Nationals Baseball: Five things that could go easily go terribly wrong

Friday, March 24, 2017

Five things that could go easily go terribly wrong

When we look at the Nats you should see a division champ. I imagine that when all the predictions come out they will be a heavy favorite to win the NL East and a "here and there" pick to get to / win the World Series*. If they don't make it though, it probably won't be because a dozen little things didn't go right. It'll likely be because one or two big things went terribly wrong. This is true of every team - a couple injuries can derail a season. But there are places the Nats are more vulnerable where an injury can't just be attributed to tough luck. Places where the Nats looked bad at the tail end of 2016 that could carry over.

Jayson Werth crashes and burns. 

Jayson Werth is staring down the barrel of 38 (May 20th).  That's old. He has pulled rabbits out of his hat before but last year marked his first back to back years of below average offense. Yes, it was just barely below but still it seems to say that the time of being able to bounce back and have a good offensive year has finally passed him by. In agreement with this idea is the fact the season wore him down and his September was terrible (.211 / .297 / .267)  Without his offense, Werth becomes what? His fielding has been bad for years. A savvy yet slow baserunner?  A 'leader in the clubhouse'? Those are fine things, but not fine things to be trotting out daily. Could the Nats bench Werth? Could the Nats bench Werth and Zimm at the same time?

Shawn Kelley gets hurt

I've said it before and I'll say it again. The last time we saw this guy was walking off the mound in a pivotal playoff game because he couldn't throw the ball anymore. That's very very very not good. He seems fine now but he's a 2 TJ arm.  Losing Kelley wouldn't throw the bullpen into chaos. The signing of Blanton assured a depth to cover it. But losing Kelley would kill that depth. Alone this is a survivable issue, but we are talking potentially two big things going wrong. Tack this onto a starting pitching failure and we start to have an overtaxed pen with no depth and a definitive problem

Stephen Strasburg gets hurt

What could be that starting pitching issue? Well since Max's finger issues appear to be over (and he was pitching through it anyway) we'll leave that aside for now. Instead we'll focus on Strasburg who I'll remind you pitched once, for 2 1/3 innings, after August 17th last year. He hurt his arm in a way that's about as close to "Uh oh need another Tommy John" as you can get without actually needing another Tommy John. He's rested and we haven't seen any issues but given that he's missed about 10 starts in each of the past two years, don't you have to assume that he will at least do the same in 2017?

Joe Ross gets hurt

Less impactful because of his role, but this still matters. A little more hopeful because of the way he ended 2016, but still a question mark. The Nats collection of minor league arms has done little to suggest there is a major league capable guy just waiting for his chance. Ross going down may not in itself be a huge issue, but coupled with a Kelley injury you can see the problem snowball.  Ross did not pitch from July 2nd through mid September and he never was allowed past the 4th in the three times he started. In the playoffs he failed to get out of the third and put the Nats in a hole they ultimately couldn't overcome. Was he really starter healthy at the end of the year? Doesn't look like it. He still hasn't pitched over roughly 150 innings yet in his career so relying on him for 180+ seems dicey.

Gio Gonzalez stinks

2016 was both a weird year and a completely expected year for Gio. He probably pitched better than his ERA indicated. At the same time he had wildly good months (April, August) and wildly bad ones (May, June, September). The end result though was a year where he pitched slightly worse than he did the year before which follows the trend we kind of assumed he would follow. For our purposes here we are focused on that September month. In that month Gio gave up 34 H, walked 7, and hit two guys in only 23IP. That's almost 2 baserunners per inning. If Gio continues a moderate decline he'll be a bad, but necessary, innings eater. If he pitches like September? Well you can't start him anymore. Last year Gio was bouyed by a strong April that gave him cover when he threw 10+ starts of garbage in Spring. If he starts with those garbage starts, what happens then?

None of these issues alone are unique in baseball. They can happen to any team at any time. Yet these are all issues that we hit pause on when the season ended. They are in some measure "existing" rather than past. None of these issues alone would necessarily derail the Nats. Yet we have to consider the chance that a couple or more will continue on and in combination could matter.

Oh how were the Nats in September? When all this was going down? Still good. 90 wins good.** But 90 wins good isn't winning the East

*Tough because both the Cubs and Dodgers are also very good. All are fair choices to come out of the NL.  Anything else is someone trying to be contrary for attention.

**They were still good! So don't worry? Not exactly. Offensively the Nats did take a dive as Werth joined Zimm and Espy in terribleness. But Murhpy and Turner crushed, and a collection of "don't bet on this for 2017"s (Difo, Severino, Goodwin, Lobaton) all over acheived. That at least kept the Nats head over water. Pitching wise AJ Cole was predictably bad filling in but that was about it. Eventually Lopez filled in admirably and there were almost a dozen relievers with ERA under 3.38. That means for the time being the pitching didn't suffer. I'd buy that happening for any single month but for an extended time, no. I think you'd see some predictable downs.


Josh Higham said...

As hard as it is to see the Nats benching Zim, I think it's even harder to see them benching Werth. I obviously don't know this for sure, but it seems like Werth is a lot more proud, and perhaps more important in the clubhouse. Angry Werth on the bench is probably worse for the team than angry Zim--so then it becomes a question of whether angry Werth/Zim or playing Werth/Zim is worse. That's a depressing question, but one where I think Dusty leans toward keeping vets in the game. They both probably have to be staggeringly bad to even get extra days off.

Harper said...

Lind gives Dusty a "this guy kills righties" excuse to give Zimm more time off. Heisey/MAT doesn't give that to Werth. He can probably pull a "I was an old player. I know you need rest." to get a couple days more but if Werth struggles he'll probably blame the manager as he's pretty much undermined every manager he's had here.

mike k said...

When the Nats were playing near .500 (or so it seemed) baseball last September, I chalked it up to the fact that they already had the division locked up, so they were resting starters and/or "subconsciously weren't trying as hard" hocus-pocus which probably exists but is impossible to quantify. However, reading this blog post, and seeing the Nats' performance was because the older and more injury-prone players were tanking, and the replacement players were doing well, worries me. The Nats are substantially the same as they've been the last few years, which means they're older, and historically these teams tend to tank a *tad* sooner than we expect, either brought on by injury or across-the-board statistical decline. Hopefully this isn't true of the Nats in 2017.

I think Josh is right re: Werth v. Zim benching. Zim seems more suited personality-wise to handle it, and there is the excuse of a suitable replacement. But I think (with no proof) that the team will react to his benching worse than Werth. Then again, this is assuming that the players view both players the same as the fans do. Not sure if that's true, especially since a lot of Nats players weren't on the team during the lean years when all they had was Zim.

How did Werth undermine Davey?

Robot said...

I'm a big Werth fan, but the guy's ego is going to interfere with Dusty making the best decisions for the team. Personally, I'd like to see Werth moved to 1B and Zim benched, but there's no way that happens.

Dusty's Toothpick said...

@Robot Werth at 1B hahaha I really don't see that happening.

Harper this was a sobering blog going into the weekend! All things I definitely know are a possibility. You are right these are problems, that haven't fixed themselves, but do you think the down time during the off season really doesn't give these guys some time to recoup? I am hoping the down time from baseball helps the pitching. That said do you think it is easier for the pitching to bounce back or old talent in the field and at the plate to bounce back? I need some optimism going into the weekend.

Josh Higham said...

@Dusty's Toothpick DOOM is what we come here for (well, and the comments). Boswell provides optimism.

Froggy said...

How has Werth 'undermined every manager he's had here'?

Matt Paint By Numbers Williams maayybe...but we were all rooting for that.

section 406 said...

Call me crazy, but I think Werth will know that if he's not contributing, he'd accept the bench.

BxJaycobb said...

Here's the thing. I think it's a solid bet Bryce is a....let's say .910+ OPS player this year. And Harper 2017 over Harper 2016 makes up for a LOT of the potential problems you have listed above. Just consider. If Bryce Harper plays halfway between Bryce 2015 and Bryce 2016 (let's say .285/.420/.530) that makes up for literally: Werth tanking big time+ Murphy regression+ a substantial starter health issue...if not more. No, really. It would be a 4 or 5 win difference. So frankly I actually think that how one feels about this team comes down to how one feels about Harper and Turner. If you think Harper is more likely than not going to return to at least a fringey MVP candidate form (I do) and if you think Turner is a...oh let's say...4-5 WAR player who can handle SS and will have a less spectacular but still solid .290-.300 with 12+ HR and 45+ SB season (I do), then that covers almost any offensive issues that deteriorate from last year (e.g. Zim is no better, wieters is .240 with 15 HR instead of Wilson, Werth collapses, Murphy regresses to .300 and 18-20 HR). I also happen to think we're going to see Rendon fully return to near 2014 form, but even if he is in healthy 2016 form, I'm actually QUITE comfy on the offense, which I think should be elite (top 2-3) in NL this year. The offense is the big advantage over the Mets. I'm a bit more worried about the (1) bench and (2) the pitching depth, which is where mets have decent advantages I think (particularly in their 4-7 starters....their depth is just way're talking about Matz/wheeler/Gsellman/Lugo compared to like ross/Gio/AJ Cole/Fedde. Not good). So I think a strasburg/ross combo injury would be my biggest worry. Not a Kelley injury. I feel ok with our pen actually, at least for regular season. Agree on these?

Robot said...

@BxJaycobb - As I recall, BRYCE almost single-handedly carried the offense to the playoffs in 2015. No one else was really contributing much of anything, and he batted behind two blackholes. If we get even BRycE, and have him surrounded by Trea and Murphy, both contributing at somewhat-regressed-but-comparable-to-last-year levels, this could be one of the most potent offenses around, even with the Werth/Zim offensive hole that I'm fully anticipating. Plus, while Wieters will definitely be a drop from the Buffalo, but Eaton can't be worse than MAT/Revere.

Harper said...

Mike k - I agree that older teams seems to break down one year early but I don't think the Nats are there yet. Only two key players are going to be over 32 next year (Werth, Kelley) and a good chunk are still under 30. I think you worry when your good team starts getting into the bulk of it being 32/33.

Werth at the end of 2013 basically dissed Davey (who didn't want to go and wasn't coy about that) in favor of Charlie Manuel. Undermine is probably strong but didn't support him

Robot - Yes! We would all agree to that. Maybe a White House petition.

DT - Sorry - I gave you an optimistic thing at the end of today's post to focus on. And really while we are entering 2017 with all that baggage, you're right that that rest should help. It may not help all of that but the Nats can probably whether two of those (more if Bryce rebounds)

Froggy - furthering the Werth discussion. He basically called for Riggs firing calling for "needing changes" but refused to come out and say it, then took shots at him later. As noted above at the end of Davey's tenure he was praising Charlie Manuel. We all know how the Williams saga ended. and I'm 90% sure, but having trouble finding it, that he's been a little miffed that he doesn't have more input on the manager hirings implicitly saying these guys aren't his guys.

BxJ - Hey! I just said that! I should have read this first and just cut and paste. Yeah - the ultimate take-away was more what I said the other day about Murphy and Bryce together. These are two guys who in the past 2 years have put up MVP level seasons (as a floor - Bryce's was better than that). If they both do that? Forget it. The team would have to utterly collapse around them to not succeed. If either or both don't? Then these issues could help derail the Nats. Maybe,

I worry more about a starter/pen combo injury just because you start to have issues having faith in either aspect.