Nationals second-half storylines

A roller coaster of a first half ended for the Nationals last weekend with a sweep in San Francisco, the final unexpected twist to 3 1/2 months of baseball that featured all kinds of unexpected twists.

What, then, do the next 2 1/2 months have in store for this team? Can anyone truly say they know?

You can make a compelling case for just about anything to happen to the Nats in the second half. Get healthy and surpass the Mets to win the National League East? Sure, that’s possible. Completely collapse and be forced to sell at the July 30 trade deadline? Yeah, it’s not a stretch to envision that scenario, either.

There’s so much that could still happen to this team before the 2021 season is complete. With that in mind, let’s run through the five biggest storylines that await in the second half ...

5. Who will be in the rotation when the season ends?
We’ve talked for months about the Nationals’ need to bump somebody from the rotation, but it still hasn’t been necessary because of injuries. Just when you thought Joe Ross or Erick Fedde was on borrowed time, something inevitably happened to kick that decision down the road a ways.

Eventually, though, the Nats will have more than five healthy starters. And eventually they’re going to have to decide which five deserve to remain the rotation for the stretch run. Stephen Strasburg’s pending return will play a huge role in this, but so will the performances of Patrick Corbin and Jon Lester. At some point, those two lefties have got to start pitching like their track record says they can. If not, especially in Lester’s case because he’s not signed beyond this year, the Nationals may have no choice but to bump a veteran and keep a less-accomplished arm in the rotation.

4. Can the lineup start consistently producing?
The Nationals’ team OPS steadily climbed through the season’s first three months, from .692 in April to .713 in May to .784 in June. Things have cooled off again in July, though the loss of Kyle Schwarber to a significant hamstring strain surely has played a key role in that regression.

What can we expect from the lineup the rest of the way? Well, Schwarber’s eventual return will make a big difference, but in the meantime others need to step up and fill in the void. Trea Turner has been electric all along and should continue to perform. Juan Soto (more on him in a moment) needs to start hitting for power at last. Josh Bell and Starlin Castro need to continue their recent surges.

The Nationals would love to have a well-balanced and deep lineup. Too often this season, there hasn’t been much production coming from the bottom half of the batting order. If they’re going to start consistently scoring four or more runs per game, they’re going to need it from the back half of the lineup, not just the top.

Soto-Hitting-White-Sidebar.jpg3. Will Soto rediscover his power stroke?
In many ways, Soto is having another standout season. His batting average (.283) and on-base percentage (.407) are just a tick below his career numbers. He leads the league in walks and he’s ninth in the NL in times on base.

There’s still something very big, however, missing from the equation: Soto’s power. It’s disappeared, leaving him with only 11 homers and a disappointing .445 slugging percentage. If he’s going to help lead his team back into contention, he’s going to have to play a big role.

Perhaps Soto’s performance in the Home Run Derby, when he knocked out crowd favorite and No. 1 seed Shohei Ohtani, was the start of something great. Maybe he really has discovered his power stroke again. We’ll find out in the next couple weeks. But regardless, the spotlight will be shining bright on Soto the rest of the way.

2. Can injured stars return to make a big difference?
Schwarber, Strasburg, Yan Gomes, Ross, Tanner Rainey. All currently reside on the 10-day injured list. All are important to the Nationals’ second-half fortunes, in one capacity or another.

The Nats need Schwarber back in the lineup as soon as his hamstring allows. Same with Gomes, who had been enjoying the best all-around season of his career before suffering an oblique strain last weekend in San Francisco. Both guys will make a big difference when back on the active roster.

Who are we kidding, though? Strasburg’s return is most important to the club’s chances. If he can get (and remain) healthy, and if he can pitch like he always has when healthy, he can single-handedly change the complexion of the Nationals rotation.

And don’t sleep on Ross (elbow inflammation) or Rainey (stress reaction in right lower leg) to make a difference down the stretch as well. Given the state of the rotation, Ross is desperately needed on the mound every fifth day. And Rainey is sorely needed in the bullpen to help bridge the gap from starter to Daniel Hudson and Brad Hand.

1. What happens at the trade deadline?
Are the Nationals buyers or sellers? They still don’t know as the trade deadline looms a mere 15 days away.

Their performance over the next two weeks will determine general manager Mike Rizzo’s course of action. If they can keep themselves in the race, Rizzo will be tempted to pursue another everyday player (possibly someone who can play third base, second base or both), plus another reliable reliever and some bench help.

If the Nats fall out of the race before then, Rizzo is going to be confronted with a question he never wanted to face in 2021. His roster is loaded with quality players due to become free agents at season’s end (Schwarber, Gomes, Castro, Harrison, Hand, Hudson and of course Max Scherzer). Any or all of those players would be desired by contending clubs, and it’s Rizzo’s job to determine if anyone offers him something that benefits the club in the long term.

We don’t know yet which path the Nationals will take at the deadline. But it’s about time to finally decide what this team really is, what it’s truly capable of achieving in 2021.

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