The Nationals Lineup Looks Positively Offensive

The Washington Nationals are riding high right now atop the NL East and well-regarded in the betting market as one of the likeliest teams to challenge the favorite Chicago Cubs for the National League pennant and ultimately the World Series title. But the Nationals have some cracks that bear very close watching for baseball bettors.

Those cracks are in the everyday lineup.

Washington has gotten to first place on the strength of solid starting pitching and greatness from a handful of regulars, starting with Bryce Harper. If the only question were whether this team can continue to battle with the New York Mets in the NL East and ultimately make the playoffs, that would be plenty.

But if you're serious about betting baseball that's not the only question.

The question is whether Washington can play well enough to justify the prices, starting on the futures market and translating into moneylines on a night-to-night basis.

The Nationals only rank eighth in the 15-team National League in runs scored. Going through the lineup piece-by-piece it's hard to see where they get a whole lot better and easy to see where they could get substantially worse.

Washington is being carried by superlative starts from three players. Harper, the reigning NL MVP is at it again, with an on-base percentage of .412 and a slugging percentage of .528.

Second baseman Daniel Murphy has even more dazzling numbers of .419/.624. And catcher Wilson Ramos is sitting on .387/.546.

But how realistic is it to expect Murphy and Ramos to hit at a level anywhere approaching this? Murphy's career averages are .336/.435, and he hasn't exceeded both his averages in the same year since 2011. He got on an insane hot streak in last year's National League Championship Series and has kept rolling since. But at age 31, do we really think he's become a permanent star?

Ramos has been a regular since 2011 and shown no previous signs of being a really productive hitter. Being a catcher, wear and tear on his body will also likely take a toll on his offensive numbers.

So we've established that it's highly likely that two of the three players currently carrying the Nationals are going to have significant drop-offs. Is it possible someone else could pick up the slack? It's hard to find too much reason for optimism...

Ryan Zimmerman is already hitting for respectable power, with a .451 slugging percentage, but that tracks his career norms and he's not typically been good at getting on base consistently. He's also been injury-prone of late. At age 31, the Nats would surely take what they're getting as long as he stays on the field.

Jayson Werth, after good seasons from 2012-14, dropped off sharply last year and his decline has continued. At age 37, this makes perfect sense.

Michael Taylor is only 25-years-old in centerfield and could emerge, but he has yet to show even the slightest sign he can hit major league pitching.

Danny Espinosa is an interesting possibility, having shown occasional flashes of some power in the previous five years. But that's all they are - occasional. His current season numbers of .291/.335 are pretty typical.

Anthony Rendon is the most interesting possibility of all. His on-base percentage is already pretty good at .356, he's just not hitting for power. But he did hit 21 home runs in 2014. The power disappeared last year, but age 26, perhaps Rendon can start at least driving the ball in the gaps and boost that slugging percentage.

These are who the Nationals are relying on. We can summarize the situation of the Washington offense thusly...

It's top-heavy, carried by three players. Two of those players are playing well above their career norms.

The previous track record of the other everyday players suggests the most improvement that can be hoped for is a little more power from Rendon and maybe Espinosa.

We could add one more little tidbit - Harper's actual batting average is only .242. His sterling .412 on-base percentage comes from all the walks he gets from teams pitching around him.

If Murphy and Ramos fall off and no one else comes to the rescue, Harper might get walked every time he comes up.

None of this is to say that the Nationals' situation is hopeless. They can still win games with an excellent starting rotation. But unless something drastic changes with the offense, baseball bettors have to scrutinize the prices the Nats are offered at with great caution.