The first half of the 2016 season was full of compelling storylines for the Nationals, most of them positive but not all. The end result: a 54-36 record and a six-game lead in the National League East at the All-Star break.
Now the real work begins. The Nats have put themselves in position to win another division title, but in order to do that they’ve got several issues to address over the remainder of the regular season.
Here, then, are five top storylines for the second half ...
1. Can Ryan Zimmerman and Ben Revere find their hitting strokes?
Both players have longstanding track records as big leaguers. Zimmerman is a career .280 hitter with a .345 on-base percentage. Revere is a career .289 hitter with a .323 on-base percentage. How, then, to explain their dramatic decreases in production this season?
Zimmerman insists he wasn’t hurt until he strained a ribcage muscle last week and landed on the DL. Revere missed the season’s first month after straining an oblique muscle on opening day, but he’s been healthy for the last 2 1/2 months and so far has shown only glimpses of improvement.
One way or another, the Nationals need significantly better production from both of these positions. They’ll give Zimmerman and Revere ample opportunity to prove they can still do it, but at some point the organization has to be willing to look at alternatives if it doesn’t happen.
2. How much opportunity will there be for Lucas Giolito and Trea Turner?
We’ve gotten just a taste of the Nationals’ top two prospects, with Giolito making two starts and Turner appearing in three games so far. But there’s fair reason to believe both young players could figure more prominently into the club’s plans over the season’s second half.
Giolito is back pitching in the minors for now, but the Nats want to see more of him against big league lineups. Turner, meanwhile, is on the current 25-man roster. Dusty Baker just has to figure out where and when to use him. With Danny Espinosa playing so well, there doesn’t appear to be a vacancy at shortstop at the moment. Turner could get some time at second base if Daniel Murphy slides over to first base and supplants Zimmerman. He also could get a tryout in center field if the Nationals decide Revere isn’t the answer.
3. Does Bryce Harper have another MVP performance in him?
On the heels of his unanimous MVP selection last year, Harper opened this season winning NL Player of the Month honors after hitting .286 with nine homers, 24 RBIs and a 1.121 OPS in April. Since then, he’s hitting .245 with 10 homers, 28 RBIs and an .807 OPS. Hardly awful numbers, but hardly the standard everyone has set for Harper (and Harper has set for himself).
But does he have that kind of sustained run in him again? There have been encouraging signs of late, especially since Baker moved him to the cleanup spot behind Murphy. If he can find that peak form again, the sky’s the limit. If he can’t, he’ll still be a very good player for the Nationals, but one who falls victim to his own success.
4. Will Mike Rizzo make a significant deal at the trade deadline?
The non-waiver trade deadline is 2 1/2 weeks away, and the Nationals face some dilemmas between now and then. Do they stick with the lineup they’ve got, or do they do something bold and acquire another bat? What about the bullpen? Are they 100 percent invested in Jonathan Papelbon as their closer, or might Rizzo do to Papelbon what he did to Drew Storen last summer and bring in yet another closer? Or would the wiser move be to acquire another experienced set-up man who would bring more depth to the Nats relief corps while also providing an insurance policy in case Papelbon does falter at some point?
5. Can the Nats hold off the Mets and Marlins and win the NL East?
Ultimately, this is the only storyline that truly matters over the second half of the season. The Nationals have done well to reach this point with a six-game lead over both the disappointing Mets and the surprising Marlins. What happens now?
The Mets are reeling from injuries, but we saw last year how quickly and dramatically they could turn into an unstoppable force. The Marlins, meanwhile, have quietly been lurking all along. They’ve got loads of young talent, but can they put it all together and not implode the way previous teams in Miami have once things began to turn sour?
The Nats would be wise not to underestimate either of these division foes. And they would be wise to keep their feet on the gas pedal, just as Baker had them do last weekend in New York. They’ve positioned themselves well to win their third NL East crowd in five years, but they’ve still got a long way to go.