Don’t panic yet Washington Nationals fans … but get ready to

Washington Nationals starter Jordan Zimmerman delivers a pitch.
Jordan Zimmermann has been one of the few bright spots for the Washington Nationals this season. (Brad Mills/USA TODAY Sports)

Anyone who reads season previews might have wondered why prognosticators were bothering with the NL East this year. The Washington Nationals were expected to have a few close games with the Atlanta Braves but would win the division so effortlessly that the biggest question was whether they would win the NLCS in four, five or six games. Right? Wrong. So far, the season hasn’t gone according to plan, and there are plenty of signs things might get worse as the summer progresses.

The early stages of the baseball season largely involve one person writing something based on a small sample size (guilty) before lots of other people then shout at them for doing so. The Washington Nationals will play their 33rd game of the season Tuesday night when the Detroit Tigers come to town, and while Nats fans shouldn’t be panicking just yet, they should be preparing to.

The pitching hasn’t been great so far, despite much of the preseason hype about the rotation and bullpen. Stephen Strasburg looks like a shadow of the 2012 vintage, posting a 3.45 ERA in his seven starts so far. The biggest disappointment has been Dan Haren who, despite a nice game against the Braves last time out, looks broken. I had my own misgivings in spring training, but I’m not convinced that no good will come of continuing to put him on the hill every fifth day.

While Haren being broken might not be a big surprise given the work his arm has done in recent times, the fact that Gio Gonzalez doesn’t look too far behind is a concern. Gonzalez has had issues with his command dating back to last year, but walking 20 in 38 innings so far this year has taken things to a new depth. His walk rate is also affecting the number of innings he can throw, getting into the sixth on just three occasions so far.

It’s too much to say that the Washington Nationals have been a one-bat offense so far this season, but it’s a concern they’ve managed more than five runs only 10 times so far. The list of those contributing to the offensive woes is almost as long as the roster, but Adam LaRoche has been especially painful to watch in the early exchanges. While known to be a slow starter, a .168 average with an increased strikeout rate of 29.1 percent points towards a more significant regression from the 2012 numbers than we had hoped.

LaRoche isn’t the only one who has struggled to put bat on ball. Ian Desmond is always likely to strike out and has done so 25.6 percent of his trips so far. Ryan Zimmerman (24 percent), Danny Espinosa (21.4 percent) and Jayson Werth (19.6 percent) are also not putting the ball in play enough, which is contributing to poor batting averages right down the line-up. There also has been a distinct lack of power, with only Bryce Harper hitting more than four to date.

April seems to have been the month to get on the DL this year, but it wasn’t really a surprise when Zimmerman paid his first visit. After playing much of the second half last year with the aid of pain-killing injections and having offseason surgery on his throwing shoulder, hopes were high for a clear run, but it didn’t last long, as Zimmerman appeared to develop the yips pretty much immediately. Clearly concerned about aggravating the injury, Anthony Rendon was called up to provide cover, which he didn’t really do. I’ve argued before that the long-term solution is to put Zimmerman at first and Rendon at third, which could happen this year if LaRoche is moved by the trade deadline.

While none of the other everyday players have made a trip to the DL as yet, there are signs many Washington Nationals have been playing without being entirely healthy. Werth, Espinosa and impressive leadoff man Denard Span have all showed signs of discomfort, and with only one off day in May after the next series against the White Sox, there will be no time to recover from irritating niggles.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Mention the Washington Nationals to anyone and the first thing they talk about is the performance of Harper, who currently hitting .312 with an OBP of .400 with nine home runs. He won’t be able to keep this pace all season, but the Washington Nationals are hoping he rides the wave for a good while longer. As mentioned above, Span looks like an impressive leadoff guy so far with good plate discipline, seeing a good number of pitches and getting on base a nice amount of times.  Bright spots on the mound have been provided by Jordan Zimmermann, who has pitched two complete games, including a shutout, while recording an 1.64 ERA and a 0.75 WHIP.

I know some will dismiss everything here as a small sample size, but there are enough concerns individually, along with the overall record (despite schedule strength, which is another story) to indicate the Washington Nationals are not going to cruise through the summer and retain their NL East crown with ease.

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