Well one way is to not do it and say I like the Nats to win 83-93 games and leave it at that. That's kind of a cop-out though. Especially considering this is no stakes. I don't get punished for getting it wrong.
I'm going to take a breakdown approach. I'm gonna look at four pieces of the Nats; offense, defense, starting pitching, and relief pitching and figure out what I feel about them and go from there.
It should be easy to say the Nats should be better. Werth (88 GP in 2015), Zimmerman (95), and Rendon (80) are all starting the year healthy. But even if we consider them good bets to play more, though let's not say full seasons, in 2016, things nag at me. I remember last year the Nats were good offensively too. They had Bryce Harper's year that may very well not be replicated. They had suprisingly good years at the plate from Yunel Escobar and Clin Robinson. They had Denard Span play 60 games of high level ball that Revere or MAT will probably find hard to match.
Still I feel the offense is going to be better because of the following reasons :
- Replacing 2015 Desmond with 2016 Murphy is a very safe bet to help the offense. 2015 Ian hit .240 / .311 / .409 for an OPS+ of 94. Murphy has never hit that bad and in the past three seasons averaged on OPS+ of 111.
- The potential of Werth/Zimm/Rendon trumps what Escobar/Robinson did last year. Escobar (113 OPS+) and Robinson (110) both had very good seasons for the Nats. They essentially matched what we just saw Murphy put up over the last three years. That's good production. In the past two seasons though both Rendon (125) and Werth (134) were noticeably better offensively than that. Zimmerman hasn't been significantly better recently but also has not been worse and has been consistent about it. If we assume better health then I have to think it's a good bet that at least one of these three significantly outperforms what those two did last year. In that case even if we find one of the remaining two matching and the other underperforming we're at a wash, but at a respectable level for 3 positions rather than two
- While Revere or MAT may not match Span/Taylor from last year, Revere AND MAT should. Revere is a player with consistent "on a good day average" offensive production. MAT is a guy who struggled last year but is strongly felt that he can do better. I don't trust either one to do better than 2015 Span or even 2015 Span + 2015 MAT BUT do I think the Nats can at least equal that offense by going with the hot hand of the two? Yes, I do.
- The catching situation cannot get worse. If it does they'd have to go in another direction come the summer, right?
- The bench should be better. I don't think adding Drew and knocking one of Revere/Taylor necessarily makes the bench tons better than last year but the fact that the Nats are starting with these guys actually on the bench as opposed to on the field is a plus.
Off the top of my head again you have what - Murphy replacing Espinosa (minus). Espinosa replacing Desmond (plus) but maybe Turner coming in (?). Rendon replacing Escobar (big plus over the sneaky bad Yuney). Werth getting older (minus). MAT likely playing less for Revere (minus).
I'm just going to throw up my hands here. There isn't a single overriding direction for the Nats defensive changes. They should be better on the left side of the infield, worse on the right, and a little worse in CF but can I say anything for sure? No. Especially given the vagaries of one year defensive stats. I'll just say it'll stay the same, which was essentially a pretty average D.
Three guys are coming back so I can take do direct feelings on those guys. I think Max will do a little worse. I LOVE AL to NL guys but I love them most that first year (see Fister, Doug). I think there is a little comeback after that. I also look at Scherzer's age and how well he did and think it's more likely he doesn't repeat that than he does. Again - this doesn't mean he'll be bad, average, or even just good. It means I think he'll be All-Star worthy, fringe Cy Young candidate, rather than clear Cy Young candidate. Gio I like to get worse too. Frankly I was surprised he pitched as well as he did. Strasburg I like to think will see a little better results.
Now we reach the new pitchers. Can 2016 Ross replace 2015 ZNN? Twist my arm to put money on it and I'd say no. ZNN wasn't great but he threw 200+ innings of solid ball. Can Roark replace Fister + Ross... It's unclear. The bar isn't actually all that high. It's an ERA of 4.00 essentially. But Tanner didn't get there last year. You'd think that without the jerking around he'd focus better but I don't know. I guess I'll say yes, but I don't feel great about it.
All in all I think I like the starters to be a little worse. I know that puts the Nats starters at right around average, instead of above it but I'll stick to my guns here. If you don't buy that maybe you'll buy the fact that once again the Nats had their starters throw a ton of innings. Scherzer and ZNN didn't miss a start. Gio missed one or two. Fister stunk but he only missed 5 before passing the torch to Ross who didn't miss any. Strasburg did miss about a third of the season but the overall effect is the pitchers the Nats wanted to pitch made over 91% of their starts. That's less impact than if one starter misses half a season and the other 4 basically stay healthy all year long. To expect that again especially with a rotation that's now 4/5ths 27 or older as opposed to 4/5ths 27 or younger, is foolish.
The plan was to get better and the Nats tried to do that by not necessarily increasing talent but decreasing variability. Bring in guys with major league success who are likely to repeat that. I'm all for the plan. But before you get too excited losing Storen, who was very good for much of the year, matters, as does letting Matt Thornton go. It's kind of a repeat of what we said going into 2015 losing Clippard and Soriano. Who is going to make up those innings? Last year the answer was Storen and ?. Didn't work. This year it's Papelbon and ?, but I'll admit I like the ? better this year.
Despite what it felt like the pen wasn't terrible last year. It wasn't as overall ok as the ERA might suggest. They blew more games than they should have. But it wasn't terrible. What it was, was terrible when you were watching. It started off the season with blown saves. Then, it kept going just long enough between them to keep you from changing your opinion on the pen. Then it blew up in important games down the stretch. That means it it seemed terrible, but really for a big part of the season it was fine.
So matching the production isn't a given. Still I like the plan and I believe that the talent in the pen hasn't gotten any worse, and is probably better. Given that, I have to believe they'll at least hit the same level of production as the 2015 pen. So even? Not quite. Simply by virtue of not blowing the same amount of important games I think they'll be more helpful to the 2016 Nats. So I'll say a little better.
I'm not going to really factor this in because I don't feel I can but Dusty can't be worse than Matt and the team chemsitry can't be worse than it was down the stretch last year. Well it can, but god help us all if it is.
So offense a little better, relief pitching a little better, defense same, starting pitching a little worse... that would get the team a couple more wins over last year. So 85-86 wins? No. The Nats got a little unlucky overall and by Pythag and adjusted standings were a better team, 89 winnish. Now I don't think playing under is ALL luck. So they may not be 83 wins but they aren't 89 either. 87/88 maybe? Then add the wins to that? Ok. I said 91 earlier. I think I'll step that back one.
Now does 90 wins give them the NL East? Does it get them a WC? I'll go ahead and say... no and... no. I'll even go ahead and run with the scenario where the Mets take the division with 91 wins and the 2nd WC also has 91 wins. Meaning that the Nats attempts to save a buck with Giolito and in some ways Turner, will likely have made the difference between playoffs and not.
Of course the more optimistic way of looking at 90 wins is that if anything bad happens to the Mets (and nothing to the Nats, or really more bad to the Mets than the Nats) the Nats should have an easy time winning the division. I don't think the Mets are a clear step better. I think it's pretty even, meaning luck can easily drive who wins. So far in 2016 the Nats have gotten the luck. They got through spring unscathed and with everyone seemingly recovered. The Mets have not.
But there you go. My prediction for 2016 is 90 wins and just missing the playoffs two ways. As a reminder even if I predicted them to make the playoffs I don't predict playoff results. That's silly.
FYI Past Predictions
2010: Predicted 73 wins. Actual 69 wins.
2011: Predicted 79 wins. Actual 80 wins.
2012: Predicted 84 wins. Actual 98 wins. NL East crown.
2013: Predicted 94 wins. NL East crown. Actual 86 wins.
2014: Predicted 94 wins. NL East crown. Actual 96 wins. NL East crown.
2015: Predicted 93 wins. NL East crown. Actual 83 wins.
Not terrible but not great. Given normal injuries pretty close, but big injuries in 2013 and 2015 lead to big misses, no surprise there. That 2012 team really came out of nowhere to be incredible. 98 wins!