With Bryce Harper having received surgery on his injured thumb yesterday and his expected return date not until early July the Nationals need someone to step up. Most people point to Nate McLouth who will be Bryce Harper’s main replacement against right handed pitchers, and Scott Hairston will be the other half of the platoon when he returns. Both of those players having a career OPS north of .780 against opposite hand pitchers which should assist in filling in some of the gap. Figure in the return of Ramos in less than a week and Zimmerman a week or two after that and even without Harper the line-up is serviceable.
Where the Nationals really need the improvement to come from is the starting pitching. Last night Gio Gonzalez pitched a Quality Start but it was the baseline six inning, three run quality start, or a 4.50 ERA for those scoring at home. The starting staff was expected to be the Nationals strength this season and while Strasburg, Zimmermann, and Gonzalez have had more good starts than bad recently they still haven’t been carrying the team.
The Nationals starting staff’s ERA ranks 14th in baseball below non-contenders like the Cubs and Mariners. Some of this can be attributed to Taylor Jordan doing his best Dan Haren impersonation before being sent to the minors as the Nats go with a four man staff ahead of Doug Fister’s return, and a few uncharacteristic blow up starts from Zimmermann, Gonzalez, and Strasburg early in the year. The Nationals starter’s FIP is tied with the St. Louis Cardinals for third in baseball at 3.24 and their K/9 of 9.41 is tops in all of baseball. In other words the good type of regression is coming for the Nationals.
Without Harper the offense is going to take a blow. Harper may not have found his home run swing in the young season but he was getting on base at a solid rate and that will be missed from the Nationals batting order. The pace of 4.41 runs a game that the Nationals offense has put up thus far in the season seems unsustainable with one of their best players on the DL for two months, and while the McLouth and Hairston platoon should be a decent one there is no replacing Bryce Harper.
Expect the Nationals’ runs per game mark to drop closer to the league average of 3.96 during this time without Harper, and that means that the run prevention is going to have to get better. The Nationals have allowed an average of 4.00 runs a game which is tenth in the NL. For a team that has starting pitching as their main strength this is unacceptable. Regression to the mean from Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann along with the return of Doug Fister should help, but the Nationals also need the defense behind the starters to play better.
Ranking tied for second in baseball in errors with the Dodgers and 29th in UZR is not a good combination for a team built to prevent runs. The Nationals have been searching for an identity for what feels like two seasons now. In 2012 they were the team with the best pitching staff in baseball. A team that was going to ride its starters as long as they could and then turn to a powerful bullpen. In 2013 under Davey Johnson and so far in 2014 under Matt Williams the Nationals are trying to be a slugging team. They can no longer prevail at any rate in low scoring close games and find it necessary to score four runs or more to even have a shot at winning.
In order for the Nationals to survive without Bryce Harper the starting trio of Strasburg, Gonzalez, and Zimmermann are going to have to put this team on their back. They have to look into the dugout and ask only for one run. The rest is on them to shutdown the opposition and any more runs they get are gravy. These are the three Aces of the Nationals pitching staff and now more than ever is the time for them to carry the team. To forge the identity of the Nationals as a team that offers no quarter and doesn’t need to out slug the opposition to win because the opposition isn’t getting more than a couple runs a night and they only get those if they’re lucky.
Bryce Harper is out for the time being. The Washington Nationals were never designed to be an offensive powerhouse. It is time for the true strength of the team, starting pitching, to rise to the occasion.