Nationals Baseball: It can't happen here

Friday, January 16, 2015

It can't happen here

There are a lot of things taken for granted when it comes to the Nats. Nothing more so than the "fact" that the Nats have the NL East firmly in hand in 2015. The Braves have taken it upon themselves to rebuild while the Mets and the Marlins need too much to go right to really contend. (Philadelphia Fellies? Is that a team?) The Nats on the other hand are sure bets for 90+ wins so if they happen to end the offseason off a game or two from last year it's no big deal.

We talked about this before but it was just 2 years ago that the Nats floundered and missed the playoffs. Espinosa regressed/got injured/was infected by the same disease the Nats front office was that destroyed the "shouldn't he get surgery" part of their brains. Ramos, Bryce, and Werth all missed significant time while the "no comeuppance" bench of 2012 recieved their comeuppance and became the worst bench in baseball. The Gio/ZNN/Stras triumvirate took a half-step back from sheer awesomeness, Detwiler got hurt, and Haren took forever to find his groove. Meanwhile in the pen, Storen battled his head, Mattheus battled lockers, Zach Duke was never the lefty answer, and the H-Rod experiment mercifully ended. The combination of all these things getting worse and little getting better had the Nats out of contention for a long time and when the gun sounded, on the outside looking in.

But the optimist looks at that team and sees a team where a TON went wrong and they still ended up with 86 wins. If the Braves weren't very good that year (96 wins and 13-6 versus the Nats) they still might have ended up on top. This year is different. The Nats are a more complete team. Fister and Roark are in the rotation, rising Rendon is in the lineup, and the bench... well it's still not great but it certainly shouldn't embarrass.  Plus as we said the Braves can't win, the Mets can't win, the Marlins can't win. The Nats are set right?

Of course that's nonsense, these teams could win but it would take a lot.
  • For the Braves, it's been overlooked but the pitching staff, which was very good last year, could be great. If Minor bounces back they might even challenge for the best rotation in the majors. But this has been overlooked because the offense has taken such a hit. No Heyward, Gattis, or good Upton in 2015. At the very least Freeman and Markakis have to have career years, Johnson needs to bounce back, and Simmons needs to break out for them to have a chance. Then someone else would have to surprise.
  • The Mets likely have the pitching as well. If Harvey comes back at anywhere near the level he was at and they get the back of the bullpen set it's another impressive NL East pitching staff.  Offensively though they need help. Wright needs to find his MVP stroke again. Cuddyer needs to come in and be an impact bat. Wilmer Flores needs to be that .300-type hitter they think he might be. 
  • Unlike the Mets and Braves, the Marlins had terrible pitching last year. But they traded for Cosart during the year, the underrated Latos in the offseason, and Jose Fernandez should be back. If he's like he was again - it's a very solid pitching staff, though the #5 spot  could be a question (Dan Haren!).  Offensively they need less help but their infield is still a big hole. Old friend Mike Morse has to keep it going at 1B while newly acquired Dee Gordon has to keep up his 2014 performance at 2B. If that happens and Prado is Prado then this could be a contender. 
"That's great" you say "One problem though. You only had good things happen to these teams. A season is a mix of good and bad. Teheran gets injured. Duda flops. Stanton puts up a good but not great year. Things don't meet expectations all the time. You just showed a big example with the 2013 Nats. It never goes all right. The Nats don't have anything to worry about."

Man, you are wordy. Well you are right. I did only go with mildly dreamy scenarios. But you are also wrong. Sometimes it does go all right. Not only have you been forgetting the 2013 Nats for an all-wrong example, you've been forgetting the 2012 Nats for an all right one.

In 2011 the Nats were a just below .500 team similar to the Marlins, Mets and Braves. In order to become a dominant team they needed newly acquired LaRoche to come in and do well, Ian Desmond to become an All-Star caliber player, Zimmerman to be healthy, Werth to bounce back, Bryce to make an immediate impact, and a makeshift bench to magically all have their best years. They also needed the newly acquired Gio Gonzalez to show top of the rotation stuff, for Strasburg to be healthy, for maybe someone else to step up in the rotation (Detwiler would), and for the middle of their pen to take a step forward. All that happened.

The Nats are the favorite to take the NL East in 2015 and should be. They are the best team top to bottom. But it would be foolish to assume that the Nats can't break down or more likely, that one of the 3 teams below them won't step up. We're looking past 2015 now thinking about keeping windows open or starting new ones, but there's no guarantees, even for the year in front of us.


Chas R said...

Great post Harper. So very true. Man, that 2012 Nats team sure raised expectations fast. I would have been happier if the 2012 and 2013 years had been reversed. The roller coaster ride was a killer.

I am most worried about the Marlins. They don't need all the things that the 2012 Nats team needed to go right. Even if a few things go right for the 2015 Marlins, they could be a contender

John C. said...

It's true; there are no guarantees. But it's also true that there is no way to guarantee a season. Stuff happens.

Also true: there is no way to get that guarantee. At some point the cost of moving from 94% chance of success to 95% just doesn't make sense.

The hard part? Figuring out where that line is!

JWLumley said...

Meh, I think the Nats would have to have a ton go wrong to miss the playoffs. Even if the Marlins have everything go right, the Nats would have to have a lot go wrong to not make the playoffs. The Philthies are terrible, the Braves will be terrible. The Mets will be better as will the Marlins, but that's still 32 games against two terrible teams. Remember that last year no wild-card team came from the East, this was largely due to the fact that while the East was top heavy, the bottom wasn't really that bad, while the Central and West had a couple of patsies at the bottom and unlike the East, didn't have to play interleague against the AL West which was pretty much the best division in baseball. This year, the East will play the East, so that means the Nats get a super old Yankees team, a depleted Orioles team, an improved Blue Jays team, a Red Sox team that I don't know what to make of and a much worse Rays team. Not exactly like having to travel to Oakland and Seattle while hosting the Angels last year.

So could the Nats fail to win the East, absolutely, could they fail to make the playoffs, probably not unless they have a collapse of epic proportions.

Positively Half St. said...

That's all true, if not much fun. By the same token, we should also remember not to put too much stock in the Nats bowing out in the first round of the playoffs the last two times. In those cases the Nats were the favorites, and things came together for the opposition underdogs as you describe. Just because it has happened before it doesn't mean it has to happen again.

Chinatown Express said...

In terms of signaling, should we be worried that the Mets are apparently willing to make a win-now move by potentially trading for Desmond? Clearly someone in their front office or management thinks they have a real shot in 2015. Or maybe they think they're on the WC bubble and Desi would get them there. Either way, it signals a level of confidence I find surprising. But maybe Rizzo's apparent willingness to deal Desi to an intra-division rival suggests he's bearish about the Mets and doesn't see them as a real threat to the NL East even with Desi? Who knows.

Bjd1207 said...

Yea I think I fall closer to JW's analysis.

Harper I think your overselling the Braves rotation hard-core. Shelby Miller's taken a step back every season, both in results and in underlying metrics. Wood has become a legit starter, and Teheran is obviously solid. But past that I'd put question marks next to both Minor and Miller, and Hale clearly outperformed last season. Nothing about his numbers suggests he'll have long-term success, and he's never pitched more than 150 innings in a season. But you're spot on about how atrocious their offense will be (even with improvements from Simmons/Johnson). So I'm counting them all the way out, along with the Phillies.

Mets I dunno what to think. One day I'll think their rotation is studded with on-the-cusp breakout candidates, the next day I'll think it's full of unproven, injury prone arms. Similarly I put equal chance on Wright, Cuddyer, Granderson, and Murphy all having the all-star caliber years they're capable of and each of them perfectly following the regression path as they age (32, 35, 33, and 29 respectively; ok maybe Murphy was a stretch for this group).

Marlins scare me the most. Stanton, More, Ozuna are big scary hitters (and Salty's no slouch). Then pair them with quality OB guys like Yelich, Prado, and Gordon if he sustains and you've got a serious lineup. And Fernandez, Latos, Cosart is murder on our mostly-righty lineup

JE34 said...

Head to head last year, the Nats were good but not great against the Marlins (I think 9-6, with the 3 game sweep at season's end), and on paper said Marlins have improved a lot. They have much better pitching to go with that stupid cavernous outfield where fly balls go to die. I see the Nats as better, but not way way better.

sirc said...

Nats were 13-6 against the Marlins last season.

Zimmerman11 said...

mlbtraderumors reporting nationals are frontrunners for max scherzer, so it looks like our offseason may be a long way from over.

also, we invited some dude who's name i can't spell or pronounce to spring training, though i understand he has excellent on-base skills.

John C. said...

I would be really shocked if the Nationals signed Scherzer - it would pretty much put paid to the "Lernerz R CHEEP" crowd, but despite that I'm not sure how I feel about it. It would depend on what happens next.

It's not really a Rizzo move, but it's possible this is coming from the Boras-Lerner hotline.

Dr Trea (formerly #werthquake) said...

I'm smelling a scherzer post tomorrow!

DezoPenguin said...

No way I believe we're signing Scherzer unless we already have a "Trade Znn or Fister" plan firmly in place, though the idea of having a five-win player as our *sixth* starter interests me in a weird way.

The question is, just what would we be getting for one year of a very good pitcher? Bullpen help would be one thing, and a bench player to replace Frandsen, or a high-end SP prospect. Clearly there are better options that Yunel Escobar at 2B, but if that was the plan, why burn Clippard on getting him to begin with?

(I will say, if we do sign Scherzer, Znn to the Red Sox is almost too obvious. They have a glaring need for a reliable starter better than #3 material, and have ridiculous org depth to trade from to help Rizzo retool for the future.)

(I'm also hella wary of a seven-year deal ending in a pitcher's age 37 year, though Scherzer should give ace-level pitching for the first 3-4 years of the deal, at least.)