Here are five questions facing the Washington Nationals in the second half of the 2016 season:
Can Daniel Murphy and Wilson Ramos keep it up?
The Nationals are in first place at the All-Star break in large part due to the career numbers Murphy and Wilson Ramos have put up through 90 games. Both made the All-Star team as Murphy led the majors with a .348 batting average and Ramos paced MLB catchers in nearly every offensive category. The question now becomes whether they can continue playing at that level. Murphy's average dipped in June, but he was on fire before the end of the first half with three homers and 10 RBI in four games. Ramos, meanwhile, has cooled off a bit lately. If both keep hitting well over .300 this season, they could finish very high in the NL MVP race. If they don't, others may need to step up.
Will they trade for a reliever?
The Nationals' roster is in good shape, but the one area they could probably use an addition is their bullpen. What is less clear, however, is exactly what type of reliever they need. Jonathan Papelbon has performed well through four outings since he returned from the disabled list, so they seem set at closer. Do they need someone who can pitch the seventh or eighth inning? Or, could they wait until August to add a middle reliever like they did in 2014 with Matt Thornton? I argued yesterday they would be smart to at least add something. Their staff could use some added depth before the stretch run.
Can Ben Revere and Ryan Zimmerman get going?
The Nationals rank in the top half of baseball at 13th in runs scored, which means they have been good but there is still plenty of room for improvement. The two spots in their order that could most use a better second half belong to Revere and Zimmerman, two proven veterans who have struggled so far this season. Zimmerman is on the disabled list now, but through 74 games this season has just a .284 on-base percentage and a .686 OPS. He is second-to-last among MLB first basemen in WAR. Revere has now been back from his oblique injury for 53 games, yet holds a .268 OBP and .569 OPS. How Revere and Zimmerman progress in the rest of July could make the trade deadline very interesting for the Nats, if they determine they could use some help on offense.
What if Gio Gonzalez continues to struggle?
Gonzalez has been better in each of his last three starts, including his last time out when he gave up two earned runs in 5 2/3 innings in a big game against the Mets. But over his last 10 starts overall, Gonzalez has a 7.20 ERA and the Nats are 2-8 in those matchups. As long as they are in first place, the Nationals can be patient with Gonzalez, but it will be interesting to see how long they wait for him to turn his season around. They have Lucas Giolito waiting in the wings if they need to make a change.
Can they hold off the Mets and Marlins?
The Nats have a six-game lead in the NL East over both the Mets and Marlins, who are tied in second place. Amazingly, they won't see either team until September, and they don't play the Marlins again until Sept. 19. If the Mets or Marlins are to catch up to the Nats, they will have to do it without the benefit of head-to-head matchups. There is reason to believe, however, that neither team has played to their potential yet this year. The Mets can improve simply by getting healthy and the Marlins should have reigning batting champ Dee Gordon back soon from his suspension. The Mets won the division last season with a 90-72 record. It may take a much better mark to win the NL East in 2016.
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