The good and the bad of the Nats' first half

Look down upon the first half of the Nationals’ season from 30,000 feet in the air, and you can’t find much of anything to gloat about. How can you try to put a positive spin on a worst-in-baseball 31-63 record, a roster filled with ineffective stopgaps and all kinds of uncertainty at every level of the organization?

You can’t.

Look at the last 3 1/2 months under a microscope, though, and you can find individual reasons for optimism, not to mention more than a few reasons for pessimism. The Nats as a whole are a disaster, but some of the parts are worth appreciating.

So as we take one last look back at what’s taken place so far in 2022 before turning our attention to what’s still to come after the All-Star break, let’s focus not on the big picture but a bunch of little pictures, both good and bad …

All that concern about Soto’s first-half struggles, his lack of power and his low batting average? Yeah, he’s going to be just fine, thank you very much. Back on June 17, he was batting .220, slugging .440 and owning an .807 OPS that would be really good for anyone else but not for his lofty standards. Then he began a streak of 26 consecutive games reaching base, best in his career, during which he has hit .338/.505/.663 with seven homers and 27 walks. That surge allowed the 23-year-old to enter the All-Star break with a .901 OPS. (And perhaps helped him win the Home Run Derby.)

This was an underlying story since spring training, but most figured it wouldn’t rise to the forefront for some time, certainly not this soon. And then Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported Saturday that Soto had recently declined a 15-year, $440 million contract offer, prompting the Nationals to explore the possibility of trading him as soon as this summer. It’s been a whirlwind ever since, and not in a good way. Soto was the center of attention at Dodger Stadium this week for all the wrong reasons (though he did everything he could to shift that attention back to the field, given his tremendous performance). Still, there’s nothing good about the current state of the Nationals-Soto relationship off the field, and the fear is it’s only going to worse now.

Until Soto’s recent surge, the best first-half performance on the team unquestionably belonged to Bell. After a streaky 2021, he burst out of the gates on fire this season and never looked back. There have been a couple of mini-slumps, but those have lasted only a few days each. And they haven’t done anything to diminish Bell’s total numbers (.311/.390/.504, 13 homers, 50 RBIs). He should’ve been with Soto at Dodger Stadium this week but was a victim of a ridiculously deep group of star first basemen in the National League. No matter, because everyone here knows just how good Bell has been.

The Nationals thought they were going to have a potent trio of hitters in the middle of their lineup when the season began, but one of the three hasn’t lived up to his end of the bargain. Though Cruz was starting to look more like the professional slugger he’s been for so long, the 42-year-old has been ice cold at the plate of late, hitting .196 with one double and zero homers in his last 15 games. The Nats may still manage to get something for him at the trade deadline, but it won’t be anything close to the top prospect they hoped they could flip him into when they signed him this spring.

Most of the time, that is. Gray is still prone to some really ugly starts, usually involving the deadly combination of walks and home runs. But in the bigger picture, the young right-hander has been what the Nationals have wanted him to be this season: a clear building block for the future. He’s allowed two or fewer runs in nine of his 17 starts, and has notched eight or more strikeouts in five of them. There are mechanical issues that need to be worked on this winter, but consensus opinion is that Gray is going to be the solid starter the Nats thought they were getting all along.

Of the seven other pitchers on the staff who have made at least three starts this season, none sports an ERA better than 4.88. That includes Paolo Espino, who was promoted to the rotation after posting a 2.03 ERA as a mop-up reliever but has allowed 17 earned runs in 31 1/3 innings as a starter. Erick Fedde is the next-most-reliable starter on the staff, and he’s got a 4.91 ERA and 1.500 WHIP. And then there are Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, collectively earning more than $58 million this season but doing very little to actually earn it.

It’s been a real pleasure to watch García’s progress at the plate (he’s batting .294 and showing excellent contact skills) since his promotion from Triple-A Rochester seven weeks ago. And it’s been great to watch Ruiz throw out baserunner after baserunner, whether those trying to steal second or those caught napping too far off first. These are hugely encouraging signs for young potential building blocks.

The reason García didn’t reach the majors until June was his defensive woes at shortstop, and boy has he lived down to that reputation. He’s got nine errors (seven of them throwing) in 42 games, and that doesn’t take into account the other shaky plays he’s made that don’t result in actual errors. Ruiz, meanwhile, hasn’t been quite the hitter he was touted to be, especially in the power department. (He has only three homers in 293 plate appearances). There’s plenty of time for the young catcher to develop as a hitter, but so far it’s been kind of underwhelming.

If on Opening Day you knew the Nationals were going to lose Tanner Rainey and Sean Doolittle to season-ending injuries, you would’ve thought their bullpen was going to be a mess. Instead, that unit has more than held up its end of the bargain. That’s because of the surprising amount of depth they’ve got, from Kyle Finnegan to Carl Edwards Jr. to Steve Cishek to Andres Machado to Jordan Weems to Tyler Clippard. They actually had to demote Mason Thompson and Hunter Harvey to Triple-A last week, not because of poor performances of either, but because they simply didn’t have room for them for now.

Outside of Soto and Bell (and, to some extent, García) the Nationals just don’t have any consistent producers in their lineup. César Hernández doesn’t get on base or hit for power the way he used to. Lane Thomas and Victor Robles remain enigmas. Yadiel Hernandez isn’t cut out to be an everyday left fielder. And there’s simply nobody waiting in the wings at Double-A or Triple-A to join them and try to inject some life into the lineup. If the Nats end up trading Soto and Bell in the coming weeks, how is this team ever going to score any runs again?

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