's second half: Starting for the Nationals tomorrow night against the Marlins, Stephen Strasburg will begin the second half of his remarkable rookie season. His innings limit will likely allow him nine or 10 more starts at six innings each, before Strasburg is shut down in late August or early September. But he'll get some high-profile matchups in that time, facing the Phillies, Braves (twice), Dodgers and Cardinals.
4. Pitchers getting healthy: Aside from Strasburg, the most meaningful on-field development in the second half will be the handful of pitchers the Nationals are about to get back from injury. They'll hope to see Jordan Zimmermann make his return to the majors from Tommy John surgery sometime in August, when he can start making the move to be the No. 2 to Strasburg's No. 1 the Nationals hope they have. They'll also get Jason Marquis back, and possibly Scott Olsen (on whom the Nationals will have to make some decisions about the future). Ross Detwiler could also get back to the majors. The biggest curiosity is Chien-Ming Wang, who hasn't pitched a competitive game of any kind since signing a $2 million deal with the Nationals last winter. He, too, could return in August, and the Nationals will need to determine if Wang's shoulder is healthy enough to warrant another go-around in 2011.
5. The climb out of the basement: As the second half starts, the Nationals are 3 1/2 games behind the Marlins for fourth place in the NL East with nine games left against Florida in the second half. It might seem insignificant, but a move out of last place would mark the first time since 2007 that the Nationals wouldn't finish the season there. And with manager Jim Riggleman's buyout set low enough that the Nationals could go in a different direction if they wanted, any amount of progress helps.