The "second half" of the Major League Baseball season gets underway tonight, but the Washington Nationals get another day off and will get back on the field Friday night against the Atlanta Braves, whom they trail for the N.L. wildcard spot by eight games at the start of play. Not only do the Nationals face an eight-game deficit, but there are five other teams between themselves and Atlanta.
Is it impossible the Nats can overtake six teams and take the 2011 wildcard? I suppose it's not impossible. But if Atlanta continues to win at the pace they are on, that would give them 95 wins. For the WILDCARD spot. Let's say, for the sake of argument, the Braves have some troubles down the stretch and finish with 88 wins, a seven-game difference for them in the second half.
At that pace, the Nats would have to go 42-28 in the final 70 games just to catch the Braves and force a one-game playoff, unless one of those other five teams leapfrogged the stumbling Braves. 42-28 is a .600 winning percentage, equivalent to a 97-win pace over the course of an entire season. Does anyone think the Nats can win on a 97-win pace the rest of this campaign?
So, now that we've put the playoff scenario to bed, let's concentrate on what's really important the rest of the way for the Nats.
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But the idea of the Nats finishing around .500 and Strasburg getting a couple of starts is probably the best case scenario for D.C. right now.
2) Maximizing Current Assets for Future Value: Finishing at or near .500 should be a huge motivational factor for the Nats and their fan base. But equally important is to gain value for players that aren't going to be here next year. Jason Marquis is the Nats biggest movable asset. He's shown to be a reliable back-of-the-rotation starter for a pendent contender, and there are half a dozen teams that could really use a starter down the stretch.
GM Mike Rizzo should sell Marquis to the highest bidder. I just can't envision the Nats giving Marquis a three-year big money deal, which is what he's going to want on the open market this off-season. There are plenty of young (and some not-so-young) starters in the minors to fill the rotation and get some good looks in August and September.
Other potential trade pieces: Todd Coffey, Jerry Hairston, Pudge Rodriguez, maybe even Rick Ankiel. None of these players are going to net a bona fide prospect, but maybe a tarnished one or a lower-level guy. You never know.
3) Evaluating for the Future: The future isn't too far off. It's pretty easy to envision a rotation next year of Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, followed probably by a free agent veteran (unless Chien-Ming Wang proves to be that guy), John Lannan and a combination of Brad Peacock, Tom Milone, Brad Meyers, Yunesky Maya or maybe even Shairon Martis (7-3, 2.70, 9.3 K/9, 2.5 BB/9 for AA-HBG). I think with Zimmermann getting shut down after another eight starts or so, and the possibility of Marquis being shipped, we'll see a couple of these guys pitch down the stretch to give them a taste of big league hitters.
It's dangerous to hand out roster spots based on the results of starts in September (spring training too, for that matter), but it is part of the evaluation process, and some of these guys look like they are ready for that challenge.
4) Whither Ian Desmond? It's as simple as this: now that he's fixed his defensive problems, he has to start hitting. He has to cut his swing down. He needs to work on using all fields instead of being pull-happy trying to generate power. He has to get better at working the count. Not even Ozzie Smith with the glove could get away with a .223/.264/.308 line at the plate. There's no reason for it, other than he's infatuated with trying to generate power. This team has plenty of guys that can pop-a-shot. Desmond needs finally realize this and work on getting on base more often. Or else he'll find himself watching others that can.
5) Getting the Big Guys Back on Track. If someone had told you in spring training that the Nationals would be .500 at the All-Star break, and that Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth would be on a pace for 25 home runs -- combined -- you probably would have asked what they were smoking. But stats don't lie. Zimmerman missed 58 games due to the abdominal injury and Werth has fallen off a cliff. Zim gets a pass for a while until we can be assured he's finally, 100 percent healthy (which I'm not sure he quite is yet), but Werth has been simply atrocious.
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What are you most interested to watch the rest of the way in 2011?