Five Biggest Surprises Of The Nationals’ First Half

5. Danny Espinosa Is A Legitimate All-Star And ROY Candidate

With just 52 career games above Double-A prior to this season, it’s safe to say there were reasonable concerns about Danny Espinosa’s ability to be an effective player at the Major League Level this season. He had a solid, but streaky 28 game stint with the Nats to end 2010. And while he recorded six home runs in that stretch, he also hit just .214/.277/.447 with a 29.1% strikeout rate.

Espinosa put any possible doubts to rest through the first half of this season. He currently leads the upstart Nationals in home runs (16) RBI (52)  and WAR (3.3). He has been the Nationals best fielder, if not the best second baseman in the National League, and has been one of the team’s most clutch hitters (1.51 WPA). To put it simply, entering this season many thought Espinosa would be a solid young player who would likely take a small step toward being a productive everyday player. Instead, he has turned into an undeniable cornerstone of the franchise.

4. Jordan Zimmermann Takes Two Steps Forward

Following Tommy John surgery in 2009, many would agree that Jordan Zimmermann looked off in his brief return with the Nationals in 2010. The once promising rookie posted a 4.94 ERA in seven starts last season, with an even worse 5.85 FIP. His walk rate was way up and his strikeouts rate was way down. It was safe to say that Zimmermann took a step backward.

Entering 2011, all that was expected was that Jay-Z would take a step forward to be on the same level that he was his rookie season when he went 3-5 with a 3.59 FIP and 92 strikeouts in 91 innings pitched. This season, however, the 25-year-old took two steps forward to reach a new level never seen before his Tommy John surgery. Now, after one half season he has a 6-7 record with a 2.66 ERA with a .240 batting average against.

3. Jayson Werth Has The Lowest Batting Average Among Nationals Starters

Many questioned the thought process behind the contract the Nats gave Jayson Werth this offseason, but no one expected this. Through 87 games this year, the 100-million dollar man is batting .217/.322/.365 with 10 home runs and 31 RBI. He has produced a career low .311 wOBA and is on pace to accumulate the least amount of WAR since 2003.

Werth has been dreadful and as the Nationals fans have began to turn on him in recent weeks, things are starting to get out of hand. Werth looks lost both at the plate and in the field, and it doesn’t seem like there is any end in sight. The good news is this is the first year of a long-term deal which means that he has several years to prove the contract overall was worth the investment. At 32-years-old, however, one has to be worried that his best days may be behind him.

2. Entering The All-Star Break, The Nationals Are .500

The Nationals had a big offseason this winter. They landed a premium free-agent in Jayson Werth, and they were in the mix to land other big time names like Cliff Lee and Zack Greinke. However, even with a refreshingly aggressive winter, few had high expectations for the Nationals. The pitching staff was relatively unproven, and with Stephen Strasburg out for the season, as well as Ryan Zimmerman missing dozens of games, few thought .500 would be even close to being a possibility.

The Nats have played tough all season long, however, and have used a combination of “smart ball” as well as damn good starting pitching to stay above water. The Nationals rotation, and their bullpen, have been lights out for the majority of the season, and younger players like Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos have produced at much higher levels than the club had imagined. Baseball is starting to get fun in Washington.

1. Jim Riggleman Quits Mid-Season

Jim Riggleman resigned on June 23 after the Nationals defeated the Seattle Mariners 1-0 with a walk off sacrifice fly. The win put the Nationals above .500, and was their 11th win in their past 12 games. The move was so shocking, so never before seen in the world of baseball, that it left many Nationals fans dead in their tracks with mixed emotions of anger, sadness, and despondence.

The 12 game streak for the Nationals was something the city desperately needed. For the past five years in Washington it had been very difficult to believe in anything the Nationals had to offer, but for the first time since 2005 the club was winning and just as the team edged over the .500 plateau, Riggleman pulled the rug out from under everybody.

As the news poured out over what had happened, no answers were really given, and no closure was really found. Riggleman quit because he didn’t like his contract, and likely wasn’t treated with very much respect over the issue. While that is understandable, it left Nationals fans with no real good or bad guys in the situation. We could see the fault of Rizzo and his iron fist rule, but we also saw the faults in Riggleman and his seemingly selfish actions.

Since this move, the Nationals season has seemed to be in limbo. They are still at .500 and have had mixed performances from their players…but Nats fans are waiting for a cue as to where the rest of the season will take us. What will be the lesson of this story, and what will come of Riggleman’s departure. For the answer, we’ll just have to stay tuned to the second half.