Patrick Reddington: Top five second-half storylines for Nationals

The second half begins tonight when the Nationals host the Los Angeles Dodgers. Here are the top five storylines to keep track of during the remainder of the 2013 season:

5. Krol and Abad: The Nationals started the season with a right-handrf-heavy bullpen they thought could handle left-handed hitters. The Nats continued to add left-handed pitchers to the mix in the organization throughout the offseason, however. Former Astros lefty Fernando Abad, 27, signed with Washington in November. Ian Krol was announced in late March as the player to be named in the three-team deal with the Oakland A’s and Seattle Mariners. Abad impressed in spring training, but started the year in Triple-A Syracuse. Krol, 22, was assigned to Double-A Harrisburg. Abad had a 1.06 ERA, two walks (1.06 BB/9) and 12 strikeouts(6.35 K/9) in 17 innings in relief for the Chiefs before he was called up on May 21. Krol had a 0.69 ERA, seven walks (2.42 BB/9) and 29 strikeouts (10.04 K/9) in 26 innings before he was brought up June 4 as part of a series of moves that shook up the Nationals roster.

Krol’s major league career started with 9 2/3 scoreless innings of relief work. He has walked one (0.60 BB/9) and struck out 13 (7.80 K/9) in 15 innings so far. Abad has walked two (0.92 BB/9) and fanned 21 (9.61 K/9) in 19 2/3 innings. The addition of the two lefties gave manager Davey Johnson the sort of bullpen he’s liked having in the past and their success early, while something of a surprise, has settled things down in the ‘pen.

Can the two, who were on few radars when spring training started, continue to dominate opposing hitters out of the pen?

4. The return of Wilson Ramos: The 2012 campaign was supposed to be a big year for Ramos. The starting job was his. Ramos was coming off a tumultuous winter which saw him kidnapped in his native Venezuela, but he was back on the field and playing baseball. Then he blew out his knee just 25 games into the season. Two surgeries and a long rehab followed, but the hard-hitting catcher was ready for spring training in 2013. He earned the nod on opening day and seemed poised for the big season everyone expected from the former Twins prospect. Then he injured his hamstring. Ramos returned quickly, but went down with another hamstring injury.

The second injury sent the 25-year-old catcher to the DL for more than a month. Upon returning, however, Ramos sparked the offense and lengthened the lineup, providing the Nationals will another offensive threat on a team that was struggling to score runs. His return also gave beleaguered backstop Kurt Suzuki a break after Suzuki had done the bulk of the catching with Ramos sidelined. Since he’s been back, Ramos has a .375/.394/.625 line at the plate with two doubles and two home runs in nine games.

Can Ramos stay on the field? The Nationals lineup is a different beast with “The Buffalo” in the lineup. Can Ramos stay healthy in the second half?

3. Dan Haren: Haren struggled with back issues last season with the Angels. He went on the DL at the All-Star break for the first time in his 10-year major league career, but returned to the mound in the second half of the season and looked more like the Haren of old throughout the rest of 2012. When he signed with the Nationals for one year and $13 million, he assured reporters that concerns about his health were overblown. He said he thought he’d have gotten a multi-year deal on the market if not for the reports that his hip and back were an issue. Then he struggled throughout the first half of the 2013 campaign and found himself on the DL for the second time in his career.

Haren had a cortisone shot in his shoulder and returned to the mound before the break to make two starts in which the Nationals were impressed with what they saw. Impressed enough to stick with the 32-year-old, 11-year veteran? With two weeks before the non-waiver trade deadline, will the Nationals stand pat with the rotation they have or will the try to find another starter to bolster the back of the rotation? Nats general manager Mike Rizzo said recently that Haren gave the Nationals a chance to win each of his post-DL stint starts and provided exactly what the Nationals wanted out of a fourth or fifth starter.

Having Haren return from the DL for a second straight summer and pitch more like the Haren of old is a nice narrative. Can the Nationals count on the right-hander as they attempt to catch the Braves or at least make a run at one of the wild card spots?

2. Davey’s last run: There’s no sign of a change of plans for the Nationals’ 70-year-old skipper. This looks like it will be his last run. Will his 17-year second career as a manager end with his team falling short of expectations? Can Davey Johnson go out like that? He started the season saying it was “World Series or bust” - not out of arrogance, but because he believed if the team played up to its capabilities after winning the division last season, the next step was a long postseason run. The Nats, of course, finished the first half of the 2013 campaign just a game over .500, six games out in the division and five games out in the wild card race.

The offense has struggled. Johnson has experimented with lineups, shaking things up yet again in the last game of the first half to put his high-OBP players at the top of the lineup. Those two players just happen to be a 20-year-old second-year major leaguer and a 22-year-old but polished rookie infielder. Did Johnson finally find the right mix? Are their more moves to come? Can the baseball lifer inspire his team and take them to another level before he steps away from an active role in the game he’s been a part of since he signed with the Orioles as a free agent in 1962?

1. Strasburg and Harper: Ryan Zimmerman may still be the face of the Nationals franchise, but Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper are the future. The future is now. Can Strasburg fight himself, straighten out his mechanics and lead the Nationals rotation through the second half now that he’s free to pitch until the season ends? Harper was missed when he went on the DL with a knee issue and missed over a month. He’s struggled at the plate since he’s returned, but his presence alone provides a spark and pushes his teammates as Johnson said this week when he traveled to New York for Harper’s second All-Star appearance in two seasons.

If the Nationals are going to make a run at their second postseason appearance, it’s going to be with Strasburg and Harper leading the way. Can the 24-year-old ace and the second-year star take their games and the Nats to the next level?

Patrick Reddington blogs about the Nationals for Federal Baseball and appears here as part of’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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