WASHINGTON – The circumstances are eerily similar to last summer. It is early July and the Nationals have a comfortable lead in the National League East. A push from their top two competitors does not appear imminent. The two other teams in the division are outclassed. Now, they must hope the past does not repeat itself
Last year, it appeared Washington was headed for its third division title in four seasons. Instead, the season fell apart in short order. On July 5 the Nats led the NL East by 4.5 games over the Mets. The Braves were six games out. The Marlins and Phillies were already double-digit games behind and no threat at all.
And yet New York hung around, swept a series between the two teams at Citi Field in early August to tie for the division lead and Washington’s season crumbled – a nightmare 37-43 finish. They fell as far as 9.5 games behind the Mets in September and missed the playoffs entirely. Jonathan Papelbon choked Bryce Harper. Matt Williams was fired. You know the rest.
Fast forward a year and as the July 4 weekend begins Washington (48-32) is six games up on the Mets, the Marlins are the team hanging around (6.5) and the Phillies (13) and Braves (20.5) are already planning for next year. The lead feels comfortable. With a four-game series at Citi Field next week the Nats better not size up those rings quite yet (Sorry Bryce). Here, though, are five reasons this year is different.
Much was made of injuries keeping Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Denard Span on the disabled list last season. Unfortunately, Span is gone, Werth has been average at the plate and Zimmerman is struggling just to keep his OPS above .700. Luckily, Wilson Ramos is having a career year at the plate and Daniel Murphy continues to terrorize opposing pitchers. It’s just this year he’s doing it for the Nats and not the Mets. Last year Washington had no answers when Zimmerman, Werth, Span and Anthony Rendon were out of the lineup. So far this season, they do. If any of those three remaining players catches fire in the second half then the Nats could cruise to a division title. For now, the offense is humming along at fifth best in the NL. They need more. But for now it’s been good enough.
Available minor-league call-ups who can make an impact
Few teams survive a season intact. You need reserves to call on in a pinch. Washington has options this season that weren’t available in 2015. Trea Turner was supposed to be Danny Espinosa’s replacement at shortstop. But with Espinosa’s bat coming to life in June, the Nats have experimented playing Turner in center field at Triple-A Syracuse. Maybe he can become their version of Ben Zobrist and get time at short, second and center all while contributing with the bat and keeping the lineup afloat when veterans are given needed days off during the dog days of summer. Washington also turned to top pitching prospect Lucas Giolito this week and he performed well in his debut. It’s still unclear how long his first stint in the majors will last, but Giolito at least buys them time until Stephen Strasburg returns from injury.
The sputtering Mets
That starting rotation is capable of carrying just about any team in the league to a playoff spot. Unfortunately for the Mets, their offense has achieved “any team in the league” status. They stink. With 280 runs scored total, only the Phillies and Braves have fewer. And there’s no real reason to think New York will suddenly find its bats. David Wright could be out for the season and isn’t the player he once was anyway. The Mets need to add a hitter before the trade deadline, which they did last summer to great effect with Yoenis Cespedes. But they might not have the prospects left at the top of their system to do that. That means upgrading the margins of the roster and hoping their top-tier pitching carries them. That could happen. But both Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz are dealing with bone spurs on their throwing elbows, too. Even with Matt Harvey shaking off a rough start, New York can’t lose anyone from its rotation. One caveat: The 2016 Marlins are better than the 2015 Braves so…you might want to keep an eye on them, too.
A better bullpen
It wasn’t that bad last season. Washington’s relievers posted a 3.46 ERA in 2015, which was 10th-best overall. It might not seem like it, but the Nats have been much better this year at 3.13. That’s fourth in the majors. There is some volatility here, though. Felipe Rivero has imploded after a good start and following a strong 2015. Closer Jonathan Papelbon has only blown two saves, has 16 overall and a 3.28 ERA. Not terrible. But at 35 can he get the tough outs in October? He’s also missed almost a month with a rib injury. Sammy Solis (1.35 ERA) has contributed after starting the year in the minors. Blake Treinen (2.25 ERA) and Yusmeiro Petit (2.55 ERA) have been solid. Shawn Kelly (3.00 ERA) has shouldered the burden at closer with Papelbon out. But this is a group screaming for one major hard-throwing addition – Aroldis Chapman? Andrew Miller? A reliever like that would let everyone else settle into their role and set the Nats up for the postseason. Of course, other top clubs are in the market for elite relievers, too.
It’s not as sexy as signing Max Scherzer in 2015 or adding a big bat at the trade deadline. But the Nats are a far better defensive team than last season and that’s helped. Ian Desmond was a borderline disaster at shortstop in 2015 and he’s moved to the outfield this year with the Texas Rangers. Meanwhile, Danny Espinosa and a healthy Anthony Rendon at third base give Washington a consistent left side of the infield. Errors aren’t a perfect measuring stick since they involve judgment calls and don’t factor in a players’ range. But the Nats have committed just 27 so far – fewest in the majors by seven. Bryce Harper’s arm is a weapon in right field (three outfield assists) and Wilson Ramos has been solid behind the plate with only 15 stolen bases allowed in 22 attempts and the lowest catcher ERA in the league (3.47). There are still holes here. Jayson Werth (outfield), Ryan Zimmerman (first base) and Daniel Murphy (second base) rank below average at their positions, according to the web site Fangraphs’ defensive metrics. But if you’re going to lack range it’s probably better to do so at those three spots. Zimmerman still has good hands at first. The Nats’ pitchers have benefited.
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