The lone challenger in the division for the reigning National League champion New York Mets is the Washington Nationals. With new manager Dusty Baker and a lot of the same faces, the Nationals are poised for a big bounce back year. Washington went 83-79 last season, as Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, and Ryan Zimmerman all missed about half of the season. Rendon played 80 games, Werth played 88, and Zimmerman played 95. The end result was an offense that finished 14th in wOBA, despite Bryce Harper’s superhuman season.
On a smaller scale, the Nationals are like the San Francisco Giants, in that they play well in even years. The 2012 Nationals won 98 games and the 2014 Nationals won 96. Unfortunately, the Nationals didn’t win a playoff series either year. In fact, dating back to the organization’s time in Montreal, the Nationals/Expos have only won one of the four playoff series in franchise history.
This isn’t the first time that injuries have held the Nationals back. The story was the same in 2013, when the Nationals won 86 games. On one hand, this is a team that does have a lot of injury-prone players, so it’s hard to bet on this team because there are guys with a lot of ailments on a regular basis. On the other hand, when this team mostly stays in tact, they are capable of putting together a really strong regular season.
Even with all of the injuries, there’s a case to be made that the Nationals underachieved last season. By Pythagorean win-loss, this was an 89-73 team, six wins better than the actual outcome. BaseRuns agrees, giving the Nationals credit for a 90-72 record based on expected runs scored and expected runs allowed. Per BaseRuns, the Nationals offense overachieved a little bit, but the pitching staff and defense underperformed. Washington was not a great defensive team with -11 defensive runs saved last season.
Two of the biggest culprits, Yunel Escobar at 3B and Denard Span in CF, are both gone. There has actually been quite a bit of turnover with the roster in Washington. Mike Rizzo had some good organizational depth in place, so those losses should not be all that significant, but it fair to wonder whether or not the window is closing for the Nationals with an aging group of players around Bryce Harper and some tough financial decisions coming with the pitching staff. If this is the last hurrah, can the team rally and return to postseason baseball?
Season win totals:
BetOnline: 88.5 (-115/-115)
5Dimes: 88.5 (-110/-120)
Bovada: 89.5 (-115/-115)
Key additions: Ben Revere, Daniel Murphy, Yusmeiro Petit, Oliver Perez, Stephen Drew
Key losses: Jordan Zimmermann, Yunel Escobar, Ian Desmond, Doug Fister, Denard Span, Drew Storen
It was a busy offseason in D.C. Dusty Baker is not listed as an addition, but a new manager is always an interesting development. The environment with Dusty Baker will be the complete opposite of what it was under Matt Williams, but Dusty is not much of an in-game manager.
Anyway, Ben Revere adds some speed and contact at the top of the lineup. Daniel Murphy really improves a weak offensive position. The Nationals were in the middle of the pack offensively at second base among NL teams, but they will climb up that ladder with Murphy. The good relationship with Scott Boras continued with the signings of Oliver Perez and Stephen Drew.
The losses are fairly significant. Jordan Zimmermann was one of Washington’s most consistent pitchers and made 32 or more starts in each of the last four seasons. It’s hard to replace steady production like that, even if the in-house alternatives are pretty attractive. Yunel Escobar, Ian Desmond, and Denard Span were all regular starters and contributors. Drew Storen was the closer until Mike Rizzo made the toxic move to add Jonathan Papelbon and everything seemed to fall apart. Ben Revere was a nice add for Storen, who deserved a fresh start somewhere else.
Why bet the over?
Royce Harper, as Dusty Baker refers to him, is an elite player just now hitting the prime of his career. Bryce had a ridiculous season to effectively carry the Washington offense. He slashed .330/.460/.649 with 42 dingers and a .461 wOBA. This is the breakout that we had been waiting for. The sickest thing about Harper’s season? He walked in 19 percent of his plate appearances. He regularly barreled up the ball and turned what would have been a pretty bad offensive team with all the injuries into a league average offense. He was a 9.5-fWAR player last season. He may not repeat that, but he shouldn’t be that far off if he stays healthy.
Anthony Rendon is a really good player. With the addition of Daniel Murphy, Rendon slides over to third base, which gives the team a lot more offensive strength overall. Rendon was limited to 80 games and 355 plate appearances with a litany of injuries, but projection systems are high on his ability to return to something like 2014’s production with a .287/.351/.473 slash. Perhaps he won’t hit 21 home runs again, but he’s going to give value in the batter’s box and at the hot corner and should be a three-win player on the low end, with a higher ceiling. The injuries zapped his power last season, so he’s a great buy-low candidate in fantasy formats as well.
Daniel Murphy cashed in on a ridiculous postseason, but he’s also been a really consistent regular season player. His wRC+ in each of the last five seasons is 126, 103, 107, 110, and 110. That means he’s generally around 10 percent above league average and second base is not a quality offensive position in the National League at all. He puts a ton of balls in play and even had a similar season last year with a .278 BABIP. A power spike led to the BABIP decrease, as BABIP only counts for balls in the playing field, so an increase in that stat could bump him back into the .290/.330/.430 type of range.
The Nationals will be a lot more athletic this season. Even though Jayson Werth is still expected to patrol left field more often than not, Ben Revere, Michael Taylor, and Trea Turner all bring an element of speed to the table. Revere is the contact hitter of the trio and will be a great table setter in front of guys like Rendon and Harper. Taylor is the boom or bust guy with excellent power, good speed, and a lot of swings and misses. Turner swings and misses a lot too, but he has very good speed and some upside. He may be blocked by Danny Espinosa and Stephen Drew at the start, but Drew probably won’t last long and Turner can play both middle infield spots.
Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman are major question marks, though both guys have been productive in the past when they have been healthy. Werth still has platoon value against southpaws and Zimmerman doesn’t have to be great offensively now that he has been moved from third base. Once Zimmerman became a liability at third, it was a point of emphasis to get him away from there. Zimmerman still managed 16 home runs while dealing with plantar fasciitis and Werth showcased a little bit of power. These guys aren’t that far removed from being above average offensive players.
One of the biggest strengths for the Nationals is the starting pitching. Max Scherzer is worth a play for the National League Cy Young Award this season. Had the Nationals performed up to their capabilities, Scherzer could have made things a tighter race, but he was punished by his team’s performance. He’s an elite starter with a dynamic arsenal and he actually got better in his age-30 season. In working a career-high 228.2 innings of work, Scherzer posted a 276/34 K/BB ratio, with by far the best walk rate of his career. His 2.88 xFIP was a career best. Moving to the National League turned Scherzer into an even more dominant pitcher and his performance is absolutely sustainable.
Stephen Strasburg is among the best #2 starters in the league. He only worked 127.1 innings last season at the big league level, but this is a contract year for the former San Diego State product, so expect him to pitch as much as his body allows. Like Scherzer, he has electric stuff with great velocity, nasty secondary stuff, and elite control. In his final 10 starts, Scherzer struck out over 37 percent of the batters he faced and hung a 1.90 ERA. In terms of 1-2 punches, it’s only the Mets and Indians that come close now that Zack Greinke is gone in Los Angeles.
Gio Gonzalez is as steady as they come. He’s good for an xFIP between 3.35 and 3.50 just about every season as a guy that walks some hitters, but generally pitches around it, and makes anywhere between 28-32 starts. Consistency is a good thing. Teams with a lot of players that have wide ranges of production can be difficult to pin down. Gonzalez may be one of the most underappreciated hurlers in the game.
For me, it’s the back of the rotation that provides a lot of value for the Nationals. I likeTanner Roark and I’m a big fan of Joe Ross. Roark is a guy with a very heavy sinker and pretty good walk rates up until last season. Roark does depend on his defense a lot, so a lot of sabermetric stats look down on him. Ross has strikeout upside, so sabermetrics are a little bit friendlier with regards to him. The brother of Tyson Ross, Joe looked really good in his first 76.2 innings last season with a terrific slider and a decent fastball that had some good velocity. With Lucas Giolito, possibly the top pitching prospect in baseball, and AJ Cole waiting in the wings, there’s a ton of starting depth here. That’s one of my key factors in determining overs. Starting pitching depth is absolutely essential.
The bullpen is good, but not great. Jonathan Papelbon is interested in playing nice now, so hopefully the team can avoid any spats between him and Bryce Harper. In setup roles, Shawn Kelley and Oliver Perez will form a really great tandem depending on the composition of the opposing lineup. Kelley held righties to a .210/.278/.257 slash last season and Perez held lefties to a .194/.242/.290 slash. Blake Treinen, a former starter in this org, is expected to slot into middle relief. Swingman Yusmeiro Petit had a really successful run as both a starter and a reliever for the San Francisco Giants. He’s an invaluable type of guy for a team.
The division is very friendly. With 76 games against division foes, including 57 against the Miami Marlins, Philadelphia Phillies, and Atlanta Braves, why shouldn’t the Nationals take advantage?
Why bet the under?
There are two things that can kill a season win total over bet: injuries and more injuries. Injuries force teams to tap into their depth. On the pitching side of things, the Nationals can endure some downtime for guys like Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. There’s no replacing a Bryce Harper. There’s not really a way to replace Anthony Rendon with Ian Desmond and Yunel Escobar gone. Daniel Murphy’s offensive production cannot be replaced by Danny Espinosa or Stephen Drew. Wilson Ramos, who is quietly a solid defensive catcher, has been hurt just about every season. He posted a 63 wRC+ last year after being below average the season prior in just 361 plate appearances.
The margins for the Nationals are pretty thin offensively. We saw that last year when Bryce Harper literally carried the team to becoming a league average group. Any regression from him, which is possible, will put the onus on everybody else to step up. There’s no reason to buy the health of this team. Jayson Werth is 36 and his contract has become a massive albatross. Ryan Zimmerman has 630 plate appearances over the last two seasons. Anthony Rendon has been hurt in five of the last seven seasons, including his time in the minors and his college days at Rice.
The Nationals were 14-5 against Atlanta last season and 12-7 against the Phillies. They won 83 games. Yes, injuries and the late-season turmoil in the clubhouse played a role. Bad luck factored in as well, at least per Pyth W-L and BaseRuns, but, they won 83 games with a similar division making up a good chunk of the schedule. Now, you add in Dusty Baker, who is a really poor in-game manager and everybody knows it. His lineup construction is baffling and his decisions to bunt are maddening.
Personally, I don’t find a ton of instances where a manager helps a team in a meaningful way. There are exceptions. Buck Showalter and Bruce Bochy are excellent managers and are widely-regarded as such. People love Terry Francona, though I’m in the minority that does not. There are a chosen few that affect games and teams in a really positive way. Most of them hurt their respective ballclubs with –EV decisions that lower run and win expectancy. Or, they don’t deploy their best assets in the biggest spots. I find Dusty Baker to be a guy that holds his teams back. We’ll see if he does that here.
Ben Revere and Michael Taylor are, at best, league average in center field with the potential to be a lot worse. We already know Jayson Werth is a bad outfielder. Daniel Murphy is not a good second baseman. The Nationals are pretty fortunate that they have three guys in the rotation with above average strikeout rates and possibly a fourth in Joe Ross. Washington was 23rd in DRS last season and 23rd in UZR/150. Say what you will about defensive metrics, but this is a team that won’t help itself very much defensively.
There are a lot of questions about the health of Stephen Strasburg. Those questions become magnified when you take a 200-inning guy out of the rotation. Gio Gonzalez is a guy that seems to have a shoulder soreness or an elbow soreness DL stint pop up periodically. His high pitch counts from strikeouts and walks don’t allow him to work that deep into games either. He hasn’t worked more than 176 innings in his last two seasons. Tanner Roark is no sure thing, especially with his pitch-to-contact stylings. Joe Ross is a heavy slider usage guy, which is always a concern for injury, and he doesn’t have a third pitch. As he faces teams more often, his fastball/slider combo may get predictable. The fastball isn’t great, even if the slider is a plus pitch.
Yeah, this rotation has some big names and some lofty upside, but the floor isn’t as high as you might have originally thought. That brings me to the bullpen, with aging, declining closer Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon posted the second-highest xFIP of his career last season as his strikeout rate declined and he pitched to a lot more contact. Fortunately, a lot of it was weak contact, but he’s trending in the wrong direction in a lot of ways. The velocity is coming down and his hard contact rate went up in a big way.
The bullpen doesn’t have a whole lot of depth, especially if Papelbon has to be removed from the closer’s role at any point. It really only runs four deep, with Petit as a swingman-type guy. Treinen’s walk rate of 11.4 percent of batters faced is really concerning. He’s fortunate that he throws a heavy sinker and can induce some double play balls, but a lot of hard contact comes from throwing hard and innings can unravel in a hurry. He didn’t pitch in a whole lot of high leverage spots and he had 13 shutdowns and 13 meltdowns per Fangraphs, which is one of my favorite relief pitching stats.
Pick: Washington Nationals Under 89.5 (-115 – Bovada)
This is a very high total for a team that hasn’t stayed healthy in recent years. The caveat is that this team has a high upside if everybody stays in tact, because they can be well above average offensively and from a starting pitching standpoint. However, over the course of 162 games, guys get hurt. I’m not enamored with the position player depth and the bullpen depth. Playing the Phillies and the Braves 38 times is really great, but that only makes up 23.45 percent of the season. The Nationals draw the rough-and-tumble AL Central in interleague play and still have to contend with the Mets 19 times.
There are a lot of things to like about the Nationals and their floor is very high. This is not a team that will bottom out by failing to get to .500. I just don’t see them winning 90 games. They’re not better than the Mets in my mind and that’s probably what it would take. Oddsmakers have to set this number high because of the perception of the NL East, but I’m higher on Philadelphia than most and I really like the Mets this season as well. That means that the Nationals will come close, but won’t make it over this total as far as I’m concerned.
-END OF 2016 PREVIEW-
Unlike the American League, the three division winners in the National League seem like a foregone conclusion and everybody else is just playing for a wild card spot. The Washington Nationals are one of those three division winners. After signing Max Scherzer to a huge free agent contract, the Nationals look like a runaway winner of the NL East with probably the best starting rotation in Major League Baseball. Their lineup isn’t too shabby either. General manager Mike Rizzo is going for it and the baseball world has taken notice.
What do you do for an encore when you win 96 games and claim the division title by 17 games? Winning a playoff series would help. Dating back to the days of the Montreal Expos, the Expos/Nationals franchise has won one postseason series in 46 seasons of existence. The Nationals won the NL East for the second time in three years and they were bounced in the NLDS by the San Francisco Giants in four games.
The Nationals were very good last season, but it may not be a surprise that they weren’t able to hold their own in the postseason. The Nats were 73-43 against teams with losing records last season. They were just 23-23 against teams .500 or better. Washington was 28-10 against the Mets and Marlins en route to a 45-31 record against NL East foes. They were 11-2 against Colorado and Arizona with a 24-9 mark overall against the NL West. Furthermore, against an NL East-heavy schedule in September, the Nats went 19-8 with a +25 run differential.
That’s not meant to take anything away from the Nationals. All you can do is beat the teams on your schedule, but the Nationals certainly caught the rest of the division at a terrible time in September to run away and hide in the East and pad their record and run differential statistics. Is the same going to be possible against improved Mets and Marlins clubs? Can the Nationals live up to the preseason hype?
Oddsmakers have certainly taken notice of the talent on the club. At BetOnline, the Nationals have to win 94 games to go over the total. At 5Dimes, Washington is tasked with winning 94 games, and Bovada is asking for the same thing. That’s a huge number.
Key additions: Max Scherzer, Dan Uggla, Heath Bell, Yunel Escobar, Casey Janssen
Key losses: Asdrubal Cabrera, Adam LaRoche, Tyler Clippard, Scott Hairston, Nate Schierholtz, Ross Detwiler, Ryan Mattheus
It’s a huge number because the Nationals added Max Scherzer to an already spectacular rotation. Scherzer signed a seven-year contract that will pay him over 14 years. Half of the contract is deferred, which was a surprising development, but Mike Rizzo has a great relationship with Scherzer’s agent, Scott Boras. The Nationals have several Boras clients including Stephen Strasburg, Jayson Werth, and Bryce Harper, so the working relationship is why the Nationals were able to win the Scherzer sweepstakes.
Dan Uggla could wind up being an interesting player for the Nationals. He was diagnosed with Oculomotor Dysfunction, a condition in which a past concussion affects eye sight when the head is moving. Uggla never made great contact, but he went from striking out around 22 percent of the time to striking out nearly 30 percent of the time. He hit 22 home runs as recently as 2013, so there could be some big bounce back value in him.
The same can be said for former closer Heath Bell, who has a track record of success. Yunel Escobar was the return for trading away Tyler Clippard, one of the game’s best relievers over the last several seasons. Casey Janssen was a late, low-risk signing to add some bullpen depth. Janssen was the former closer for Toronto.
The Nationals lost some starting pitching depth with the Detwiler trade with Texas, but they have plenty of that to go around. Schierholtz and Hairston were platoon players. Asdrubal Cabrera played well at second base after he was acquired from the Indians near the trade deadline, but he left for Tampa Bay in free agency.
LaRoche is the biggest loss for the Nationals. He hit 26 home runs with a .362 on-base percentage and a .356 wOBA. He signed with the Chicago White Sox in free agency.
Why bet the over?
This starting rotation is the best in baseball. There are no weaknesses and Tanner Roark is waiting in the wings if somebody gets hurt. Roark was a three-win pitcher last season. You know a rotation is ridiculously good when either Gio Gonzalez or Doug Fister is the fifth starter.
Let’s start with Max Scherzer, the prized free agent pickup from the Detroit Tigers. Scherzer returns to the NL after posting some incredible numbers with the Tigers. In five seasons, Scherzer was 82-35 with a 3.52 ERA and has thrown at least 214 innings in each of the last two seasons. He has 1,081 strikeouts in 1,013 innings pitched over the last five seasons and a Cy Young Award. The control problems that Scherzer fought with early in his career seem to be gone and he put up those excellent stats with some terrible defenses behind him.
I’ve often said that Jordan Zimmermann is the best pitcher on the Nationals staff and that was the case last season. The impending free agent was 14-5 with a 2.66 ERA and a 2.68 FIP. He was a five-win pitcher and he walked 3.6 percent of the batters that he faced. He has been a guy that has outpitched his peripherals in each of the last three seasons and it’s safe to say that he might be one of the lucky few that wind up being exempt. He elevated his strikeout rate last season to a career best of 22.8 percent and lowered his home run rate to a career low. Zimmermann showcased impeccable command with his fastball and he should be penciled in for another great season with free agency and a huge payday on the horizon.
Stephen Strasburg doesn’t get the respect that he deserves because he came to the Majors with impossible expectations to live up to. He was supposed to be the next coming of Bob Feller or a right-handed Clayton Kershaw. He’s a reliable four-win pitcher with a tiny bit of a home run problem, but he posted the best walk rate of his career last season and his strikeout rate went up. Strasburg proved his durability last season with 34 starts and 215 innings three years removed from Tommy John surgery and the sky is the limit for him if he can miss a few more barrels. If his HR/FB% regresses to league average, he is projected to post an ERA between 2.50 and 2.75.
Gio Gonzalez has been a three-win pitcher in each of the last six seasons, including one spike up to 5.1 fWAR in 2012. With Zimmermann, Strasburg, and now Scherzer, Gonzalez will probably be an afterthought. He dealt with some shoulder soreness last season, but he has made at least 32 starts in the previous four seasons. His walk rate is under control now, but not at the expense of his strikeout rate. Gonzalez is the league’s best #4 starter and there’s no question about that.
Mike Rizzo committed larceny when he pulled Doug Fister away from the Detroit Tigers. Fister’s due for some regression off of last season’s 2.41 ERA, but Fister’s season got off to a late start due to an elbow problem in Spring Training that limited his velocity. Regardless, he let hitters put the ball in play and they put it on the ground at a 49 percent clip. He had a 3.93 FIP and a 3.85 xFIP and dropped severely in wins above replacement player, but better health in Spring Training should allow him to prepare for the season in the manner that he’s used to and another three-win season isn’t out of the question if the strikeouts return and the walk rate stays low.
The Nationals rotation has the potential to be worth somewhere around 20 wins. Not many teams are going to come close to that level of projection and, as mentioned above, Tanner Roark is no slouch as a sixth starter in this rotation. This is, hands down, the best rotation in baseball.
As mentioned, the lineup is pretty good, too. Four different players accumulated at least 3.8 wins for the Nationals, led by Anthony Rendon’s breakout season. Rendon slashed .287/.351/.473 with 21 homers, 17 steals, and 111 RBI. The offensive breakout was great, but his tremendous performance at third base allowed the Nationals to move Ryan Zimmerman to first base. The power production may not return, but Rendon is a very valuable player, both at the hot corner and in the batter’s box.
Jayson Werth reached base 39.4 percent of the time thanks to a 13.2 percent walk rate and a .292 batting average, slightly inflated by a .343 BABIP. Werth was the Nationals offensive MVP with 16 home runs and that spectacular on-base percentage. He wasn’t a killer defensively and wound up being worth nearly five wins.
The Nationals probably won’t be able to keep Ian Desmond after the season, but the shortstop is in a contract year and that could mean a bump from his .255/.313/.430 slash. Desmond hit 24 home runs and stole 24 bases, which made him a tremendously valuable offensive player in the real world and the fantasy baseball world. He should be able to replicate that performance this season and could even spike upward with the promise of a huge payday next winter.
Bryce Harper is ready to put it all together. Injuries have limited him to 218 games and less than 900 plate appearances over the last two seasons, but the talent is there and clearly visible. Harper struck out too much last season and saw a drop in power while he butted heads with manager Matt Williams. Harper still has 30 homer potential and a return to his plate discipline marks from 2013 would represent a huge upgrade in his overall production. Watch out for Harper to really bust out this season.
Dependable players like Denard Span and Wilson Ramos leave the Nationals will very few, if any, weaknesses in the everyday lineup. Yunel Escobar is probably the biggest question mark on the offensive side of things, but there’s not a lot of pressure on him while hitting eighth in this lineup. This is a really good lineup with some guys capable of improving.
The bullpen no longer has Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano, but there’s still a fair amount of talent back there. Drew Storen should open the season as the closer, with dependable arms like Craig Stammen and Jerry Blevins in middle relief. Casey Janssen and Heath Bell are former closers that could find success in setup roles for the Nationals to help bridge the gap to talented strikeout artist Aaron Barrett and Storen. Blake Treinen may be stretched out as a starter, but he can hit triple digits and keep the ball on the ground, so there’s promise in him as a starter.
Why bet the under?
It’s a stretch to find practical flaws with the Nationals, but this is a really high amount of games to ask a team to win for a win total. Anything can go wrong and an injury situation like what happened to the Texas Rangers isn’t all that out of the ordinary.
With that hypothetical out of the way, let’s try to find ways to pick this team apart. For starters, the Mets and Marlins project to be better and they are “lite” versions of the Nationals starting rotation. The Nationals are expected to do so well and run away with the division so easily that complacency could be an issue, especially against teams that the Nationals dominated last season.
Gio Gonzalez has dealt with some shoulder trouble in the past and Doug Fister had the elbow problem last season. Stephen Strasburg is a former Tommy John recipient. There are some injury risks, as there are with all pitchers, but the vaunted Nationals rotation would look a lot different with Tanner Roark and Blake Treinen or Taylor Jordan in it. When teams have a win total in the mid-90s, there’s not a lot of margin for error because it requires about a 58 percent winning percentage.
There are some regression candidates on the offensive side of things. As mentioned above, Anthony Rendon’s power output is a bit of a question mark. Some Nationals definitely benefitted from good batted ball luck. Jayson Werth’s .343 BABIP will come down some and Ryan Zimmerman’s .313 could also be a candidate for regression. Ian Desmond’s .326 is a bit above the usual range, as is Rendon’s .314.
Speaking of Zimmerman, he was limited to 61 games and 240 plate appearances last season, so injuries are definitely a factor with him once again. They might be mitigated by playing first, but that also limits the value of Zimmerman’s slash line because first base tends to be a better offensive position than third base. League-wide, first basemen posted a .328 wOBA. Third basemen checked in at .316.
The Nationals bullpen worries me in a big way. Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano were proven commodities. Drew Storen pitches to more contact than both of them did and trying to find value in former closers in middle relief doesn’t work out very well historically. Their middle relief is shaky and the bridges to Storen are really shaky. It should be mitigated a bit by the length that the Nationals rotation can provide, but it’s clearly the weak link of the team.
Pick: Over 93.5
You knew this was coming. This team is a World Series favorite with good reason. The starting rotation is completely stacked with talent. The lineup is a great mix of veteran players and talented youngsters with development left. The Nationals have a terrific team and they’re going to run over the NL East again this season. The nice part is that the Nationals will probably be fighting for home field advantage in the playoffs once they clinch the division title, so it should keep them playing hard throughout the season.
There are no weaknesses in the lineup or the starting rotation. The bullpen has to cobble together enough decent innings to be league average, but it’s hard to see very many close games if everything goes according to plan with the starting pitchers.
This is the year that the Nationals get over the hump and win a playoff series. I don’t know what happens when they square off against the Dodgers in the NLCS, but I can’t wait to find out.
-END OF 2015 PREDICTION-
The Washington Nationals fell well short of expectations last season. Bryce Harper, Wilson Ramos, and Jayson Werth all missed significant time and that really took its toll on the offense. Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, and Dan Haren all had 15-day stints on the disabled list. The problem for the Nationals was that Werth went out right as Zimmerman came back and Harper and Ramos went down around the same time in late May while Werth was still out.
There aren’t many teams built to withstand injuries in succession like that and it definitely had an impact on the season. The Nationals scored less than 100 runs in each of April and May, averaging just 3.5 runs per game. In the final four months of the season, the Nationals averaged 4.3 runs per game, but by the end of May, the Nationals were already 4.5 games out and a series loss to the Braves put them 6.5 back on June 2. They would get no closer than four games out and a 2-11 stretch bookending the All-Star Break pretty much eliminated the Nationals.
The Braves dominated the season series against the Nats with a 13-6 record and held the Nationals to just 49 runs in 19 meetings. The final gap in the NL East standings between the two was 10 games, but those 19 meetings went a long way in dictating the division race.
What we saw from the Nationals in August and September may be a good indicator for the 2014 season. The Nationals ended the year with a 34-20 mark over their final 54 games and scored 4.7 runs per game once everybody was healthy. The door certainly swung wide open for the Nationals when Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy were sent under the knife for the second time to have Tommy John surgery. The Braves responded by signing Ervin Santana, but one has to assume that the Nationals are entering this season expecting to be better in the season series and with a serious amount of focus. They were going to anyway, but their chief rivals are vulnerable and that always takes things up a notch.
One thing that will have to change for the Nationals is their performance against good teams. The Nationals feasted on bottom feeders last season with a 62-35 mark against teams under .500. That means that they were just 24-41 against teams with a .500 or better record. Consider that the Nationals were 17 games over .500 against the Mets, Marlins, and Phillies and that partially explains the record against bad teams. Those teams might be better, but they’re still going to be below .500, so things are shaping up for the Nationals.
Oddsmakers believe that as well. 5Dimes.eu, BetOnline.ag, and Bovada.lv all have 89.5 posted for the Nationals with heavy juice on the over. The lowest juice is -130 at 5Dimes right now. BetDSI.eu has the total at 90 with -120 on the over. The market has pushed this number up, both because of the potential and the high ceiling that the Nationals have, but also because of the tough month of March for the Braves.
Key additions: Doug Fister, Jerry Blevins, Nate McLouth, Luis Ayala, Mike Gonzalez, Kevin Frandsen, Jose Lobaton
Key losses: Robbie Ray, Ian Krol, Dan Haren, Steve Lombardozzi, Fernando Abad
The mark of a good team is one that focuses on adding depth in the offseason. That’s exactly what the Nationals did, with the exception of the Doug Fister trade with the Tigers. Fister slots nicely into the spot vacated by Dan Haren. At the cost of a matchup lefty, a mid-ceiling prospect starter, and a utility infielder, the Nationals seem to have made a very good trade there.
The Nationals were blindsided by injuries last season and lacked quality depth. Guys like Tyler Moore, Danny Espinosa, Roger Bernadina, and Chad Tracy hit .222 or less with over 130 plate appearances. Lombardozzi posted a 69 OPS+ over 307 plate appearances in various fill-in roles and at second base before Anthony Rendon was called up. Guys like Frandsen, Lobaton, and McLouth are important pieces to the puzzle when most of the puzzle is completed. Major League quality depth is a good thing. In Lobaton’s case, Kurt Suzuki was brutal at the plate when Ramos was out. Lobaton is both a better hitter and better defender.
Similarly, the Nationals needed some bullpen depth. Jerry Blevins and Mike Gonzalez will replace Ian Krol as the team’s second matchup lefty throughout the season. Luis Ayala will fill the void left by the trade of Fernando Abad.
Why bet the over?
The sky is the limit for this team. The offense is extremely talented and nearly all eight positions can expect above average offensive production. The only questions are at first base and in center field. Adam LaRoche was slightly above average last season with a 103 wRC+ and Denard Span was slightly below average with a 97 wRC+. Other than those two, who really aren’t that bad anyway, this lineup is stacked.
Beginning with one of the game’s weakest offensive positions, Ian Desmond is one of the most valuable offensive shortstops in the game. Desmond’s career path has given credence to the long-time argument that power is the last thing to come. After hitting 22 home runs over his first 1,275 plate appearances, Desmond has posted back-to-back 20+ HR seasons. He has also stolen 21 bases in each of the last two seasons. Desmond doesn’t walk, but his speed allows him to have a BABIP north of the usual .290-.310 range that players fall into. Depending on what fielding metric you subscribe to, Desmond is either slightly above or slightly below average, but the fact remains that his defense doesn’t detract from his offense.
Offensively, Ryan Zimmerman had the type of season people have come to expect. He hit 26 home runs with an OPS above .800 and walked slightly more than average. What zapped some of Zimmerman’s value was his poor showing in defensive metrics that measure range. It’s hard to say if this is a disturbing trend or not, but give Zimmerman the benefit of the doubt entering his age-30 season, especially since he won’t turn 30 until late September.
As far as corner outfielders go, the Nationals might have the best tandem in the league with Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper. Both guys missed more than 40 games with injuries and still accumulated 8.4 combined fWAR. Both players draw walks at a well above average rate and both guys have 25+ home run power. If these two stay healthy in 2014, 10 combined fWAR is a distinct possibility and that would have to be near the top of the league for corner outfielders.
Wilson Ramos has shown so much potential in his injury-shortened Major League career, but his body has not cooperated. Ramos hit 16 home runs in just 303 plate appearances last season. Two long trips to the disabled list limited him to just 78 games. If healthy, Ramos can be a three-win catcher for the Nationals, giving them yet another above average full-time player in the lineup.
Anthony Rendon is this year’s player to watch. Rendon will turn 24 in June and his path to the big leagues was quickened as a result of being drafted out of Rice University at the age of 22. The former sixth-overall pick showed decent pop last season and, most importantly, put the bat on the ball in his first full season. Second base is a weak position to begin with, so as long as Rendon performs average with the glove and bats .270 with 15 home runs, he’ll be in the upper half of second basemen league-wide.
There aren’t many holes in the lineup and as good as that is, the starting rotation may somehow be better. The top four in the starting rotation were all drafted in the first, first, second, and seventh rounds, which tells you about the kind of talent this group possesses. Obviously the sexiest name is Stephen Strasburg, the former San Diego State Aztec who has no problem lighting up a radar gun. Strasburg was just 8-9 last season, but that’s an example of why win-loss record is a terrible way to gauge a pitcher’s performance. Strasburg struck out over 26 percent of opposing batters and posted a 3.00 ERA, a 3.21 FIP, and a 2.88 SIERA. He is a legit front of the rotation arm.
Gio Gonzalez and his devastating curveball did what he usually does and won’t stop doing. Gonzalez threw over 195 innings for the fourth straight season with a 3.36 ERA and a 3.41 FIP. His 2013 season was more indicative of his true ability than his 2012 season, so the mild regression was not surprising. Gonzalez has been consistently solid for four straight seasons and that’s not going to stop now at age 28 with a September birthday.
While Strasburg and Gonzalez have the gaudier profiles, it’s the elite command of Jordan Zimmermann that made him the most valuable (from an fWAR standpoint) pitcher for the Nationals last season. Zimmermann walked 40 batters in 213.1 innings. His 4.6 percent walk rate was good enough for ninth overall, behind guys like Cliff Lee and Bartolo Colon and ahead of Clayton Kershaw and Hisashi Iwakuma. Pinpoint control allows Zimmermann to be effective without the high strikeout rates associated with ERAs and FIPs like his. It helps that he throws 94, but the command and pitch mix from Zimmermann has led to an increase in ground balls and more pop ups over the last two seasons.
Doug Fister will miss time early in the season due to a lat strain, but when he does return to the rotation, he’ll fit right in as he boasts a similar control profile to Zimmermann with a higher ground ball rate. Luckily, the Nationals have some depth with Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan, both to fill out the #5 spot and to fill in for Fister.
The bullpen is also a strength with Rafael Soriano in the closing role and one of the game’s most elite setup men in Tyler Clippard. Soriano recorded over 40 saves for the second straight season. Clippard has been ridiculously reliable over the last four seasons with 296 appearances, elite strikeout rates, and great splits against both types of hitters as a lefty out of the pen. Drew Storen had a rough year as he ran into some regression, but he should bounce back as there were some anomalies in his peripherals and some bad luck with balls in play. The pen is deep as well with a second, or even third, lefty, Luis Ayala in a veteran role, and guys like Craig Stammen and Christian Garcia.
Why bet the under?
Any win total over 90 can be precarious because it takes a lot of things going right and falling into place to sustain that level of performance over a 162-game season. A simple four or five-game losing streak can drastically alter the team’s pace. That’s just an inherent risk with any high win total and not an indictment of the Nationals in any way. It’s always important to consider how hard it is to win 55 percent of the games over a six-month season.
There were some concerning developments during 2013 for the Nationals that aren’t likely to go away. The most obvious centers around closer Rafael Soriano. Yes, Soriano had good standard numbers with 43 saves and a 3.11 ERA. But, take a deeper look and you’ll see a pitcher that experienced a velocity decline and a sharp drop in strikeouts. Soriano’s slider became a much less effective pitch even though his cutter was more successful. It’s certainly something to watch for.
Not only does Doug Fister’s recent lat strain affect the team’s starting pitching depth, but it has allowed people to forget about how Fister had elbow inflammation earlier in the Spring. The Nationals were the only team in baseball to have four starting pitchers throw 150 or more innings and not make the playoffs. Strasburg, Zimmermann, and Gonzalez are clearly good enough to carry the load, but having a reliable, above average fourth starter is extremely beneficial. The lat strain to Fister may not be a big deal, but the elbow inflammation may be down the road.
Pick: Over 89.5 (-130, 5Dimes)
It’s hard to find things to dislike about this Nationals ballclub. The fact that the team was able to focus solely on depth this offseason is an indication of how good they truly are. Teams that only need to plug in replacements in case of injury or late-inning defensive changes are in that position because of the talent in the everyday lineup or among the regular pitchers. Between the Braves pitching injuries and three teams that should finish well below .500 in the NL East, the Nationals are in a prime position to win a lot of games.
While saying that a player is “average” sounds like a bad thing, take a look around the league and look at how many below average players play every day or play key roles on a team. The Nationals are average or better at all eight defensive positions and have four above average starting pitchers with Fister healthy. That wins a lot of ballgames. They also have a solid bullpen, especially with the setup guys.
The NL has a chance to be very top-heavy this season with the Dodgers, Cardinals, and Nationals winning well over 90 games. Don’t be afraid of the juice here. This team is in much better shape than it was last season and should surpass this number comfortably.