Nationals Baseball: Monday Quickie - Division runthrough

Monday, April 23, 2012

Monday Quickie - Division runthrough

The Nats didn't beat the Marlins two out of three, but only because the third game was rained out.  The Nats took another couple of great pitching performances and turned them into close wins behind whoever in this lousy offense happens to get a hit at the right time. The Nats are now 12-4 with a two game lead in the division and thoughts drift more and more away from "Can they make the playoffs?" to "Can they win the division?".  Premature?  Totally.  But let's see why the other NL East teams aren't carrying their share for the early favorite for Best Division in Baseball 2012. 

New York Mets - The Mets were always going to be the whipping boy in the East but they've been the one positive surprise out of the remaining 4 teams. Why aren't they 4-12? Because 75% of things have gone right.  An offense that would be at best mediocre given a bunch of average hitters has done better than expected thanks to Thole, Tejada, and Nieuwhatever taking a step foward (so far). That may not last but if one of these guys is ok and if Davis and Duda (the bats they really like) rebound, and they get a bit more luck this lineup will still be fine.  On the staff side Pelfrey, Gee, and Neise are all pitching well and Santana is healthy enough. That helps cover up a failing bullpen.

Can they keep the Nats from the division title? Not likely.  They are roughly where they deserve right now (some good luck winning has balanced out some bad luck scoring runs) and this is arguably a best case scenario. So I sincerely doubt it.

Philadelphia Phillies - The pitching is still "great except Blanton" but what a hideous offense.  That sums it up.  The worst part for Phillies fans is that the only good bat seriously underperforming is Hunter Pence.  Polanco was simply holding his own and now he might have went off that age cliff.  Rollins last year was most likely a minor fluke and he'll be a hole in the lineup. Victorino and Ruiz are simply hitting like they should.  Imagine how bad it would be if Wigginton and Pierre weren't overperforming?

Can they keep the Nats from the division title?  With that group of starters it's possible, but they'll need Utley back ASAP and Pence to have a great year to have a shot.  You can't count another career year from Victorino and everyone else is on the wrong side of 33. Right now it doesn't look good.

Miami Marlins - Even though the pitching staff has been solid without Josh Johnson returning to form yet, the Marlins offense has sputtered. The two guys that were supposed to carry it along with Hanely Ramirez, Reyes and Stanton, haven't gotten it going yet.  Worse, Gaby Sanchez is crashing. However all these guys are young enough that they should bounce back.

Can they keep the Nats from the division title?  It's possible.  The pitching is good and the one guy who hasn't done well is their best pitcher who you expect to pitch much better. The hitting hasn't been good and Omar Infante can't keep this pace up (.325 with 4 homers) but two guys that haven't done well are 2 of their best 3 hitters who you expect to play much better.  These aren't old guys or overachievers they are counting on like the Phillies. As long as they can hang around a few games back, I give them a shot.

Atlanta Braves - They actually haven't disappointed and are now in possession of the best lineup in the NL.  There's some overperforming going on here.  Heyward isn't this good.  Bourn isn't going to hit near .340. But all in all it's a lineup that since Fredi realized he shouldn't jerk Heyward around, has only one weak spot.  The pitching staff has had its ups and downs but Tim Hudson is close to returning and no one doubts the talent they have on hand.

Can they keep the Nats from the division title?  Yes.  If we ignore their tendency to play just well enough not to win titles and playoff spots, the combination of offensive and pitching talent is there.  The offense may be a bit precarious. Most of the team is not great at getting on base if they are struggling to get hits so expect week long scoring slumps, but there's no weakness here and so far they've held the closest to the Nats. It's the games versus the Braves that I'd watch most closely.


Sec 204 Row H Seat 7 said...

I agree completely with you analysis. The NATS Offense needs to pick it up to go toe to toe with the Fish and Braves. The rotation will keep them in the mix for the whole season (what a change that is!) baring injuries.

Anonymous said...

How good do you think the offense is gonna look when you play without Morse, Laroche, and Zimmerman? They all didnt play and the Nats still won on Saturday. Everyone keeps talking about this offense but only the Braves have scored more runs than the Nats in the NL East. The Nats are 12 - 4 and for some reason people like Harper are never happy. In a month or two the Nats offense will have Ramos, Zimmerman, Desmond, Espinosa, Laroche, Morse, Werth, and Harper with this rotation and H Rod, Clippard, and Storen for the 7th, 8th, and 9th. To me that will be the best team in the league for a long time.

Wally said...

I think that the Phillies are being discounted a little too much. Until we either get much further in the season or we know that Utley and/or Howard aren't coming back, I think they get the continued benefit of the doubt because of their pitching and history. Even with everything you say as true, they are a good week away from 1st.

Otherwise, I agree with the other teams' analysis. Plus, we appear to be giving away 3 lineup spots a night, which isn't indicative of a division winner and shows up in the Pythag record.

Harper said...

Sec 204 - I think if I flipped it and asked can the Nats keep team X from winning the division it would be "Yes. While the lineup is spotty and currently has huge OF holes that may or may not be filled, the rotation and pen is strong enough to carry this team to a playoff worthy record"

Anon - They look bad consistently, not just when players are out. Yes, only the Braves have scored more runs in the NL East but both the Mets and Marlins are average more runs per game. These are not good offenses. The potential is there for a solid lineup but a lot has to go right and so far not enough has. Maybe it will come together later in the year like you said but The Nats have no clear idea when Morse will be back (and how he'll play when he gets here) and if you are sure Bryce will be up in a month or two you haven't been paying attention to him in AAA.

Wally - I discount Howard coming back before the A-S Break and I don't think the Phillies can necessarily hang close enough if that's the case, certainly not with Lee now looking like he'll miss a few starts. But I'll conceded if Howard can come back in late May like best-case says now, then I'll have sold them short.

Anonymous said...

This is for Harper, I posted before, I have been paying attention to Bryce Harper but if you dont see how Harper ALWAYS starts then you havent been paying attention. I will admit the offense has been more bad than good but I think it has alot of room for improvement because the team has had many chances with RISP but hasnt come through. Its a young lineup that is really missing Morse, can you imagine where this team would have finished last year without Morse and Storen. I just hate being negative when things are going good, if Im negative now than how will I act when it isnt going good.

Nattydread said...

"You're never as good as you seem when you're winning, never as bad as you seem when you're losing."

Hold the post-season predictions until the Nats have been through a couple of rough patches.

Donald said...

So are the Dodgers the best team the Nats will have faced? It will be an interesting test to see how they do against them on the road. If the Nats can come home 3-3, I'd say it was a success.

Kenny B. said...

I think Harper really undervalues the grittiness and the heart of this Nationals team. The passion and dedication of player like Ankiel could lead them to the World Series in spite of bad offense.

(I hope it's obvious that I'm just trolling Harper here. I think his analysis is pretty much spot on, but I find his negative reactions to fan-based commentary to be amusing.)

Harper said...

Anon - there are two things going on with Bryce. One is the slow start. I suppose you can say he starts slow. He did in A-ball and did in the past AFL season. But both those "starts" were of minimal length. In A-ball he worked through 10 games then he took off. He was up to .333 with 6 homers by game 20. His AFL adjustment period was even shorter, 5-6 games. This is now game 17 in AAA, and before that there were 37 games in AA with roughly equal stats. This isn't an indictment of Bryce. He's 19. He'll be smashing homers soon enough.

The second issue though is what this allows Rizzo to do. Already his performance guarantees a call-up after the Super2 deadline passes in late May / June. If he's still playing like this in a month, there's no need to push him. Why not wait until Sept? (or even next season if for some reason he's still struggling by then). There is $$$ to be saved by not doing what would amount to a "challenge" call-up of Bryce.

As for the negativity : There are two stories for the Nats right now - that their hitting has been bad and that thier pitching has been so amazing. Thankfully for Nats fanst the latter has been driving the bus, but that doesn't mean I'm going to ignore the former, just as I would still talk about this pitching if the Nats were somehow 6-10. Both interest me.

Nattydread - true enough but I like to see 2012 is the year to have some fun. Why not fantasize about the division now. It's all gravy.

Donald - yes so far. I'd say 3-3 (2 v SD, 1 v LA) is the good team expectation. If you've shifted your opinion of the team up that may not qualify as a success.

Kenny B - Ankiel's arm alone is worth 10 wins. Why they didn't hire Eckstein as a bench coach I'll never know. And dammit - trade ZNN! He doesn't know how to win!!!

Donald said...

I think one of the things about this team that has been overlooked is Davey Johnson's role. The past few days provided insight into his style that I think has really helped this team. First, after Gorzelanny gets shellacked, instead of criticizing him, Davey thanks him for taking one for the team so he could save the pen. Then he puts Gorzelanny back on the mound in the 10th inning of a tie game, where he gets the win.

I think Riggleman would have blown through more relievers against Houston, which might have impacted the first game against Miami, and I don't think he'd have used Gorzelanny again in a clutch situation so soon, thereby sapping his confidence. That's why Davey Johnson managed teams tend to play above their abilities or Pythagorean. Of course it can backfire too, like it might with his continued use of Lidge, but we'll see. Almost anyone can manage the game day mechanics of leftie/rightie matchups and double switches. Davey's skill is in how he manages the players and how far ahead he thinks.

I think he probably adds 3-4 wins for us.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you Harper but I just have a hard time using the word lousy for a team that is 12 - 4 and missing their 4 hole. Its just weird to hear positive things being said by everyone except the person who writes for the ball club. I know we have only scored 58 runs but would you rather be the Astros, they have scored 71?

Anonymous said...

Very well said Donald, I agree and I was surprised to see Gorz in the 10th.

Wally said...

Given Harper's age, especially his age in his walk season (25), why wouldn't Rizzo delay the call up for as long as possible? Next May gives us control of his age 26 season, which seems like gold, to me. I wouldn't keep him down if he was crushing, but I would probably wait until then.

Which brings me back to a point I made in a previous post, and I think is a current running underneath this one: why not go get a good hitter now? With other teams struggling, why just hold on until Morse returns, instead of seizing the opportunity to build a big lead?

I don't know who fits, but I think if we do something, it should be now, not at the ASB. We need a fill in for Morse, not someone to add to him when he returns.

Anonymous said...

GO NATS(expos)............

Marsden said...

Why go with "Can they win the division?" when you can go straight to "Can they win the World Series". I mean what is the fun of 12-4 if you can't dream big.

Froggy said...

Although I agree with your analysis, I think I'll take 12-4 'lousy' any day Harper.

Desmond is hitting/getting on base, Espinosa is not, but will come around. Ramos, Werth and LaRoche are hitting decently, Zimmerman is below his average. Lombardozzi has been great in reserve, Ankiel is streaky, but his defense is scary. All the while without Morse.

I go to the games and probably will attend 40+ this year and I see something different than the last two-three years. The offense isn't the Dodgers or Rangers, but the guys really believe they can score a run or two in the late innings to win it.

Funny what great pitching will do for your confidence.

Shane said...

It's happening. The expectation is shifting up! I won't be happy with 3 and 3 on the west coast. I'd expect 4 and 2, otherwise all those people in the know will be right and we're (the team and I, I'm on it) just taking advantage of the current state of things and aren't who we think we (who we hope we) are this year.

Harper said...

Donald - a manager's influence is one of the hardest things to gauge. I think Riggs would have done just fine but H-Rod and Clipp would be getting worn out by now.

Anon - If an offhand comment in a post talking about them winning the East gets to you, let's hope they don't actually start playing badly.

Wally - I assume the cost and availability are the issues. Who do you want now? David DeJesus? Will Venable?

Trescmi - what about multiple titles. If they win 4 in a row does that help resign Strasburg? Discuss.

Froggy - definitely, you basically said everything good will stay the same and everything bad will get better. I encourage you to avoid checking Desmond's last week.

Shane - I don't think 3-3 would necessarily do that, but a 4-2 would help NOT do that... if that makes any sense.

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