Jul 25

Three questions facing the Nats as they hit the road

The Nationals seemed to have all the answers a week ago after starting their post All-Star homestand with two wins in three games, but after a 2-4 finish, they his the road to Cleveland, San Francisco and Arizona with more questions.
Who will be the Nats’ fifth outfielder? Michael A. Taylor was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse following Sunday’s 10-6 loss to San Diego. Since being recalled from Syracuse on July 10, he’s gone 3-for-16 with six strikeouts, including one to end the eighth inning Sunday with the go-ahead run on third base. Even worse, Taylor hesitated on Yangervis Solarte’s two-out, go-ahead single in the ninth inning, a ball that MASN analyst Ray Knight felt he might have caught with more effort.
For now, the Nats will go with Bryce Harper, Ben Revere, Jayson Werth and Chris Heisey, seemingly limiting the team’s options, but bringing up the next question…
How will the Nats find playing time for Trea Turner? The rookie has certainly made the team and is, in fact, the most successful leadoff hitter the Nats have used this season, batting .333/.333/.500 leading off innings and .241/.241/.379 when atop the order. He’s 4-for-4 on stolen-base attempts, including a steal of home, and ranks third on the team in triples with three in only 32 at-bats. He’s even beaten out a routine ground ball to short. Oh, and he’s played flawless defense.
But with Ryan Zimmerman back off the disabled list at first base, National League batting leader Daniel Murphy must go back to second. That still leaves some options for Turner. He could get some time in the outfield, where he played a few games in Syracuse before his latest recall. He could spell Danny Espinosa at shortstop for a game here and there, or play short if Espinosa gives Anthony Rendon a break at third. Murphy and Zimmerman could platoon at first base, and Turner could play second against right-handed pitchers.
Is the Nats’ bullpen struggling or just tired? The relief corps has not had much rest, logging 22 innings since the 18-inning loss to Pittsburgh on July 17. Matt Belisle, Oliver Perez, Yusmeiro Petit, Felipe Rivero and Blake Treinen are unscored upon in that span. They can’t be reasonably expected to maintain that pace with continued heavy use. On the other hand, Shawn Kelley has an ERA of 9.00 and a .308 opposing batting average in his last three innings. Appearing in his second-straight game on Sunday, he surrendered back-to-back, homers to Alex Dickerson and Ryan Schimpf, costing the Nats the lead. Closer Jonathan Papelbon, working his third straight day in a non-save situation, was rocked for four runs on four hits and surrendered a leadoff walk.
Getting Sammy Solis back from the disabled list will help. But perhaps Kelly’s two Tommy John surgeries are catching up with him, and maybe we’re seeing the effects of Papelbon’s reduced velocity and declining strikeout rate. There’s still disagreement about whether the Nats’ bullpen needs fixing, and it seems likely now that they will miss out anyway on the top reliever on the trade market, Aroldis Chapman. It will be interesting to see if general manager Mike Rizzo has a backup plan, or if the Nats will go with what they’ve got for the rest of the season.
The Nats will have to sort all this out against the first-place Indians and Giants, with the Aug. 1 trade deadline approaching. It should make for an interesting road trip.