Commenter Cass brought up something interesting the other day. On the current fangraphs projections for the 2014 season the Nats are decidedly middle of the road, 18th in the majors. Yes, understanding that it's WAY early and this does not factor in free agency that hasn't happened yet (so all free agents are nowhere right now) is there some underlying truth here? Are the Nats not very good?
Well, first of all there is a lot of things that will help you assuage your fears. While the Nats are figured to be 18th overall right now, that's still 8th in the NL and decidely closer to the best NL team (6 games) than the best AL team. In other words, the NL itself has no standout teams in projection so it's not like the Nats have lost before the season even started. Even better they are just a smidgen behind the Braves in this projection. Given the current talent levels that sounds about right to me. The Braves are better, but not by more than a couple games. A couple games can easily be undone over the course of the season by random luck (although you'd much rather have it undone in the offseason by savvy signings).
Also projections like this are notoriously... flattening. Look the best team in the NL last year won 96 games, the worst won 62, but in the projections for next year the spread is 88 to 72. A 34 game spread is now 16 games. This doesn't mean that the projections are wrong, just that the idea of projecting has a fundamental flaw. This is something we've discussed before. Seasons are often decided by injuries, break-outs, and crashes. These are things that can't be projected with any accuracy. You know they are going to happen. You can sort of pinpoint teams that may have an edge (young talent with room to improve) or a big flaw (35+ talent, or relying on guys who may have had fluke seasons) but that only gets you part of the way there. The rest is unknowable but it happens every year. (Doesn't mean you don't try to put yourself in the best position though. It's easier to get to 95 wins if you are starting from an expected 90)
Ok so the above says - don't worry the Nats are in the playoff hunt and given their general reliance on young talent would be a better bet to overperform on that win total than underperform. Where exactly do I think the projections are guessing low?
Ian Desmond : Projection 3.0 WAR. (2013: 5.0, 2012: 5.0)
You can tell this is at least a 3 year projection by the fact that they've pretty much discounted Ian's defensive improvements over the past 2 seasons. Also they only have him playing 130 games, which he has beaten by at least 20 in 3 of the last 4 years.
Jordan Zimmermann; Projection 2.5 WAR (2013: 3.6, 2012, 3.4)
Projections seem to hate ZNN. It's a much milder way than the way they hated Lannan, but it turns someone who has been a #2 type pitcher the past 3 years into a #3. I can't see the reasoning behind this one.
Where do I FEEL they are guessing low?
The Pen (Soriano, Clip, Storen): Projection 1.0 WAR (2013: 1.1)
Ok that's not a big drop and it can be entirely explained by a drop in IP projected but still last year was the least valubale year for Clippard and Storen since 2009 and Soriano's least valuable closer year ever. One of these guys alone might get 1.0 WAR next year.
Jayson Werth: Projection 2.2 WAR (2013 : 4.6)
Ok I don't think he'll hit like he did last year and I do agree his fielding will still suffer but a big part of their projection is him playing only 118 games.Factor in 30 or so games and better hitting and that's a whole win they are underselling him.
Bryce Harper: Projection 3.9 WAR (2013 : 3.8)
This is all just gut feeling. If Bryce is going to be that special talent he should break out sooner rather than later. I think he is that special so I'm feeling breakout.
Is there anyone I think they are too optimistic on?
Adam LaRoche : Projection 1.2 WAR (2013 0.6)
In fewer plate appearances! No I think last years LaRoche is where he stands now. That's not good, but over the course of the season you can swallow it. For one more year.
The top of the rotation - not that they will pitch worse but they have Stras, Gio and ZNN pegged for over 550 IP, which means no major injuries. I always assume a major injury when it comes to pitching, but I guess it'd be unfair in this exercise to predict that for the Nats.
All in all, like I said before I like the Nats chances to beat what they are projected for here, more than go under it and if you factor in what I think are under estimates and over estimates, I have them*better than the Braves and in the thick of the WC hunt.
*Caveat being that I haven't look at every NL team. Might be if I look at the Braves I think they are underselling some guys there too. Or overselling a couple. Really all I'm saying is that the Nats aren't a base .500 team - more a base 85 win team right now, with strong potential to beat that.