Friday, February 10, 2012

NL East: A Fascinating Place: Nationals

This is the fourth post in a series that has looked at the National League East, a division that has had some dynamic movement during this off season. The first post looked at the Phillies and they are the top dogs until somebody knocks them off. The Braves were covered in the second post and it was seen that they have the potential to win 95 games if everything goes perfectly. The third post covered the Marlins, who were shown to be vastly improved and could be in a position to shake up the division. Today's installment looks at the Washington Nationals. The Nationals seemed to be in on every free agent mentioned during the off season. While the team didn't get Fielder or Reyes, they did acquire two starting pitchers. Will that be enough to put them in contention?

The Nationals won 80 games last season. Can they add ten or more wins this season to put them in contention for the division or set them up for a wild card run? Like all of the teams in their division, the Nationals will live or die depending on how well their starting rotation holds up. By adding Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson, the Nationals have certainly improved their rotation. But by how much? If we trade in Gonzalez for Livan Hernandez, you substitute a 3.5 fWAR pitcher for a 1.9 fWAR. Many have worried about Gonzalez in the hitter friendly home park he will now pitch in for half of his outings. He will certainly face tougher competition within his division than he did pitching for Oakland. But he should still be at least a 3.0 fWAR pitcher giving the Nationals a one win edge on what they had with Hernandez.

Edwin Jackson illicits a lot of different reactions in baseball reporting. Some of his numbers are encouraging and others are baffling. But the bottom line is that he has garnered 3.8 fWAR in each of his last two seasons so that seems to be a figure we can stand on. If the Nationals swing him in the rotation instead of Jason Marquis, who was a 1.6 fWAR pitcher for the Nationals last season, that's a 2.2 win swing upward for the Nationals. Is this a bit of a pie in the sky picture? Well, sure. Nothing is guaranteed in baseball except the games already in the books. But in theory, between Jackson and Gio Gonzalez, the Nationals have picked up 3.3 wins. That's a start. Where else can the wins come from?

How about a full year of Stephen Strasburg? Worried about giving him a full year? Don't blame you. It's scary. But even if Strasburg makes only fifteen starts (three times as many as last year), then he should triple his 1.1 fWAR, right? If he gets to twenty starts, then that's 4.4 fWAR based on his five starts last year. Twenty starts seems to be a realistic goal and expectation. That 4.4 fWAR would effectively replace his own fWAR last year along with Ross Detwiler's 0.6 WAR and Chien-Ming Wang's 0.2 WAR. Or, to put it another way, 4.4 WAR replaces 1.9 WAR from last year giving the Nationals up another 2.5 for a gained total so far of 5.8 wins. With everything else being equal, the Nationals are now theoretically up to 86 wins.

And yes, this is a simplistic way of looking at things as WAR doesn't go hand in hand with wins on a one to one basis, but we're just shooting the breeze here, right? Now say Jordan Zimmermann is as effective as last year but can increase his output to 200 innings. You can gain another half a win there. John Lannon is John Lannon and we can only expect him to be about as good as last year. Therefore, our grand increase in wins from the starting rotation is up 6.3 wins.

The problem from here is that the offense and the bullpen really can't make up the four win difference we need to push the Nationals to the 90 win total. Well, maybe it can if you think about it. Say Ryan Zimmerman can get 600 plate appearances instead of 440, that should add a win or two to our total. For the sake of being conservative, give him one more win. And let's say that Ian Desmond and Michael Morse can improve their defense by about half, which isn't unreasonable with Desmond's maturity rate and Morse becoming more proficient in the outfield (agreed, a stretch). That would be another win. 

Okay, now comes the stroke of genius. Let's give Jayson Werth the benefit of the doubt and call last year an off year. Werth was a five fWAR player for two straight seasons with the Phillies before last season which came in at a disappointing 2.5. All he has to do is get back to his Phillies-like performance and you pick up another two and a half wins. We're almost there!

It's not like this grand game is not without its pitfalls. Wilson Ramos became one of the better catchers in the game last season. He will need to keep improving. Michael Morse's fantastic slugging season last year will have to continue. Adam LaRoche will have to be better than the average Adam LaRoche. Roger Bernadina and Danny Espinosa will need to continue to improve.

The bullpen will have to be as good as it was last year and as good as it still looks on paper with Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Brad Lidge and Sean Burnett in the most important roles. The Nationals also have some depth. Chien-Ming Wang showed flashes of his old self last season. Tom Gorzelanny is capable in a pinch as is Detwiler. The Nationals also have some exciting talent waiting in the wings in case some of these pieces get broken.

There are concerns for this Nationals team. You have to wonder about Morse. You have to wonder if Ian Desmond can really be the shortstop the Nationals need. Can Werth bounce back? Can Zimmerman and Zimmermann stay healthy? These are all questions that will need to be answered once the season starts. But just imagine--if you can--these Washington Nationals performing as capable on the field as they appear to be on paper. If that happens, this NL East races can be a really wild race. It can happen and it just might. It's going to be a lot of fun to watch.


Clave said...

I like this team. As you said, a lot has to bounce right, but why not?

Anonymous said...

Last year the Nationals spread 162 starts among 11 pitchers. Barring injury or ineffectiveness, it seems reasonable to expect that the 5 man rotation of Gio Gonzalez (32), Edwin Jackson (32), John Lannan (32), Jordan Zimmerman (28), and Stephen Strasburg (24) will be good for 148 starts between them.,
Without projecting anything more than 15 wins (Gonzalez) from any one nor expecting any to leap much, if any, above career or recent winning percentages, that quintet may be good for perhaps a 59-47 record. Spreading the remaining 14 starts among Chien-Ming Wang, Tom Gorzelanny, and Ross Detwiler, and projecting them to do no better than they did in 2011 in their starting engagements, will bring the Nationals to 62-53 from their starters.

If a 7 man bullpen (add Storen, Lidge, Clippard, and Burnett) exactly duplicates their 2011 relief won-loss records the Nationals project to 78-63, leaving them 12 wins shy of 90 BUT also leaving us 21 decisions short of a full season. Whether those decisions come from the bullpen (Clippard alone had 11 wins in 2010 vs. but 3 in 2011) or some of the starters improve on their career decisions per start, is it reasonable that the Nationals could bag 12 of them (57.1%)? Remembering that 90 wins is only a .555 winning percentage, yes it does.

Will the offense do it’s part? Wilson Ramos is one of the best young catchers in baseball and if Jesus Flores can make it all the way back, the Nationals would perhaps have the two best young catchers on any team. Assuming that Adam Laroche can put in a full season at first base, he’s likely good for 25 home runs. Danny Espinosa did nearly everything well in 2011 except hit for average (.236) and make consistent contact (166 K’s). He’s only 25 in 2012 so some improvements may occur but the Nationals would likely be happy enough with a repeat of 2011.

Ian Desmond’s a bit more troublesome – he really doesn’t bring enough leather to compensate for an OBP that doesn’t quite make it to .300. He might find himself the back-up middle infielder behind Espinosa at short and Steve Lombardozzi, Jr. at second before the year is up. A healthy Ryan Zimmerman is a fairly safe bet for 25 homers at the other infield corner, though he’s barely played 100 games for 2 of his 6 major league seasons.

Late-blooming Mike Morse takes his 30 home run bat to left field – he’s the real deal with the bat though defense is just his pause between plate appearances. Roger Bernadina is almost certainly the centerfielder but more by default than by merit. He’s basically the outfield version of Ian Desmond, though his defense is better, with just a tad more power. But the Nationals don’t really have anyone pushing him until 22 year old Eury Perez gets some more minor league experience.

Once upon a time, rightfielder Jayson Werth was Mike Morse, bouncing between the majors and minors until getting a chance with a new team and breaking out in his age 28 season. But in 2011 Werth regressed back to his pre-Phillie days (actually, a bit further back than that). If 2010 was his career year, 2011 was its antithesis. A good bet to bounce back? Maybe. A safe bet? Hardly. He’ll still have the contractual albatross hanging about his neck and will still be expected to be one of the Nationals’ big guns. Healthy, productive, and full seasons from Laroche and Zimmerman will help ease some of the pressure but not by much.

Offensively, this line-up has weak spots at shortstop and centerfield while second base is, at best, league average. And health or production question marks exist at first base and in right field and, to a lesser extent, at third. Still, I like this team, mostly because of the pitching staff (and the anticipation of Bryce Harper’s arrival). It would not surprise me to see them post 88-92 wins and even seize a playoff spot. It also would not shock me to see them flounder along and finish at 74-78 victories. Yes, it will be an interesting, and hopefully, exciting season of baseball in the capital.

Thomas Slocum said...

Hit it a little early; Anonymous is me!

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Thanks as always for your analysis, Anon...ummm...err..Thomas.