WASHINGTON -- The Nationals entered the All-Star break with a commanding 9 1/2-game lead in the National League East, the largest division lead in the NL. Their offense has been among the highest scoring in baseball, the top of their rotation is as formidable as any in the league. They
WASHINGTON -- The Nationals entered the All-Star break with a commanding 9 1/2-game lead in the National League East, the largest division lead in the NL. Their offense has been among the highest scoring in baseball, the top of their rotation is as formidable as any in the league. They have perhaps the favorite for the NL Cy Young Award and the Most Valuable Player Award.
While the rest of its division has struggled, Washington has taken charge, and the team is well on its way to a fourth division title in the past six seasons. And yet, the Nationals are also flawed. Their bullpen remains a major concern, one they will spend the second half trying to address in preparation of a postseason run.
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The first half was certainly a success for the Nationals, who are in position to make the postseason in consecutive years for the first time in team history, but they are not satisfied. They want to ensure their regular-season success will translate into the postseason.
What went right
The Nationals are loaded with star power, and those stars have played to their full potential through the first half. Bryce Harper has played like an MVP after a disappointing 2016. Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon have had the best first halves of their career. Daniel Murphy continues to be consistently one of the best hitters in baseball. Their offense is relentless and their lineup is deep.
Meanwhile, Max Scherzer is an early favorite to win the NL Cy Young Award. Stephen Strasburg has not missed a start and has avoided the disabled list. Giovany Gonzalez is having his best season in five years.
What went wrong
The bullpen has been a disaster this season. Nationals relievers own the worst ERA in the Majors. They searched all offseason for a closer and when they did not find one, they banked on someone stepping up and seizing the role. But they have changed closers on three occasions, while six different relievers have recorded a save.
Lately, the Nats have also been hit with a wave of injuries. Adam Eaton is likely out for the season with a torn ACL. His replacement, Michael Taylor, had been filling in nicely, but he landed on the DL last week with a mild right oblique strain. Jayson Werth has been on the DL since early June after fouling a ball off his toe, although he should return shortly following the All-Star break. Koda Glover had been their most reliable reliever, but he is on the DL with lower back stiffness and severe rotator cuff inflammation.
What we learned
Even despite the injury and bullpen issues, the Nationals have been among the best teams in baseball. Their talent and offense can overcome their deficiencies elsewhere, but to take the next step in the postseason, they must improve their bullpen and they must get and stay healthy. Their large lead in the division gives them the luxury to work those problems out. And once the Nats shore up those issues, they will be one of the most formidable teams in the Majors.
First half top player (non-pitcher)
Harper has returned to form that made him an MVP two years ago and one of the best players in MLB. He has posted a slash line of .325/.431/.590 with 20 home runs and 3.5 Wins Above Replacement, according to Fangraphs.
First half top pitcher
Scherzer, who has been downright dominant every fifth day for the Nationals, has not only been the Nats' best pitcher, but perhaps the best pitcher in the NL. He leads the NL with a 2.10 ERA, 206 ERA+, 173 strikeouts and a 0.78 WHIP.
First half top rookie
Brian Goodwin has filled in nicely while Werth has been sidelined and now in center field while Taylor is on the DL. Goodwin, a former first-round pick 2011 who just broke into the Majors for the first time last season, has posted a slash line of .255/.325/.489 with seven home runs. He has proven he can handle playing time in the big leagues.
Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.