Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Michael Morse at last has a chance to take advantage of regular playing time.
It's easy to look at the standings and the time of year and say the Nationals have nothing left to do but play out the string, but that's not really accurate. They may have little to play for in the standings at this point, but they've got plenty of things they still need to accomplish over the season's final eight weeks.
Just about every player on the roster needs to show something before season's end, whether establishing his case to be an everyday player, establishing his case to be in next year's rotation or establishing his case to be paid a lot of money this winter. From a team standpoint, the Nats need to use the final third of the season to determine whether certain guys should be everyday players, whether certain pitchers should be in next year's rotation and whether certain guys should be paid a lot of money this winter.
So, as the Nationals sleep in this morning following a late-night flight home from the west coast and rest up in advance of this week's homestand, let's look at five players who have the most to gain (or lose) based on their performance over the remainder of the season...
1. STEPHEN STRASBURG
In one respect, you could say there's nothing Strasburg stands to gain from pitching the rest of the season. Over his nine starts in June and July, he pretty much established that he's going to be a premier pitcher in the majors ... if healthy. And that last point, of course, is the key. The Nationals need to find out if he really is healthy or whether the shoulder tightness that landed him on the DL the last two weeks is cause for actual concern. Strasburg returns to the mound tomorrow night against the Marlins, and this will be as important a start for the rookie right-hander since his June 8 big-league debut. He's got to be able to get through five or six innings and 90 or so pitches with no arm issues before everyone can rest easy. Then he's got to go back out there Sunday and do it again. By the time Strasburg reaches 160 total innings and is shut down -- most likely in early-to-mid September now -- the Nats will have a much clearer picture of his physical well-being heading into 2011. Will the shoulder issue be a mere blip on an otherwise fantastic rookie season, or will it be something that requires significant attention moving forward?
2. JASON MARQUIS
Marquis should be the last guy on this roster who needs to prove anything over the season's final eight weeks, but at this point, the only thing he's proven is that he can't pitch with any effectiveness whatsoever yet still take a bunch of the Nationals' money in the process. Yesterday's ragged return from the DL didn't help matters at all. With as many young starters as the Nats have trying to crack the rotation -- Craig Stammen was shipped to the bullpen yesterday, Ross Detwiler was placed on the DL, Yunesky Maya and Jordan Zimmermann each are poised to join the group in the next few weeks -- it's hard for Marquis to make a case he deserves one of those five jobs. Problem is, he's making $7.5 million this season and is due to make another $7.5 million next season. Could the Nationals just cut him loose and eat the money? Sure. But that's not going to happen, not anytime soon. If he's healthy, Marquis will be in the rotation the rest of the season. The same holds true next spring, unless the Nats can find another team willing to take the veteran off their hands. The only way that's going to happen is if Marquis can establish over the remainder of this season that he can still enjoy some level of success in the major leagues. Thus, the next eight weeks are incredibly important to him, not to mention the Nationals.
3. IAN DESMOND
The Nationals knew there were going to be growing pains with a rookie shortstop, and they've experienced plenty of them with Desmond. He's been an adventure in the field, committing 26 errors (53 percent more than any other player in baseball). And he hasn't exactly been a force at the plate, as evidenced by his paltry .298 on-base percentage. All of this, plus the continued emergence of minor-league shortstop Danny Espinosa, has raised some question about Desmond's status heading into 2011. Desmond, of course, can help his cause with improved play during the season's second half. And so far, he's done just that. He's crushed the ball over the last two weeks, posting a .381 average with five extra-base hits and a .925 OPS. And his mistakes in the field have decreased somewhat. It's still not enough to assure Desmond is on an upward track and not a downward one. He needs to take advantage of these final eight weeks and establish that he is the franchise's long-term answer at shortstop.
4. MICHAEL MORSE
Fans have been clamoring all summer for Morse to get regular playing time, and it's finally happening. Nyjer Morgan went on the DL last week with a hip injury, paving the way for Roger Bernadina to shift to center field and Morse to take over as the everyday right fielder. How has he done so far? Well, the results are mixed. Morse has started the Nationals' last six games. He's 4-for-21 at the plate. But two of the four hits were homers, including a second-inning blast yesterday at Dodger Stadium. Morse's season-long numbers compare with anyone else on the roster; only Adam Dunn has a higher OPS, and just barely (.941 to .931). But Morse needs to prove he can be an offensive force when playing every day, not only in select situations off the bench and as a platoon right fielder. He's going to get the opportunity as long as Morgan is out. It's now up to him to let all of us know exactly what type of player he is.
5. DREW STOREN
Much like Strasburg, Storen doesn't really need to do anything else to prove he's going to be a good major-league reliever. But the Nationals do need to find out if this guy is ready to be a full-time closer. He's had only one save opportunity since Matt Capps was traded, and he delivered Saturday night in beating the Dodgers. But Storen also allowed the go-ahead run to score in the ninth inning against the Phillies on July 31 (he ultimately "vultured" the win when Ryan Zimmerman homered in the bottom of the ninth) and he also looked shaky yesterday pitching the eighth inning with the Nats trailing. One reason Mike Rizzo was willing to trade Capps at the deadline was because he felt he had a closer-in-waiting in Storen. The kid certainly looks capable of handling the job, but now we need to see him actually pitch in those situations. He should get plenty of opportunities over the next eight weeks. At the end of this audition period, Rizzo will need to decide whether he's comfortable going into 2011 with Storen as closer or whether he needs to go searching for a more-established alternative.