Sunday, May 29, 2011

Almost Werth-less: Nats’ Progress Impeded by Silent Bats

The 2011 freefall may have started for the Washington Nationals (22-29), who dropped another one Saturday, 2-1, to the even worse San Diego Padres (21-31). For the Nats, losers of 8 of their last 10 games, it was another exercise in the frustration of life as a good-pitch, lousy-hit baseball club.

The Nats are aching for respectability, and they’ve got a combative manager, Jim Riggleman, who, considering the roster he was handed, so far ought to be a candidate for Manager of the Year. But with a team batting average of .227, the Nats are eclipsed only by the Padres (.226) for MLB offensive futility. There are various, clearly identifiable reasons for the Nats’ anemic production, but chief among them are the disappointing numbers registered by high-priced free-agent acquisitions Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche.

Werth is showing some signs of shaking off the rust--well, sort of--his average now standing at .245, including eight home runs and 18 RBIs. Yet Werth is earning approximately $10 million this year, the first installment on a seven-year, $126 million contract he signed in the off-season after leaving the Phillies.

Werth, you might say, committed highway robbery, cashing in the big payday under false pretenses. He put up solid numbers for the Phillies in recent years, but he was hitting in a lineup that included Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Shane Victorino and Raul Ibanez, among others. He saw tastier pitches to hit, and there were always people on base to drive in. That’s not the case in D.C., where Werth has been exposed as much less than a bonafide star. Currently, he’s on a pace to hit 25 homers and drive in 60 runs. Or, about $170,000 per RBI. Ouch.

Werth also recently engaged in some public bitching about the team’s fortunes. Riggleman tried to smooth it over, but damnation, Jayson, look in a mirror, dude. (And, in 2017, at the age of 38, Werth will draw a $21 million paycheck from the Nats. Think about that when you bite into your overpriced hot dog at Nationals Park.)

LaRoche, a notorious slow starter, has taken that designation to new lows. He’s currently hitting .172 with three HRs and 15 RBIs. His OPS is .546. Ugh. Brought in to replace departed slugger and fan favorite Adam Dunn, LaRoche was just recently put on the disabled list because of a torn labrum in his left shoulder--not good for a guy who bats and throws lefthanded. No one knows when LaRoche will be back or whether he’ll need surgery. So, you can probably flush another $10 million down the drain.

And you can thank general manager Mike Rizzo for both of those brilliant moves.

The Nats have also suffered the untimely loss of former All-Star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who was off to a good start (.357) when an abdominal injury sidelined him. Zimmerman’s played in eight games, which means he’s missed 43, more than a fourth of the season, already. His return is imminent but not immediate.

The hitting impotence exists practically everywhere else in the lineup, with shortstop Ian Desmond hitting .222, second baseman Danny Espinosa at .200 (though with a team-leading 28 RBIs), and center-fielder Rick Ankiel at .221 before getting sidelined by a sprained wrist. (Ankiel has since returned. Now he’s hitting .207.)

Filling the injury gaps are fill-in players like Alex Cora (.240), Jerry Hairston Jr. (.252) and Roger Bernadina (.250). Also taking up roster space is 43-year-old Matt Stairs, who is 3-for-32 for a batting average of .094 with no RBIs. (Can you say “unconditional release”??)

The big bright spot is the play of Laynce Nix, another journeyman, currently hitting .306 with seven homers and more RBIs (20) than Werth. Outfielder Michael Morse--now moved to first base to cover for LaRoche--shows occasional signs of life at .287, but until recently had not been supplying the long-ball pop team brass were hoping for in his attempt to replace the departed Josh Willingham. Young catcher Wilson Ramos appeared to be establishing himself, though his average has sunk to .248 after a promising start. Veteran Pudge Rodriguez is hitting .211.

MLB-wide, out of 30 teams, the Nats are 23d in runs scored, 28th in OBP and 24th is slugging percentage. Why the team isn’t as lowly as the lowest is a tribute to that area of the game which rarely has been considered a Nats strength: pitching.

Jordan Zimmermann lost Saturday’s game after pitching six strong innings and lowering his ERA to 3.88. He’s pitched well all year, yet his record stands at 2-6.

In fact, the Nats have received quality starts all year long from a reliable rotation that includes Livan Hernandez (3-6, 3.71), Jason Marquis (5-2, 4.26), John Lannan (2-5, 4.40), Zimmermann and Tom Gorzelanny (2-4, 4.25). And most of the time, the bullpen has been respectable. Drew Storen has nine saves and a 1.75 ERA as the stopper.

The team ERA is 3.89, and with any kind of reasonable production out of the lineup this team could easily be seven games above .500 instead of seven below. But until those veteran bats come alive, and until the younger players start to fulfill their promise at the plate, the pitchers will suffer through some hard times. And so will diehard Nats fans.

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