SAN FRANCISCO -- The Nationals entered Thursday having won eight of their past 10 games, and after sweeping the Giants this week in San Francisco, they have extended their lead in the National League East to 10 games. So as the team enjoys an off day-during its weeklong stay in
SAN FRANCISCO -- The Nationals entered Thursday having won eight of their past 10 games, and after sweeping the Giants this week in San Francisco, they have extended their lead in the National League East to 10 games. So as the team enjoys an off day-during its weeklong stay in the Bay Area, it's time for a Nationals inbox.
We begin with Bryce Harper -- who is serving a three-game suspension for charging the mound and exchanging blows with Giants reliever Hunter Strickland, inciting a benches-clearing fracas -- and whether this short break could help him regain his swing.
Harper has cooled off since his torrid start to begin the season when he was actually producing better than his pace from 2015, when he won the NL MVP Award. In his last 12 games, he was hitting 6-for-45 while his average dropped 66 points.
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It was probably unrealistic to think Harper was going to keep up his initial pace, however, and some fans have been concerned considering he has cooled down around the same time he did in '16, when he couldn't match the production from a strong April for the rest of the season. I think this is mainly just a natural regression period, but I am not concerned about Harper just yet. He's still showing off the tools that lead me to believe his strong start is sustainable, including his arm strength in the field and his power at the plate. When there are no injury questions involved, Harper has performed at this level since '15.
Manager Dusty Baker believes a few days off will help Harper come back fresher, and he especially wanted him to be back for next week's series against the Dodgers, who eliminated the Nationals in the NLDS last season. So I think it's too early to worry about Harper, and eventually he will make an adjustment and get back to being the dominant player we're used to.
This is an interesting question, especially considering Glover has been so exceptional since coming back from the disabled list for a strained hip. He has not allowed a run in nine appearances with 10 strikeouts in 8 2/3 innings, while converting all five of his save opportunities. That being said, I think if the Nationals and general manger Mike Rizzo identify a deal they like for a veteran relief pitcher with closing experience, they'd almost certainly take it.
Nothing against Glover, who will be a big part of this Nationals bullpen for the rest of this season and in the future, but Washington has shown -- with Drew Storen multiple times -- that it will replace a closer midseason if a better option becomes available.
Perhaps the Nationals' biggest surprise this season -- besides the resurgence of Ryan Zimmerman -- has been Matt Albers, who did not make the team out of Spring Training and has settled in as their most reliable setup man with a 1.29 ERA through the first two months of the season. He and Glover have been major reasons the Nationals' bullpen has started to settle lately. And ever since Adam Eaton went to the disabled list with a torn ACL, Michael Taylor has been a strong replacement, batting .299/.342/.505.
I hate to always preach regression and sound pessimistic, but I'm not sure at their current rates that either player will keep it up.
Albers has a better strikeout rate and walk rate than ever in his career, and even if he reverts toward his current 3.13 FIP, he would be a strong reliever for the bullpen the rest of the season. I think the adjustments he has made will make him better than his career 4.28 ERA, but mostly I think he can be a steady option for now until some of their relievers -- Shawn Kelley, Blake Treinen and Joe Blanton -- with more track records of success regain their form.
And while Taylor has all the tools and says he is feeling more relaxed than ever this season, I'm not sure he can keep his current pace up. His batting average on balls in play is .385, his strikeout rate of 34.3 percent is higher than his career average of 32.2, while his line-drive rate is down. He is also swinging at virtually the same number of pitches outside the zone -- 31.2 percent in '17 compared to 31.8 percent in his career. That being said, I do believe Taylor can be a solid replacement for Eaton with the right mix of power and speed, while his defense in center will certainly help upgrade the Nationals.
It's tough to find the value of "clubhouse guys," and I think the majority of Jayson Werth's value this season lies with the fact that he has hit seven home runs with an .811 OPS. That being said, I think Werth, who just turned 38 in May, provides a model for players on how to take care of themselves to be able to play every day and remain productive late in their careers.
He is one of the leaders of the team, and the way he takes care of himself should serve as a model for the rest of the clubhouse. I'm not sure if it's a teachable skill, however. Werth spoke last postseason about his certain calmness in big moments. I think that could be something for young players to take away to learn how he handles those situations and comes up big on the biggest stages. If nothing else, as Werth nears completing the final year of his contract this season, he has proven he deserves another deal, even if it's not with the Nationals.
Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.