Injuries continue to hit Nationals, and Washington’s management is questionable
The Nationals and Blue Jays were two of the winter’s offseason darlings, with both receiving the top grades in my winter report card series. Though both teams have underachieved thus far, Toronto has reeled off an 11-game winning streak to move into contention, while Washington continues to languish below .500 and injuries continue to hamper both its offense and pitching. Prior to Sunday’s loss to the Rockies, the Nats sent Dan Haren to the disabled list. During the game, they saw Jayson Werth depart with a groin strain.
Haren has been one of the major reasons the team has underachieved to this point. Back in December, I placed him and the Nats among the Winter Meetings’ winners; after the Angels declined his $15.5 million option in favor of a $3.5 million buyout, he inked a one-year, $12.75 million deal to replace Edwin Jackson as Washington’s fourth starter behind Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann — a reasonable acknowledgement of his upside and risk. Instead, Haren has been a disaster, with his 6.15 ERA and 2.1 homers per nine both major league highs among qualifiers. Over his last four starts, he’s allowed seven homers while lasting just 18 1/3 innings. The Nationals have lost 11 of his 15 starts, only five of which have been quality starts. For all of the team’s offensive woes — it’s second to last in the NL in scoring at 3.51 runs per game — Washington is 33-27 in games not started by the 32-year-old righty.
Officially, the team sent Haren to the disabled list for shoulder stiffness, though it seems that reason may have been a convenient excuse. From the Washington Post‘s Adam Kilgore:
The Nationals will place struggling right-hander Dan Haren on the disabled list with shoulder stiffness, an injury Haren said has not been a major factor in his horrendous season in Washington. Haren underscored what he believed to be the nature of his injury when a reporter asked him what had sent him to the DL. “I don’t know,” he replied. “What’d they say?”
…“My shoulder’s been bugging me the last two, three starts,” Haren said. “Nothing really major at all, nothing I haven’t pitched through in the past. I’m not really concerned about it, but they wanted me to take some time to get 100 percent. But I definitely don’t want to use this as an excuse for the first three months of the season. That was more due to lack of execution, instead of an injury.”
Haren’s performance may owe less to shoulder woes than to a mechanical breakdown caused by lower back and hip woes; he missed time with a lower back issue last year, and it’s believed to have contributed to full-season career worsts in both ERA (4.33) and home run rate (1.4 per nine). While his average fastball velocity has rebounded slightly (he’s at 89.9 miles per hour this year, according to BrooksBaseball.net) and his cutter and splitter have more speed and movement, the latter two pitches have been getting creamed, particularly by righties.
Haren will rest and take anti-inflammatories. He’ll also get an MRI to make sure he isn’t dealing with a more serious structural injury. As for who will take his spot, Ross Ohlendorf has yielded just two runs in 10 2/3 innings since being called up, including a strong showing in relief of Haren on Saturday, but manager Davey Johnson prefers to keep him in a long relief role. Taylor Jordan, who has an 0.95 ERA, 7.5 strikeouts per nine and 1.5 walks per nine in 85 1/3 innings split between High-A and Double-A, is drawing heavy consideration. The 24-year-old righty has allowed just 37 baserunners in 49 innings at Double-A Harrisburg. He’s scheduled to pitch on Monday evening, which would put him in line for Saturday’s start, the next time Haren’s spot will come up.
As for Werth, he suffered a left groin strain on Sunday. He first felt the injury in the field, but at the time believed he had only a cramp. He later departed the game in the fourth inning after running out a single. The 34-year-old rightfielder had missed Saturday’s game due to flu-like symptoms, and believed that his injury was caused by further dehydration. If that sounds familiar, it’s because he similarly attributed the hamstring strain that cost him most of May to dehydration as well. Instead of readying himself to eat opponents’ faces, perhaps he should load up on Gatorade.
Werth hasn’t exactly been setting the NL on fire, but his .265/.320/.420 line makes him an important cog in an offense that’s hitting just .233/.291/.376 overall and has been without its best hitter, Bryce Harper, for the past four weeks. At the moment, Werth doesn’t expect to go on the disabled list, but given how poorly the Nationals have managed injuries this year, not losing his leg to gangrene may count as a victory.
The timetable for Harper, who last played on May 26, remains unclear. Even before losing the battle to the rightfield wall at Dodger Stadium, he had been battling bursitis in his left knee. After being limited to 10 starts and one pinch-hitting appearance in a 16-game span due to knee woes and assorted bruises stemming from the collision, he finally went on the DL. Two weeks later, he received injections of cortisone and platelet-rich plasma from Dr. James Andrews, who assured Harper that his knee had no structural damage.
As of last Friday, Johnson said he expected Harper to begin a rehab stint on Tuesday, and that he would need only two or three games to get his swing back. But Harper saw things differently. He stated his belief that he won’t be ready for game activity until Wednesday or Thursday, and could need as many as six games to regain his timing. Given that he’s hitting .287/.386/.587 with 12 homers in 178 PA while the rest of the team is at .230/285/.362, one can understand Johnson’s sense of urgency, but here the 20-year-old phenom sounds far wiser than the 70-year-old skipper. Contrast the two parties’ statements to reporters on Saturday::
“I’ll have a conversation with him about that,” Johnson said. “When a player starts playing, it’s really up to me, what I think they need. Not up to the player. I’m always trying to do what’s best for the player. But at the same time, it’s my job to know when they’re ready and when they’re not.”
…”Running after a ball and running on the bases and hitting, I’m full speed, every single day,” Harper said. “It’s going to be hard playing at 70 percent if they want me to play at 70 percent. I’m not going to do that. I want to come back 100 percent and get back as quick as I can.”
Even a gimpy Harper may help given that fill-ins Steve Lombardozz, Roger Bernadina and the since-demoted Tyler Moore have combined to hit .199/.241/.286 this year, but Johnson and general manager Mike Rizzo absolutely need to take the long view with their franchise’s best player. Failing to return to the playoffs this year would be forgivable — screwing up a once-in-a-generation-type talent would not.