In a week and a day Stephen Strasburg will take the mound at Wrigley Field as the Washington Nationals begin their quest to have the most successful season in franchise history against the Chicago Cubs. Everyone has expectations and if we listen to Davey Johnson, Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen, and a few other Nationals then those expectations are for the playoffs. The big question is clear: is that is realistic? On paper, the Nationals have one of the better pitching staffs in the NL, and one of the weaker offenses. That formula has worked before, but can it work for the 2012 squad at Nats Park?
This past off-season, Mike Rizzo added Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson while Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann look to give the team more innings. Add this all up and it puts the Nats in a position they are unfamiliar with. This is a team after all whose last three Opening Day starters were Livan Hernandez, John Lannan (twice), and Odalis Perez. John Lannan is now opening the season as the fifth starter due to an injury to Chien-Ming Wang, Livan Hernandez is on the Astros, and Odalis Perez was last seen headed for parts unknown.
In order to figure out what difference this pitching staff is going to make from last season’s pitching staff let’s go to the numbers. In 2011, the Nationals used 11 starters for a combined Wins Above Replacement (WAR) of 10.7. Wins Above Replacement give you an idea of the strength of a player compared with a replacement level player which is defined as a player easy to acquire on waivers or through a call-up, it’s a good measure of how much talent you’re carrying. With 200-inning pitchers like Jackson and Gonzalez added to the mix the Nationals might not only get better production from their starters but also better health.
All of the various projections* have Edwin Jackson pitching at least 180 innings, and as many as 212, while they have Gonzalez pitching anywhere from 180 to 209. The only Nationals hurler who topped 180 innings in 2011 was John Lannan. Jackson is projected to be worth 3.3 WAR and Gonzalez 3.2. Those two additions combined are worth nearly 2/3 what 11 starters were worth for the 2011 squad.
Continuing through the rotation Jordan Zimmermann is projected to pitch more than the 160 innings he did last season and according to predictions that is going to be worth 3.7 WAR. The biggest addition the Nationals are making to their pitching staff isn’t a new face but a former top prospect and amazing talent returning from Tommy Johns Surgery. Stephen Strasburg is easily the biggest upgrade the Nationals will make to their rotation. Again going to the numbers and looking at the projections Strasburg is projected to pitch around 160 innings to a WAR of 5.1.
That projection might be a bit conservative.
In his previous 98 innings Stephen Strasburg pitched to a combined WAR of 3.7. If that is taken and expanded to over 160 innings that gives Strasburg a WAR of 6.1. If there is one thing that Nats fans have become accustomed to it is Strasburg defying expectations. For this little exercise in math it is always good to go with the conservative estimate as not to raise hopes too high.
The Nationals will have a fifth spot in the rotation that will be manned by some combination of Lannan, Wang, Detwiler, and possible minor league call-ups. The average NL starter averaged 6.0 innings a start which works out to 972 innings for the entire season for the team. If it is figured that Gonzalez and Jackson will pitch 200 innings, Zimmermann 180, and Strasburg 160 then the Nationals need 232 additional innings to get to the 2011 NL average. John Lannan is projected to pitch 175 innings to a tune of a 1.4 WAR and Wang is projected to pitch 127 innings with a 1.4 WAR.
That gives the Nationals a total of 1,042 innings from six starters. As the Nationals are projected to be a better than average starting staff, an innings number better than average should be expected. The important number though is the WAR projection of 18.1 or 7.4 wins better than 2011. If the Nationals offense can be the same as it was in 2011 and the NL run environment stays the same then the Nationals pitching alone makes them close to a 90 win team.
On paper, the Nationals have a 90 win pitching staff and a 70 win offense. There are already a few issues that have begun to show themselves in Spring Training. Michael Morse and Adam LaRoche have been MIA over the last couple weeks and if they aren’t ready for Opening Day then the Nationals would start the season with Mark DeRosa at first and either Bernadina or Lombardozzi in left.
None of this means that the Nationals offense can’t improve in 2012. Remember in 2011 the Nationals missed LaRoche for most of the season, Zimmerman for 1/3 of the season, and Jayson Werth was a disappointment to say the least. As it currently stands, both Zimmerman and Werth look both productive and more importantly healthy in Spring Training. If Morse and LaRoche can get healthy and be ready for Opening Day or miss as little time as possible then the Nationals offense should be better in 2012.
The other half of the offense being better is the run environment around the league. In 2011 the run environment continued to be depressed from a year in 2010 that was called, “The Year of the Pitcher.” With the NL losing both Fielder and Pujols while adding pitchers Gonzalez, Jackson, Buehrle, Cahill, and Strasburg, as well as Wainwright returning from injury, the run environment in the NL should continue to be depressed, and offenses could struggle even more in 2012.
The one big addition to the Nationals that could help the offense more than anything is not an addition but a call-up, and I am not even talking about Bryce Harper. That big addition could be Steve Lombardozzi who can play three infield positions and in Spring Training has been used in the outfield in anticipation of being used as a super-sub during the regular season. Like Ben Zobrist in Tampa, it is possible that Lombardozzi could play a different position every day of the week.
This will accomplish two things that could impact and improve the offense. The regular starters will get a couple extra days off during the season in order to stay fresher and more importantly it will significantly limit the use of the dreaded Sunday line-up. By using Lombardozzi in this manner it would essentially replace and everyday bat with another everyday bat, and if Lombardozzi’s minor league batting line of .298/.369/.411 can carry over into the majors then that is an upgrade over every sub that Nats used in 2011. Even his spring line of .306/.327/.388 is better than the average NL sub was in 2011 with a combined batting line of .221/.293/.319.
The Nationals aren’t the only team in the NL East that improved. The Marlins made what might be the biggest upgrades of the off-season in anticipation of their move into a new stadium, and the Phillies and Braves are still very good teams despite recent injuries. All four of the presumed contenders in the NL East cannot all win 90 games and they certainly will not all make the playoffs. At least one of those teams is going to be a disappointment and there is a one in four chance it is going to be the Nats.
Every game in a 162-game season shares equal importance when it comes to deciding a team’s final record, but with the Phillies starting the season without Utley and Howard, and the Braves starting the season without Hudson and Chipper, it is important for the Nats to get out to a hot start, and their schedule makes this very possible. The Nats start the season against the Cubs and the Mets on the road and then come home to play the Reds, Astros, and Marlins as part of an 11-game homestand before hitting the road to finish out the month against the Padres and Dodgers. April represents a great opportunity for them to get a head start on their division competition.
When it comes right down to it I would much rather watch the season play out than put expectations on it. The numbers on the pitching staff and even on the offense say the Nationals should be better than last season, but how much better is up for some debate. If I had to put a number on it I would say the Nationals will win 86 games this season and could grab the second wild card depending on what teams like the Marlins, Braves, Giants, Rockies, and Reds do.
Lurking in the wings is Bryce Harper who might be the biggest X-factor that has ever existed for a team. Not only could he solve the Nationals center field situation but he could also give the team that big left-handed bat they need in the middle of their lineup. The Nationals lineup with Zimmerman, Werth, and Morse in the middle is very right handed heavy, and Harper would help to provide some balance. Trying to figure out what to expect from Harper is close to impossible, but his presence could change everything.
If this sounds like a lot of hope and optimism, it should. There aren’t many people out there who don’t think this will be the most exciting season in the brief history of the Washington Nationals. The pitching staff the Nationals put together is nothing short of amazing when looked at from the top of the rotation to the bottom of the bullpen. It is one of the strongest and deepest in the NL. Even if Storen starts the season on the DL the Nationals bullpen is deep enough to turn it into a 7-inning game.
Get ready Nats fans. The 2012 season is right around the corner and if there is one certainty in the crazy world of baseball it is that 2012 projects to be exciting for your Washington Nationals.
*All projections and stats courtesy of Fangraphs