Nationals’ first-half report card

This wasn’t the best first half in Nationals history, nor was it the worst. It was arguably the most eventful they’ve ever had, a 3 1/2-month roller coaster ride that began with a shocking drop (the COVID-19 outbreak), slowly began to climb back up, then gave everyone a June thrill ride before hitting some major bumps in early July.

The end result of all that was a 42-47 record at the All-Star break. Some years, that would leave the Nats out of contention and looking to sell at the trade deadline. This year, in a weak National League East, it’s still enough to give them reason to hope.

We’ll look ahead to the upcoming second half tomorrow, but first let’s give one final look back at a wild first half and hand out some midterm grades to everyone ...

Because he often took a back seat to Kurt Suzuki the last two years, we seem to have forgotten he’s a good all-around catcher. Both at the plate, where his 114 OPS+ ranks fifth among all National League catchers, and behind the plate, where his 15 runners thrown out trying to steal lead the majors. The Nats desperately hope his oblique strain doesn’t sideline him for long.

The Nats knew they weren’t getting a lot of offense from their new No. 2 catcher when they signed him, though Avila does have a knack for making his hits count (seven of 11 for extra bases) and he reaches base at a .345 clip. He’s been solid behind the plate as well. And it turns out he can play second base in a pinch, too!

The path to get there has featured some major dips and climbs, but the fact remains he reached the All-Star break with numbers very comparable to his career averages (112 OPS+ versus 116 for his career). All this in spite of owning an abysmal .133/.198/.289 slash line on May 13. He’s also been far better in the field than his reputation suggested.

Take Bell’s first half, flip it upside-down, and you get Zimmerman’s first half. He came out of the chute like gangbusters and reached June 1 with a .319/.347/.593 slash line, making some wonder if he should play more than Bell. But he’s fallen off a cliff, batting .129/.156/.274 since then.

Entered spring training as a valuable utilityman. Has since become the club’s everyday second baseman out of necessity. And has done quite well in the process. The heavier-than-planned workload is a bit concerning, but he’s done everything the Nats have asked of him and more.

As Turner goes, the Nats go. It’s an undeniable fact at this point. We saw it in 2019 once he returned from a broken finger and we’ve seen it again this year. He has firmly established himself not only as one of the best shortstops in baseball, but as one of the best players in baseball, period.

He finally started hitting more consistently over the last few weeks, batting .479 during a 14-game hitting streak and bringing his grade up a notch. But he’s still not hitting for power, and his defense at third base has been erratic. If the Nats attempt to upgrade their lineup at the trade deadline, this is the most likely spot to do it.

It’s not entirely fair to grade a guy after only nine games, but Escobar has instantly become the Nats’ leadoff hitter and starting second baseman since his acquisition from the Royals. Who knows how long that will remain the case, but he’s been a welcome addition so far.

Veteran infielder is popular among teammates and he did finish that crazy game in Philly with a bloody lip. But he was on the active roster for three months before recording his first RBI, then strained a quadriceps muscle and landed on the IL.

Schwarber-Swinging-White-Sidebar.jpgKYLE SCHWARBER: A-
Has one player ever turned his season around so dramatically in such a short amount of time? What Schwarber did for three weeks in June was nothing short of remarkable, which made his hamstring strain all the more unfortunate.

We’ll start with the good part: He’s become an elite defensive center fielder again after an off year. But that’s the only good thing about his first half. The Nats desperately wanted Robles to seize the leadoff spot. Aside from drawing more walks, he’s done nothing at the plate (or on the bases) to show he deserves it.

It’s so hard to accurately evaluate his season to date. In a lot of ways, he’s as good as ever. He’s reaching base at an elite .407 clip. He’s consistently hitting the ball as hard as anyone. His defense in right field has been solid. But he’s simply not hitting the ball in the air, and that leaves him a lesser version of his true self. Perhaps the tide is starting to turn after a strong West Coast trip and Home Run Derby performance.

We’ve been wondering for a while if more playing time would expose him, and the answer appears to be yes. Pressed into starting duties early after others were injured, he didn’t look up to the challenge. And it’s been a challenge to rediscover his 2019-20 pinch-hitting success since.

After a red-hot spring and strong start to the season, an unfortunate truth emerged: The 33-year-old rookie can’t consistently hit breaking balls. Opponents have figured it out and he’s been in a tailspin ever since.

Look, everyone loves the guy. And his place in franchise lore is forever sealed. But aside from a double in his first at-bat back from the minors and a homer a few days later, he’s done almost nothing at the plate. At some point, the club is going to have to decide if it can afford to use a roster spot on him.

Just when you think his best days are behind him, he finds a way to keep doing it. What regression? His ERA and WHIP are career-bests. His strikeout rate is right in line with the last four seasons. And aside from one start missed to a groin tweak, he remains as durable as ever. (That unfathomable bottom of the fourth in San Diego last week? We’re going to assume that will never happen again.)

On Oct. 31, 2019, as he was accepting a new car for winning World Series MVP honors, Strasburg seemed to have shed his fragile image forever. Alas, it has returned the last two seasons. It’s not his fault; he’s not soft. His body just hasn’t allowed him to pitch since. The Nats desperately need him to find his way back in the second half.

Strasburg’s excuse is physical. What’s Corbin’s excuse? By all accounts, he’s healthy. He’s simply not consistently effective. He’s giving up more hits and more homers while getting fewer strikeouts, bearing no resemblance to the 2019 lefty who was so critical to the Nats’ success. Somehow, he’s got to figure this out, because he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

The Nationals took a gamble signing the 37-year-old and banking on him to be their No. 4 starter. Aside from a couple of quality starts mixed in along the way, Lester has been a huge disappointment. He doesn’t have the stuff he used to have, and he just nibbles around the edges of the zone, piling up his pitch count and struggling to even complete five innings.

It was a first half of extremes for Ross. In 11 of his starts, he allowed two or fewer earned runs (zero earned runs in six of those). But twice he was tagged for eight or more runs, which made his ERA balloon. In the big picture, this has been a very encouraging season for him. But a little more consistency in the second half would be great.

Nobody deals with more bizarre calamities than Fedde. Have the best start of your life one day? Test positive for COVID-19 the next (despite being vaccinated). Finally re-establish yourself in the rotation after four weeks off? Suffer an oblique strain out of nowhere. Like Ross, he’s been a pleasant positive so far. But he’s got to stay on the mound now and keep pitching well.

If you saw this, you’re lying. Nobody saw this coming. Summoned in an emergency when Strasburg had to be scratched from a mid-April start, the 34-year-old journeyman pitched well enough to stick around. And he hasn’t left since. Whether starting, pitching as a long reliever, setup man or even closer, he’s done everything the Nats could’ve asked of him. And then some.

A couple of notable meltdowns in early May might have scared folks, but look how Hand has bounced back from that. He’s been lights-out since. There’s zero fear when he takes the mound for the ninth inning protecting a one-run lead right now. The Nationals have had their share of excellent closers over the years. He’s making a case to rank right near the top of the list.

After a shaky 2020, there was reason to wonder if his best days were behind him. Not at all. Hudson was so good the season’s first two months, manager Davey Martinez couldn’t help but us him every single opportunity that arose. That may have led to his IL stint with elbow inflammation, and Hudson will have to speak up more now when his arm doesn’t feel great. But he’s proving 2019 wasn’t a mirage.

An ugly start to the season left Rainey with a 10.57 ERA as recently as June 6. But he turned things around after that and allowed only one run over his next 10 appearances to bring the ERA down to 6.93. But then he landed on the IL with a stress reaction in his right shin, and now there’s no telling when he’ll be ready to return.

The Nats had little choice but to keep Voth on the roster because he’s out of options, but it turns out he’s making for a quality reliever after an uninspired stint in the rotation. His stuff plays up in short, one- or two-inning bursts, and that may make him a solid setup man down the road. For now, he still needs to work his way into high-leverage spots.

Durable but prone to the occasional blow-up, Finnegan has proven to be a solid middle reliever for this team. There’s possibly more in there that would allow him to ascend into a more prominent role. But when everyone else in the bullpen is healthy, the Nats don’t need him to pitch beyond the seventh inning often.

As always, good Suero is really good and bad Suero is really bad. There’s rarely a middle ground. But there’s been more good than bad so far this year, and that’s in large part to his ability to cut his walk rate nearly in half. As the fifth or sixth man in a bullpen, he’s perfectly fine.

The 28-year-old rookie has been thrown into the fire a lot this season out of necessity, and it hasn’t always gone as well as hoped. But you can see why the Nats are high on him. When he gets ahead in the count and induces weak contact, he’s effective. He just needs to do that with more consistency.

The slider is really good. When he can command it. McGowin has been done in at times by his inability to throw strikes (leading to one walk every two innings). When he throws the ball over the plate, he doesn’t get hit particularly hard.

For a fourth straight year, the Nats got off to a ragged start. And for the fourth straight year, Martinez found himself needing to scramble just to get his team back on track. He remains a master motivator; not once have these guys looked like they’d given up. He does have an issue running players into the ground with overuse, but how much of that is a product of the aforementioned ragged start and inability to ease off the gas pedal now?

Some of his moves legitimately have worked out well. Schwarber and Bell took off after slow starts, and Hand is exactly who he was supposed to be. But the Lester signing looks like a big mistake at this point, and the faith displayed in Robles and Carter Kieboom over the winter has come back to haunt the Nats as well. Organizational depth is woefully thin, and the general manager has to take responsibility for that. Rizzo has a chance to work his magic before the trade deadline arrives in two weeks. Let’s see if he can pull it off again.

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