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Flatitude? Underwhelming Nationals stuck in neutral with few fixes in sight

Danny Espinosa and Alfonso SorianoDanny Espinosa has been dreadful and could lose his job as the starting second baseman. (AP)

On Thursday night, the Nationals were shut out for the seventh time this season, held to a mere three hits by the Orioles' Freddy Garcia and Jim Johnson. Heavily favored in the spring coming off a 2012 campaign in which they led the majors with 98 wins and won the NL East, the Nats have lost 8 of their last 12. Exactly one-third of the way through the season, Washington is merely a .500 team (27-27).

"Our offense has a few flat tires," conceded manager Davey Johnson in the wake of Thursday's defeat, which swung this year's Beltway Series to the Orioles, 3-1. Indeed, his team is eking out just 3.52 runs per game on .231/.291/.376 hitting, numbers that rank in the league's bottom four across the board, and they're even more ghastly if you subtract the work of Bryce Harper (.287/.386/.587 with 12 homers): .226/.282/.356.

Unfortunately, the work of Harper has been subtracted from the Nationals offense all too often lately. The 20-year-old phenom hasn't played since May 26 due to bursitis in his knee, the most lasting effect of his May 13 collision with the Dodger Stadium rightfield wall, and he has been in the lineup just 10 times in the team's last 20 games, missing two for an ingrown toenail, two more in the immediate aftermath of his crash (he pinch-hit in one of those games), and then six of the last 12 due to the knee — a span coinciding with that 4-8 skid and one in which the team's offensive output has been reduced to 3.33 runs per game.

The Nationals' lineup is also missing Jayson Werth, who has played in just one game in May due to a hamstring injury that he reaggravated during a rehab assignment, a problem that wasn't helped when he played through dehydration caused by a stomach virus; even as of Wednesday, he was described as able to play at only 60 percent intensity, and a return before the team's series against the Mets (June 4-6) may be pushing it. Wilson Ramos has been on the DL since May 16 with a recurrent hamstring strain, and Danny Espinosa has been playing through a fracture in his right wrist caused by a hit by pitch, that on top of a torn left rotator cuff that dates back to last season and that might have more wisely been repaired via offseason surgery; the combination of injuries has limited him to an abysmal .162/.194/.284 showing in 156 plate appearances.

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.

Injuries aside, the Nats have gotten disappointing performances at several spots in the lineup, both from regulars and fill-ins. Denard Span (.266/.323/.345) has been underwhelming as the team's leadoff hitter, as has Adam LaRoche (.246/.328/.457) as a middle-of-the-order bat, though he's raised his OPS 98 points in the past eight games with 11 hits (six for extra bases) and four walks in 33 plate appearances. Fill-in second baseman Steve Lombardozzi (.234/.254/.306) and outfielders Tyler Moore (.144/.196/.267) and Roger Bernadina (.154/.214/.269) have been terrible off the bench, as has top pinch-hitter Chad Tracy (.160/.208/.220), turning one of last year's strengths into a glaring weakness.

Amid their injuries and struggles, one option  worth considering is the recall of Anthony Rendon, who's lighting the Eastern League (Double-A) aflame with a .330/.473/.625 line after being limited to 43 games last year due to the latest in a series of ankle injuries. The sixth pick of the 2011 draft is a third baseman by trade, which means he's blocked by Ryan Zimmerman, for whom he filled in during the latter's late-April DL stint. Rendon has played a bit of second base at Harrisburg, and while it may not be an ideal position for him, it could help offset the struggles of Espinosa and Lombardozzi, who have combined for the league's worst batting line (.202/.227/.313) at the keystone. Long term, the team may be better off leaving him at the hot corner and moving Zimmerman to second, particularly given the latter's ongoing throwing problems, but that's not a switch that can be made in-season.

Another option would be a trade. With the Rangers trying to figure out a permanent home for Jurickson Profar, Ian Kinsler could be an inviting target assuming he heals from a stress reaction in his rib cage in a timely fashion, but taking on his contract ($62 million from 2014-2017, a lot for a middle infielder in his age 32-36 seasons) and fulfilling Texas' demands for a decent return would complicate matters. Such a move — or any trade of significance — isn't likely to happen until after the All-Star break, all of which makes a sneak peak at Rendon an appealing short-term option.

What's kept Washington afloat thus far has been its rotation, which ranks third in the league in both ERA (3.40) and quality start rate (61 percent). Stephen Strasburg (2.49 ERA, 73 percent quality start rate, 8.8 strikeouts per nine) has pitched far better than his 3-5 record indicates, the victim of paltry run support (2.9 per game, eighth-lowest among NL pitchers with at least 10 starts). Jordan Zimmermann (2.37 ERA, 83 percent quality start rate, 4.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio) has been outstanding and Gio Gonzalez (3.90 ERA) respectable, if not nearly as dazzling as last year. Alas, Dan Haren (5.09 ERA, 1.7 homers per nine) has struggled, and Ross Detwiler (2.76 ERA) hasn't pitched since May 15 due to an oblique strain that — surprise! — was exacerbated when he suffered a setback during a fielding drill.

Expected to be a strength given the addition of free agent Rafael Soriano, the bullpen has been middling at best, ranking 10th in the league in ERA (4.10) and ninth in inherited runner scoring rate (29 percent), a problem given the low-scoring nature of the team's games. Soriano has blown three save opportunities, tied for second in the league, and is striking out just 6.5 per nine. Setup man Drew Storen (4.57 ERA) has been erratic, and valuable middleman Ryan Mattheus has been stupid, fracturing his pitching hand after punching a locker in frustration after allowing five runs on May 19, an injury that could cost him two months.

While they're 5 1/2 games behind the Braves in the NL East and six back in the wild-card, the Nationals aren't out of any race, though their −23 run differential and 34.4 percent chance at a postseason spot according to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds are sobering given their championship aspirations. Zimmerman, who at .290/.373/.476 has been one of the offensive pillars, made a few waves when he remarked regarding such projections, "How did that [model] work out for them the last couple of years? Not very well, right?…That’s why nerds shouldn’t do that stuff." But even if such models are over his head — for the record, Washington's odds were estimated at an NL East-leading 62.9 percent prior to Opening Day — the reality is that the Nationals have to play much better to avoid ranking among this year's more crushing disappointments.

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