PHOENIX - At the halfway point of the season, the Nationals are 46-46, their best record at the All-Star break since 2005. It would be easier for them to feel good about that, though, if the progression toward that record had been a little more even - or made a little more sense.
The starting pitching staff that everyone thought would be the team's weakest link has the sixth-lowest ERA in the National League. Ryan Zimmerman missed most of the first half, Adam LaRoche is done for the season and Jayson Werth's first half in Washington has been a nightmare. Oh, and Jim Riggleman abruptly resigned.
But as some players have faltered, others have emerged in ways the Nationals had only hoped to see in 2011; Michael Morse worked out of an early slump to become the hottest hitter in the game in May and June, and Danny Espinosa set records for power numbers from a rookie second baseman. Wilson Ramos played solidly behind the plate, and Laynce Nix - one of the last players to make the team - has become a key member of the lineup.
For having such an even record, the Nationals have been extremely polarizing; either you're breathing a sigh of relief that they've been this good, or you're grinding your teeth as their offense prevents them from being even better.
We'll attempt to make sense of that today, by issuing first-half grades for players:
Ramos: B He's struggled at times offensively, and has hurt the Nationals on a few occasions by failing to pick throws to the plate. But for a 23-year-old, he shows plenty of promise; he's hit eight homers, and has drawn enough walks to fashion a .328 OBP that's 77 points above his average. He's also thrown out 36 percent of baserunners. He should continue to get better.
Ivan Rodriguez: B This grade might seem high to some, but I've said this about Rodriguez all year: You have to evaluate him in the context of other backup catchers around the game, and in that sense, he's been very solid. He's embraced his role as a reserve, helping Ramos learn and taking his at-bats when they come. He's managed to drive in 19 runs despite getting just 117 at-bats. And his arm is still as good as ever; he's thrown out 48 percent of baserunners. There are plenty of teams that would love to have Rodriguez as a second catcher, and one of those teams might make the Nationals a good offer for his services this month.
Morse: A Especially since he's moved to first base, it's hard to ask for much more out of Morse. He's hitting .306, is second on the team with 15 homers and has played so well at first base that the Nationals have barely felt the absence of LaRoche's errorless defense. Morse's future might be back in the outfield with LaRoche returning next year, but that's a question for another day. Everyone wanted to see what he'd do with a full season of at-bats, and he's on his way to a breakout year.
Espinosa: A With his superb defense (a 3.5 UZR in 92 games) and his surprising power, which has come over and over at opportune moments (he has 16 homers and 52 RBIs), Espinosa is the front-runner for the National League Rookie of the Year award. He also looks like he could be a transformational player at second base. It's hard to find players at that position with Espinosa's power, athleticism and range, and especially as he improves from the left side of the plate, he's got a chance to be an elite player at the position.
Ian Desmond: C- On one hand, Desmond has made a nice improvement defensively. (He has only 12 errors after making 32 last season, and has a 0.8 UZR.) But on the other, Desmond has struggled so badly at the plate that some wonder if he's the long-term answer at shortstop. He's hitting .223, striking out 23 percent of the time, and his OPS is an ugly .572. The Nationals love his approach to the game, but Desmond lost one of his biggest fans when Riggleman resigned, and the second half will be key for him.
Zimmerman: Incomplete The third baseman had a 1.022 OPS in eight games before he slid headfirst into second base in New York, tearing a muscle in his abdomen. Between the rehab for that injury and the six weeks he had off after surgery, Zimmerman played just 34 games in the first half. He's struggled to get his timing back as he's returned, and his new throwing mechanics have been shaky. But he's the Nationals' best player, and they have little doubt he'll get going at the plate.
LaRoche: Incomplete In retrospect, the first baseman probably should have had surgery to repair a torn labrum in spring training, rather than trying to play the first six weeks of the season with the injury. But LaRoche tried to fight through it, and it hurt him at the plate; he hit .172 in 43 games, though he'd played superb defense at first. LaRoche should be back next year, though Morse could make a case to be at first base. But it's hard to evaluate him properly this season.
Jerry Hairston Jr.: B- The utilityman was a capable replacement for Zimmerman at third base, and raised his average to .260 before he fractured his wrist. He should be back soon after the All-Star break, though, and he's a nice option to have on the bench.
Alex Cora: C+ He also filled in for Zimmerman at third, though he's only hitting .235 and he can't play as many places as Hairston. But he's proven to be another usable veteran off the bench, and he came in handy with Zimmerman out.
Matt Stairs: F There are far too many fans who think getting rid of Stairs would give the Nationals a major offensive lift; he's the 25th man on the roster, and he's only had 72 plate appearances this year. But the Nationals put him on the team because of his track record as power hitter off the bench, and they've seen none of that. He's hitting .143 and striking out 30.6 percent of the time and has driven in two runs.
Rick Ankiel: D+ The Nationals' opening day center fielder has been a more patient hitter than anyone expected him to be, drawing walks in 8.1 percent of his plate appearances. He might also have the best arm in the game from center field. But he's been on the disabled list twice, is hitting .232 with three homers and has lost much of his playing time to Roger Bernadina. The Nationals are thin in the outfield, but it'll be interesting to see what they do with Ankiel in the second half.
Bernadina: C It's the same old story with Bernadina: At times, he looks like a dynamic talent at the top of the lineup, making highlight-reel catches, showcasing his speed by bunting his way on for hits and lashing extra-base hits. At others, he looks lost at the plate, too unrefined with his routes and too tentative with his decisions to play center field. If he wants to stick, that's probably where it's going to have to be, and it's unclear at this point if he's got the stuff to play there.
Nix: B+ Nobody could have predicted the Nationals would get this from Nix; an .817 OPS, 12 homers and consistent enough play in the outfield that he's played his way into an everyday role. He's a respectable fielder, though his range is nothing spectacular. But when Morse struggled in left, and then when the Nationals needed outfield depth, Nix has come through for them. He's not going to walk much (he has a .315 OBP), but he's far exceeded expectations.
Werth: D When he signed his seven-year, $126 million deal last December, there was no one who expected Werth to come close to justifying that price. But what he's done in the first half - hitting .215/.319/.362 and having enough problems defensively that he's wound up with a -4.2 UZR - wasn't in anyone's realm of first-half projections. Werth's teammates praise his presence in the clubhouse and his ability to instill confidence in younger players, and there's no question the right fielder is a savvy baserunner who can make things happen with his aggressive style. But the Nationals are paying for production, and Werth hasn't delivered it. He might be feeling some pressure to be the Nationals' top player, but when you sign a big contract with a last-place team, it comes with the territory. And short of a monster second half - which Werth has been capable of before - his first season in Washington will register as a major disappointment.
Livan Hernandez: B The drop-off expected of Hernandez after his rebound year last season (a 3.66 ERA) hasn't materialized; he's got a 4.01 ERA this season, and he's continued to be a solid piece of the rotation, leading the team with 121 1/3 innings. The ongoing federal investigation of his connection to a convicted Puerto Rican drug dealer is still looming, and Hernandez typically goes through one ugly stretch of starts every year. So far, though, he's given the Nationals what they've needed: a veteran to lead their rotation.
John Lannan: B+ At this time last year, the left-hander was back in the minor leagues, trying to rediscover his delivery. This year, Lannan has returned to being the reliable groundball specialist he'd been for 2 1/2 seasons before this year. He's put more trust in his two-seam fastball, posting a 3.64 ERA in 108 2/3 innings, and though he's still walking more hitters than the Nationals would like (3.1 per nine innings), he's been able to minimize damage. There are pockets of fans who think the Nationals need an upgrade over Lannan, but when serviceable left-handers are in short supply, he's not going anywhere.
Jason Marquis: B After an ugly 2010 season, Marquis is finally doing what the Nationals paid him $15 million for two seasons to do. He's getting ground balls with his sinker and giving the Nationals reliable innings. The 32-year-old still puts too many runners on base (he has a 1.453 WHIP), but two weeks from the trade deadline, he'll draw plenty of interest from teams looking for a veteran starter. At this time last year, who wouldn't have taken that scenario?
Jordan Zimmermann: A Coming off Tommy John surgery, Zimmermann needed to take a step toward being the No. 2 starter in the Nationals' rotation of the future. Instead, he's become their ace of the present; a confident starter with shutdown stuff who's put them in position to win just about every time he's pitched. The Nationals often play as though they're trying to spite him, and his 6-7 record probably cost him a trip to the All-Star Game. But he's got a 2.66 ERA, he's kept himself out of the trouble he occasionally found in his rookie year in 2009 (he's given up just four homers and and walked 21 batters) and his wipeout slider has helped him strike out a team-high 82 batters. He'll be shut down after another 45 innings, but the Nationals will do it ever so reluctantly. And when Stephen Strasburg comes back, Zimmermann will be more than a worthy complement.
Tom Gorzelanny: B- When the Nationals traded three minor leaguers for the left-hander last December, he hadn't been a full-time starter since 2009. They put him in their rotation this year, though, and he's delivered surprising returns: a 3.94 ERA and 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings - the most of anyone on the staff. He missed about a month with left shoulder inflammation, but he's back now, and for a No. 5 starter, he's been quite good.
Drew Storen: A- At the beginning of the year, the Nationals were trying to ease the 23-year-old into the closer's role. Instead, he appears to have grabbed it for good; he's converted 23 of 26 save opportunities, posting a 2.53 ERA and striking out 34 batters in 44 1/3 innings. Storen's work to improve his fastball command in spring training has paid off; he's throwing his mid-90s sinker more effectively than ever, which has made his slider a nasty second pitch. He went through a skid in late May, and the Nationals will have to be careful with how much they use him, but the No. 10 pick in the 2009 draft looks to be the answer in the ninth inning for years to come.
Tyler Clippard: A Last year, Clippard was a curiosity; a long-limbed reliever with goofy goggles and a gangly delivery that somehow got hitters to swing and miss when he threw 93 mph fastballs high in the strike zone. He struggled with inherited runners, and became notorious for vulturing wins, blowing leads or entering a tie game only to snatch the decision when the Nationals scored in the next half-inning. This year, he's become indispensable; he's allowed just six of 32 inherited runners to score, has a 0.853 WHIP, and has struck out 63 batters in 51 1/3 innings. The Nationals save Clippard for almost all of their tightest situations, and he's handled that role with stunning efficiency, making his first All-Star team. Like with Storen, the Nationals need to find someone to take some stress off Clippard. But when he's been this good, they often can't go anywhere else.
Henry Rodriguez: C+ The hard-throwing right-hander is exactly the roller coaster the Nationals were promised when they traded for him in December. At times, he looks unhittable, with a 100 mph fastball and a nasty high-80s slider that he can start inside on right-handed hitters. At other times, the Nationals don't know what to do with him; he's walked 20 batters in 30 1/3 innings, thrown seven wild pitches and had blown through so much trust in early May that Riggleman asked Doug Slaten to throw a third inning for the first time in his career, rather than using Rodriguez in extra innings against the Braves. But he's pitched better lately, and if he can bring his walks down, he'd add to an already stellar back of the bullpen.
Todd Coffey: B He's been a solid pickup for the Nationals, able to hold a late lead one night and pitch in mop-up duty the next. He's got a 1.290 WHIP and 27 strikeouts in 35 2/3 innings, and his sprints from the bullpen to the mound have made him a fan favorite, just like he was in Milwaukee - where they still played his entrance music and timed his run like they did when he was with the Brewers. He could be traded this month to a team seeking bullpen help, but the big right-hander has served the Nationals well.
Sean Burnett: D At the beginning of the year, Riggleman had Burnett closing games. But he lost confidence in his sinker in May, and started blowing leads with broken-bat singles and bloop hits. He's also given up four homers, though, and has a 1.421 WHIP. Burnett still has plenty of respect in the Nationals' clubhouse for conducting himself with class; after every blown lead or loss, he's been standing at his locker, ready to answer questions. But after signing a two-year extension last December, he needs to get back to being the effective left-hander he was last year.
Doug Slaten: D- Slaten has been a case study in how hard it is to quantify a reliever's performance; he's got a 2.19 ERA, but in his role as a lefty specialist, where's he's often pitching with runners on base, that means almost nothing. What does count is that Slaten has allowed 15 of 30 inherited runners to score, given up 26 hits in 12 1/3 innings and allowed lefties to hit .321 off him. He's on the disabled list right now with left elbow neuritis, and after an impressive 2010, he's been nowhere near the same pitcher this year.
Cole Kimball: Incomplete It's hard to grade the right-hander, who pitched well at times during a 12-game stint before going on the disabled list, and he had rotator cuff surgery last week that should end his season. Kimball said he was hurting before he was called up to the majors, and while he could have said something about his arm, most pitchers on the verge of a call-up would do the same thing. But he's got a good fastball and throws an effective splitter, and he should be back in future years.
Collin Balester: C- He was only up for eight games, but had a 4.61 ERA, and got back to walking hitters after throwing strikes in 17 games last year. Balester is in his final option year, and he's been shuttled between Triple-A Syracuse and Washington twice already.
Ryan Mattheus: B+ The right-hander, who came to the Nationals in a deadline deal in 2009 while he was still recovering from Tommy John surgery, came to the majors in late June and has been a pleasant surprise; he's given up just two runs in 13 2/3 innings and has a 0.878 WHIP. The Nationals have no shortage of capable relievers, and Mattheus has stepped right in to their bullpen.
What do you think of the ratings? Are there any players you think we've got rated too high or too low? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.