The Nationals open tomorrow what promises to be the most compelling second half to a season since the franchise arrived in town in 2005, owners of the NL's best record but saddled with several major questions that need to be answered.
Over the course of the day, we'll count down the five most significant storylines to the remainder of the Nationals' season, beginning with storyline No. 5: Jayson Werth's return from a broken left wrist...
The image from May 6, of Jayson Werth writhing in agony on the ground in right field after a failed attempt to make a diving catch of Placido Polanco's sinking line drive, is hard to forget. Everyone in attendance at Nationals Park and everyone watching the nationally televised Sunday night game knew the injury was serious, and the only question was whether it was serious enough to prevent Werth from returning to play this season.
Ten weeks later, Werth is inching closer to a return to the Nationals lineup. His wrist is healed, and he's resumed some baseball activities, though he hasn't yet swung a bat. That milestone should come soon, and once it does the 33-year-old could be on a fast track back to the active roster.
The Nationals and Werth have targeted Aug. 1 for his return. That may be a bit too optimistic, but the club fully expects to have its veteran right fielder back for the stretch run. That return, however, raises two important questions:
1) What kind of player will Werth be upon his return? Can he pick up where he left off, hitting .276 with a .372 on-base percentage? Or will he not have regained enough strength in the wrist to swing an effective bat?
2) If Werth does enjoy a successful return, who's the odd man out of the Nationals' lineup, and who will lead off? Steve Lombardozzi has been the biggest beneficiary over the last two-plus months, essentially assuming leadoff duties and the starting left fielder's job. Werth's return, though, should bump Michael Morse from right to left field, and that could bump Lombardozzi to the bench. That, however, would force Danny Espinosa (or Werth or Bryce Harper) to lead off most nights. Perhaps Lombardozzi ends up splitting time at second base with Espinosa, with manager Davey Johnson taking advantage of their contrasting splits. If you combine Lombardozzi's left-handed stats with Espinosa's right-handed stats, you get a .299 batting average, .364 on-base percentage and .423 slugging percentage. That could make for a solid platoon at second base.
First things first. Werth needs to make progress in his rehab, go play in minor-league games and then return healthy to the Nationals' lineup. That process and potential resolution, though, promises to be one of the club's most-compelling storylines the rest of this season.