The dream scenario is a team for the ages. A team talked about in hushed tones and reverence. "You know what team was really good? That 2015 Nationals team. What a powerhouse!" It takes more than winning a lot of games to do it, it takes a championship, but winning a lot of games helps (see our comment discussion on the 2001 Mariners). What is a team for the ages? Last time the Nats were coming off a crazy good year I defined it as 110 wins. That turned out to be quite a challenge to put together. So we're scaling back just a couple games to 108 wins. Why 108? Well it ties for the most wins by a National League team in 100 years. That's pretty immortal.
Let's put our heads on our pillows, dial in our sleep numbers (mine is "whatever - I'm not the goddamn Princess and the Pea"), and get to this!
Ok so we will start in the same general area we did for the nightmare scneario, adjusting up and down for various things we would consider fair. Ramos/Bryce/Zimm more playing time, Max here, LaRoche gone. That takes us down to... 101 wins? Well I was fudging a bit and that 102 point was really more like 101.5 so how about 100.5 wins? I'll also knock off some value for Clippard being gone - but instead of forcing 2 wins, we'll stick with 1. And I'll knock off some for Werth, who again is old and injured, but best case decrease instead of worst case. Let's say half a win vs 3 wins. We're now at... 99 wins.* All we have to do is piece together 9 more wins.
Ok the easiest place to get wins is with Bryce Harper. We adjusted him up based on last years WAR numbers but those were the worst of his short career. It doesn't take much to think he'll be closer to his previous years' totals if he plays everyday. Let's say 2.5 more wins and we can come back as needed. 101.5 wins. We also scaled Zimm up to a mere 120 games. While that number might be hard and fast for Ramos (He's never played that many in fact) Zimm has played more than 120 games in 4 of the last 6 years. If he's healthy 145 or so seems more reasonable. Defense won't be a factor as much but that's a good thing after the last two years. Another win here, too? 102.5 wins.
A couple more paths of least resistance. I figured Yuney to be a win worse than LaRoche was last year. Instead, let's say he really bounces back and call it even. 103.5 wins. And let's say Janssen, Barrett, and company keeps the pen closer to the level of last year. 104 wins. Only 4 away!
But we've hit a philosophical wall here. We're to the point where simple positive thinking is not enough to get the Nats where they need to be. The Nats need guys not only to maximize what we've seen from them recently, but take actual steps forward. Strasburg, everyone thinks he should be more of an elite pitcher. Let's say that happens - 105 wins. Bryce, too, people think should be a STAR, so let's make him one with another win and a half of production. 106.5 Ummm
We're kind of running out of young guys / guys not reaching potential talent level. This is what happens when you have players who are really good and they play really well. There's no room for them to go up. Are you going to adjust Rendon up? That would make him arguably the 2nd best player in the majors today behind Mike Trout. Denard Span a win or so better? You've given the Nats a guy who made himself a Top 5 CF around age 30. Adjust ZNN or Max up? Hello Clayton Kerhsaw dominance.
But we're not giving up. Let's say Gio has one last great year in that arm. Sure that 2012 looks fluky and he's been trending down, but we're not asking for a full return to that form, just a strong move in that direction. It isn't crazy, he's only 29 for God's sake. 107.5. Ok a half-win can come from anywhere but what makes the most sense? Werth? The guy is nearly 36 and may not start the season. I can't go there. Fister? Nah I like where he's at and wrong side of 30 for a jump. Ramos? No, I think I'm already probably over estimating him. Desmond? Tempting given it's a contract year but no, I'll go with the simplest way to 108. The bench gets a little better. Might be hard to see that with the main players being the same but the sample is so small here it amounts to a coin flip if we see better or worse results. That's how the 2012 bench ended up best in three counties. 108 wins! (and if you want to go to 109 - let's say Desmond has that contract year)
What did we learn? A lot went right for the Nats last year to get to 97 wins, so even saying everything goes right isn't enough to get them to historic levels. There's an extra step needed and a couple young guys who should be very good, Strasburg and Bryce, need to be great. I'm tempted to say an easier path to this level of winning is rather than have all this go right is simply to have these two become the generational players it was expected they could be. Add like 3 wins for Stras, 5 additional for Bryce. These are huge jumps, but that is probably as reasonable as saying everyone takes a half-step forward.
All in all getting to 108 is hard. I'd say it's slightly less hard then making the Nats miss the playoffs without injury but just slightly less and given the fact you never have 0 injuries, missing the playoffs has to be the better bet. But neither are good ones. I would say I like 100 wins more than 90. That's saying something. Early thoughts on a final prediciton right now... I'd have to say 96-97 wins, but nothing official until we see Spring Training play out, and see how Werth is doing.
The Nats are a high 90s win team here who, despite a slight uptick in competition, should cruise to a division title. If they don't something has gone terribly wrong. It may be injury, it may be surprise collapses in performance, or it may be managin', but something would have to keep this collection of talent from reaching the playoffs.
* I'd say the the Nats "everyone is healthy" base level is 98-99 wins. That might seem low, coming off a 96 win season with some injury issues, but this is EVERYONE is healthy, like everyone on every team. In the real world if the Nats got lucky and had perfect health likely they win a bunch more games because everyone other team wouldn't be so lucky. However, I will say the Nats history makes me think they are a little more prone to the injury bug.