When the Nationals were swept at home by Atlanta in early April, the radar went on.  “But this is April!” we were told…and we waited for the defending division champs to catch fire.  We’ve seen Stephen Strasburg dominate on opening day and then go more than a month before notching his next victory.  We’ve seen Bryce Harper run into walls.  We’ve watched the Nationals crawl to a 26-25 start…good enough for 8th best in the National League.  And that’s kind of fitting with as middling as they’ve played.  Now almost one-third through the season it’s no longer a snapshot…the team’s performance begins to resemble its official portrait.  And they’re simply not as good as they were last year.

“Injuries, man!”–is often the first thing one points to…and although Jayson Werth is on the shelf and the Nats have been without Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos and Danny Espinosa for stretches.  But bumps and bruises are a part of the game-that’s why you construct a 25 man roster for 162 games.  A few red flags emerge this spring…:

What goes up– the average season is an anomaly in baseball.  Most have seasons better than their average or worse than their average (Brian Daubauch the aching exception for the Red Sox last decade–always managing 20-22 homers and 71-78 RBI)…so can we expect Gio Gonzalez to repeat last year’s 21 wins?  Last year was just the second time in Adam LaRoche’s career he posted more than 25 homers and 90 RBI…shouldn’t we naturally expect a little slide back?  Is Ian Desmond really a 25-homer guy?  While last year’s outliers fall back to the norm…it’s time for others to step up.  And with the exception of Jordan Zimmermann (8-2, 1.71 ERA) and a banged up Bryce Harper (team highs in 12 homers and 29 runs scored as well as walls run into)…there aren’t that many monster seasons in progress.

Offensive Offense– 28th in batting average and runs scored.  There are at last count only 30 teams in the majors…although Miami and Houston are MLB teams in name only.  Along those lines:  until the Marlins and Astros get their acts in gear, I’d actually like to force them to shed their “major league names” and go as the “Boca Raton Blue Rockets” or the “Galveston Guzzlers”.  The Nats are also 24th in home runs– so clearly they’re focusing too much on the longball.

The Celebrated Mister K– 416 strikeouts…averaging over 8 per game.  Now everybody is whiffing these days at record rates, but there is not ONE player on this roster who has more walks than strikeouts.  That can’t be good by any stretch of the imagination.

Beleaguered Bench– last year the Nats pinchhitters had plenty of moxie and contributed key hits throughout the team’s run… 2013 has not been kind to Chad Tracy (.186), Tyler Moore (.152) and Roger Bernadina (.121).  From “Goons” to “swoons”.

 Battered Bullpen– this was always a question mark last season…even en route to 98 victories.  And especially en route to the Game Five collapse against St. Louis.  This year the Nats’ relievers rank 23rd in ERA…and are 10th in blown saves.  Nothing ruins a solid start more than a leaky pen…as the Nats’ starters rank 3rd in ERA and 2nd in quality starts.  But unfortunately six plus solid innings can come undone on six shaky pitches.  The lack of offense also doesn’t help– with less of a late-inning cushion every mistake is magnified.

All out of Glove– so far this season the Nats have 39 errors…tying them for the most in the bigs with the Chicago Cubs.  While they’ve improved after notching 18 miscues in 18 games…21 errors in their last 32 games isn’t going to kill rallies.

Little Things Loom Large– whether it’s not advancing the runner after a leadoff double or walking a leadoff batter on four pitches…this team just doesn’t seem to be as sharp as they were last year.  It’s a challenge to climb the 162 game mountain– so many things have to turn out right:  talented players need to stay healthy and have outstanding seasons.  There’s no shame in reverting to form or being banged up;  but the team currently going as it is appears to be going nowhere.