When you're making a list of Baseball's Most Disappointing Teams, you gotta start with the Blue Jays, Dodgers and Angels. But the Nationals are working on a run of their own, thanks in part to an annoying run of injuries. Most obviously, there's second baseman Danny Espinosa, who's batting .162 while playing through a wrist injury. But Jayson Werth's been hurt for most of the spring, and now Bryce Harper's gimpy, too.
Jay Jaffe's written about all this, with this headline:
Flatitude? Underwhelming Nationals stuck in neutral with few fixes in sight
The lingering nature and/or recurrence of those injuries raises serious questions about the Nationals’ training staff, particularly given that from 2010 through 2012, they lost more days to the DL than any other team besides the Yankees. It would seem to be far more prudent to take the tack of, say, the Yankees, and follow conservative timelines even when the team is depleted. Instead, as the Washington Post‘s Thomas Boswell recently pointed out, there appears to be a link between the team’s high-intensity "Natitude," their self-imposed pressure to live up to lofty expectations and their ongoing injury woes, as players press to come back too quickly and then struggle or exacerbate their injuries.
Johnson isn’t helping matters, either. Even in what may be the final year of his managerial career, he should be counseling the long view, particularly for a franchise player such as Harper, who may be better off serving a 15-day DL stint now before his problems worsen.
Look, the thing with Espinosa is just ridiculous. There's toughness, and then there's being a stubborn idiot who's hurting your team. Espinosa seems to have cleared the latter bar with plenty to spare. Jaffe suggests that über-prospect Anthony Rendon, currently tearing up the Eastern League, might be summoned to the majors for second-base duties. But the Eastern League's not the National League, and Rendon would be playing out of position. I'm not saying they shouldn't do it, but it's not clear that Rendon would actually be a big upgrade.
Otherwise it's really about getting healthy; in particular, getting Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper healthy. Because the bottom line is that this is exactly the same team we all loved two months ago. Remember, this is exactly the same team that won 98 games last year, and was exactly the same this year except for adding Rafael Soriano and replacing Edwin Jackson with Dan Haren. As usual, Haren's given up too many home runs. Soriano's been fine.
On balance, there are still plenty of reasons to believe this team's better than its 27-27 record, and lots better than its lousy (-23) run differential. The hitting's been awful, and that's almost entirely because of Espinosa, Werth, and a terribly ineffective bench. Werth's hardly a sure thing -- he played in only 81 games last year -- but he's supposed to return within the next week or so, and you have to think the Nationals will pull the plug on Espinosa soon.
It's probably foolish to predict a division title for the Nationals. But they're the best team in the majors with a negative run differential, and I wouldn't bet against them winning around 90 games.
For much more about the Nationals, please visit SB Nation's Federal Baseball.