Nats show promise in frustrating first half
Struggling bullpen, defensive lapses to blame for poor start
WASHINGTON -- Before the season started, the Nationals believed they would be better than last year's team, which lost 102 games. They had every reason to feel this way.
The Nationals improved their offense by signing outfielder Adam Dunn to a two-year, $20 million contract, and added pitchers Scott Olsen and Daniel Cabrera to the rotation. But the Nationals are still struggling to win games, finding themselves 26-61 at the All-Star break, the worst record in baseball.
A struggling bullpen and defensive lapses are the main reasons for the first-half issues. The relievers have saved a combined 14 games in 34 save opportunities, while the defense ranks 30th in the Major Leagues. The team has already made 82 errors entering the second half of the season.
To try to shake things up, the Nationals dismissed Manny Acta as manager and replaced him with bench coach Jim Riggleman, who is at the helm on an interim basis.
"This was a decision that we finalized over the weekend with the management team here in Washington," acting general manager Mike Rizzo said on July 13. "We feel that the team has underachieved. We feel that we have a better ballclub than we've shown on the field -- 26-61 is unacceptable to not only the Lerner family, [but to team president] Stan Kasten and myself and the ballclub.
"We feel that with a different voice and possibly a different feel in the ballclub, we can have a more successful second half of the season."
Club MVP: Two months ago, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman would have received the nod, but since his 30-game hitting streak came to an end, he slumped and played shaky defense. So the winner goes to left-hander John Lannan, who has been Washington's most consistent pitcher, showing he is a leader by example. If he had the offense and defense behind him, Lannan could have won more than six games in the first half.
Call him "Ace": Who else but Lannan? Who can forget the night of June 17, when he beat the Yankees by giving up just two runs in 8 1/3 innings at Yankee Stadium? Lannan even gave the Red Sox a hard time in his next start.
Greatest strength: After designating Cabrera for assignment, the Nationals decided to go with a young rotation and it has paid off for the most part. Lannan, Olsen, Craig Stammen and Jordan Zimmermann have held their own and kept the team in games.
Biggest problem: There are two problems -- the Nationals' defense and the bullpen. Rizzo has tried to fix the problems in the bullpen. He added Joe Beimel, Mike MacDougal, Julian Tavarez and Kip Wells, but the results have been mixed so far. The Nationals have used five closers this year, and they have picked up a combined 14 saves.
The Nationals also rank 30th in defense. Rizzo recently took steps to improve in that department by acquiring center fielder Nyjer Morgan from the Pirates. But it's going to take more than Morgan to make things right with the glove. Dunn and Josh Willingham have both struggled in the field. The team also needs Zimmerman to improve his defense. He had problems throwing to first base for most of the season.
Biggest surprise: Josh Bard was thought to be no more than a backup catcher when the season started. But after Jesus Flores hurt his shoulder, Bard stepped up and became one of the team's most consistent hitters. The team has often praised Bard for the way he handles the young pitching staff.
Bard has also showed that he has heart. He had a bad right groin, but it didn't stop him from playing. There was no talk of putting him on the disabled list.
Team needs: The bullpen and the defense will not improve unless Rizzo makes major moves. Will that come before the Trade Deadline? It's hard to say. Rizzo may not have any choice but to look into the farm system for help. A player like outfielder Justin Maxwell could improve the defense, while Zech Zinicola could help the bullpen.
He said it: "We think we have pieces in place here to have some type of success. We also acknowledge our flaws as a ballclub and we're working hard before the Trade Deadline to address the flaws and make prudent baseball deals to address the flaws." -- Rizzo
Mark your calendar: The Nationals start the second half by playing an 11-game homestand (July 16-26) at Nationals Park. It won't be easy for them, as they play the Cubs, Mets, Cardinals and Padres. Washington then goes on the road and plays the Brewers (July 27-30) and Pirates (July 31 to Aug. 3). The last time the Nationals faced the Pirates was last May, with Pittsburgh taking three out of four games.
Fearless second-half prediction: The Nationals will play respectable baseball under Riggleman and will not lose 100 games for the second year in a row.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.