Nationals Baseball: The terrible NL East and how that can matter

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

The terrible NL East and how that can matter

Strasburg pitched well again putting him firmly into the Roark, Scherzer group of "great August, so far so good September" Yeah it was the Marlins but like I say - you have a job to do against every team, if you do it you have to take that as a success. I'd say going against the Marlins Strasburg needed to look impressive and he did. 6IP, 8K, 0 walks, 0 XBH. So put another one down in the "looking all ready" box.

With another defeat of the Marlins the Nationals have dropped Miami to 4 games under .500.  As it stands today, the Marlins are the worst 2nd best division team in the majors. The Braves are the worst 3rd best team. The Mets are (tied) the worst 4th place team. The Phillies are the worst team in baseball.The NL East isn't bad. It's one of the worst divisions in a long time.*

This isn't to disparage the Nats. They have been legitimitely good against all comers. I think right now it's like a 100 win pace against the NL East and a mere 94 win pace against every one else. They are good and have been good, but that doesn't mean the NL East being garbage hasn't affected them.

When you have no real challenge it means you can choose to develop in exactly the way the Nats have. You can bring along your prospects at your own pace. You can choose not to trade good young players for mid-season fixes. You can spend wisely. You can do all that and still take the division more often than not. It doesn't force you to win now so it can extend your window by allowing you to keep the best prospects and let aging FA who may help sooner but not later go.

Of course the flipside of that is that you lack the impetus to get really good in any one year. The off-season acquisitions are never overwhelming. The in-season trades are always fixing the margins. The team is very good but if it's going to be special it's because things happen to work out that way rather than the team planning to try to be special. You often end up feeling like you could have done more, especially if you lose in the playoffs, because you probably could have. You just didn't need to. For example - could the Nats have thrown a 15-20 best prospect and gotten a Kurt Suzuki type to help alleviate what is a terrible catching situation? Yeah. But they didn't need to so they didn't.

It's an interesting conundrum and it's one that the Nats are going to face for at least a couple more years***. The Mets, who are the current challengers to the throne, are going to be at least interesting if deGrom and Sydergaard both give full seasons, but as we saw this season, will struggle hard if they are not. Even if they are healthy, they gutted their old offense with trades. They need to either sign some players or run the table with development to have an offense good enough to compete. The Marlins, who are closest in wins, are about to kick the can down the road again with new ownership when a burst of smart spending could have created something.  The Braves have a great farm but didn't get any big positive suprises this year and in fact watched Swanson regress. It could have all come together next year but as of today it looks like 2018 is another development year.

 I find the Phillies currently the most interesting team but unlikely to be impactful for 2018. Unlike the Braves they did have some good young performances as Rhys Hoskins smashed the ball, Jorge Alfaro looks to be ML ready and Odubel Herrera and Cesar Hernandez kept up solid play from last year. Aaron Nola also stepped up into a top of the rotation type pitcher. Beyond this they have a LOT of dead at bats and especially IP but the farm system is very deep if not packed with stars. Plus it's an ownership that hasn't shied away from big payrolls in the past. It's easy to see a shoring up of the rookies next year and then a big push for 2019. But that's still for 2019 and still a maybe.

The short of it is the Nats will be heavy favorites next year and will likely be staring down a 2019 where the Mets and Marlins are bottoming out and the Phillies and/or Braves still might be a year away. How does that effect their choices re: Bryce, Gio, Murphy, and beyond that Rendon and Roark. They have potentially solid replacements for Bryce and Murphy but solid isn't superstar and those guys have been superstars over the past few seasons. They don't seem to have any starting pitching working out for them and then have a TON of money in Scherzer and Strasburg. Are they really going to make 1-3 in the rotation count for 90 million against the cap? Especially when there is no strong impetus to keep going because the way the NL East is playing out a simple high 80s win total might be enough?

This is what happens when you have a 17 game lead less than a week into September. You start talking about 2 years down the road.

*for funsies I added up the win totals for all teams since 2012 and the NL East is the worst. This includes the 2013 Braves who won the division with 96 wins and the recent NYM relevancy. It'd probably be a little worse for them if I started in 2014. It's not far and away the worst. The NL West is also pretty terrible**.  But beyond that the other divisions start to really separate. The best division (AL East) is over 150 games better over that time frame and if we take out the best team - which is really the point here - they are over 180 games better. That's a lot.

**The Giants tended to be bad or squeak in. They only won more than 88 once in this stretch. 

*** Which is all anyone should ever feel comfortable looking at. Even three years out is too far to say anything about. 


JE34 said...

I will never get tired of first place.

Chas R said...

Honestly, I have been critical of the Nats approach in the past and wanted a more Win Now approach while the window was open. The way Harper explains makes it perfect sense and actually makes their approach more acceptable to me. I like being a consistently good competitive team and winning the NL East more times than not and getting int the playoffs, rather than an All In type special team for a 1 or 2 season run.

BxJaycobb said...

Harper: I take issue with Murphy as a "superstar" the last two years. I understand that not everybody trusts defensive metrics or WAR, and some people basically value a player by his offense and then just adjust on margins based on D. But GMs value it less than offense but value it a LOT. And the fact is murphy may be the best offensive 2B in the NL, but he's the worst defensive second baseman in all of baseball. Yeah u can watch him and say "he makes all the easy plays," but he also doesn't come near any of the harder to moderately difficult plays. Yeah he almost won MVP last year, but he really shouldn't have. Wasn't comparable in overall value to like 10 players, although he was the BEST offensive player (please don't mistake what I'm saying for anything denigrating his phenomenal bat). But he and Zim allow an insane number of hits on right side of the field. And he will only get worse. The result is murphy has played at what you might call an all star-ish level. Easily above average. Not a superstar. If you replace his defense (particularly what his defense will be in another year, for a guy who has leg issues sometimes) with an above average defender at 2B, as long as that player can hit decently you'd be surprised I think at how much the defensive improvement in range, double plays, pop up/flare coverage, etc will make up for the lost offense--especially if you pick up some baserunning with a difo type. It's not comparable to losing Bryce. One of these guys is a 5-8 WAR player, with an occasional 9-10 WAR season. One is a 3-4 WAR player, with likelihood of declining to more like 2-3. For those of you who think WAR is basically nonsense and that murphy is one of the 5 best players in the league, well, sorry. The enormous defensive cost is real. You may only lose like 1-2 wins with somebody like difo (provided he hits like this year--.270-.280 with small amount of pop and bunch of steals...not a given granted).

John C. said...

You often end up feeling like you could have done more, especially if you lose in the playoffs, because you probably could have.

Which is the beauty of hindsight, of course. The problem is that short series are so random that pinning down causation is a fool's errand. With Ramos hurt, catching was a glaring weakness that the Nats should previously have addressed, right? Well, I would argue that the Nats' biggest hit in the NLDS last year was from ... Jose Lobaton. And that was off of a lefty (Rich Hill), and that's Lobaton's weaker split by far! Lobaton's OPS in the NLDS was better than Bryce's. You could look it up. A guy who also hit in the NLDS? Ryan Zimmerman, who most folks in Nats Town wanted to bench. Go figure.

Weird stuff (like Lobaton hitting a HR off of a LHP) are rampant in the playoffs. Which is why assembling the BEST POSSIBLE OMG UNBEATABLE team in the playoffs is a fool's errand. It's not at all uncommon for 100+ win teams to lose in the playoffs. At some point the cost of adding a few tenths of a percent to a winning chance that is going to stubbornly hover around 50% no matter what (because: baseball) doesn't make sense.

Given the nature of the playoffs, the smart money is that the Nats don't win the WS this season even if they could magically both Harper and Eaton 100% healthy. And if that happens, there will be plenty of people rolling out 20/20 hindsight to explain what the Nationals coulda/shoulda/woulda done to avoid their particular fate. Treat such opinions skeptically.

PotomacFan said...

@Harper: good analysis of how bad the NL East has been. However, if you remove the games where the teams played each other (no matter how bad the two teams are, one of them will win the game), then the numbers would look even worse, probably much worse.

The Phillies are getting better -- slowly. And they have the money to sign big time free agents. I doubt they will sign anyone big for next year, but they will be lurking. The Mets are a disaster. They should probably trade Cespedes. They could get good value for him. deGrom and Syndegaard are not enough. And the line-up, which wasn't that great to begin with, has been decimated.

Harper said...

PF - the Marlins (slightly) Mets and Phillies would be worse if you took out NL East games but the Braves would be a few games better. They've somehow gone 4-12 to the Phillies.

Nattydread said...

When the team is coasting, it does allow the GM to pick and choose. OK, the catcher position has dragged the team down since the loss of Ramos. But otherwise the trade trolling has been pretty good. Howie Kendrick. The complete reconstruction of the bullpen. The Edwin Jackson pickup. Lots of extended cups of coffee for high end rookies. The Nats have, over the last 6 weeks, been quite steady at .600 even as the Dodgers have rocketed to the top and then tanked. Rizzo has, over the past 4 years, moved from GM who favors strong D and pitching above all else to one that values hitting over D. Arguably, with the strong pitching, it is enough. And when it comes to the playoffs, having a very strong offense that can put up runs fast is probably more of an asset than defense alone. We will see.

Anonymous said...

The Marlins have a decent lineup. Gordon-Stanton-Yelich-Ozuna-Realmuto is a solid 1-5. The rest, not so much. Overall they rank 17th in WRC+ and 16th in wOBA. So I don't think it's fair to damn Strasburg's start with "yeah but Marlins" faint praise.

Anyway, about Strasburg: per Fangraphs, he's put up exactly the same amount of WAR as Kershaw in 1.1 more innings (4.4; note that Stras has two more starts than Kershaw). His FIP is the same as Scherzer's, 4th overall (Sale, Kluber, Kershaw are 1-3). No other team in the playoffs will have a 1-2 punch like the Nats do if they are healthy. And you have to pass by THREE Nats starters - Scherzer, Strasburg, and Gio "my peripherals say my ERA is better than it should be" before you get to a Cubs starter on the list of top starters ranked by FIP. Stras ranks 4, Max ranks 5, Gio ranks 19, Arrieta ranks 23, Lester ranks 24, Quintana ranks 25 (note, Roark ranks 31). The Nats are going to have a distinct starting pitching advantage if they face the Cubs (of course, they also had a distinct advantage over the Giants in this area in 2014).

Anonymous said...

Harper, Im a die hard Nats fan but I also pull for the Yankees and yesterday was painful. Looked like it would be down to a game and a half and it goes the other way.

Jay said...

I think Rizzo is one of the best GM's in the league and my biggest fear is the Lerners blowing it by not signing him long term. Boz had a nice comment regarding Rizzo in his chat. He stated that word on the street is Rizzo is fairly up front about his assessment of Nats minor leaguers and their ceilings. He doesn't mind giving up a prospect to get something of value back. (see Robbie Ray, Souza, even Giolitto). The advantage is that he is not trying to rip people off. Rizzo is also great at not reaching for deals also. (see Melancon).

It's funny bc we blame Rizzo for losing in the playoffs. How much of that is truly his fault. If Storen strikes out any number of guys in game 5 against the Cardinals, then it is a different narrative as the Nats play the Giants at home in the NLCS in 2012. If anyone other than Harper shows up to hit against the Giants in 2014, then it's a different narrative. They lost to Peavy, Vogelsong, and Hudson but beat the almighty Bumgardner. After Hudson questioned their manhood in no uncertain terms. Last year it took Kenley Jensen pitching 3 innings in relief followed by Kershaw on 1 day rest to win without Ramos and Strasburg. Even then if Danny Espinosa could have hit a beachball then maybe they win that first game against Kershaw.

I'm not sure how much of that is Rizzo's fault.

Anonymous said...

Interesting blog today, Harper, but maybe you are missing the point. Each GM of a contending contending team does a separate evaluation of what he believes will get his team to the playoffs. Let's take a look at the AL for four approaches of four different teams and see if we can discern who was right. The Angels added some big payroll players to beef up the middle of the lineup at the waiver deadline. They are in the hunt for the wildcard. Minnesota traded for Garcia and then traded him to the Yankees when management gave up on making the playoffs. Then they compounded the error by trading Kinsler to us. They sent the wrong signal to the players but they are in the hunt. Seattle traded for three average players to fill out specific needs. They are in the hunt. Baltimore traded for a starting pitcher and not much more but shunned building for the future by trading away key players. They said they thought they could make the playoffs with the current roster. Everyone was in disbelief. But they are in the hunt. The Yankees added to their pull pen and spent big in money and prospects to do so. Bottom line is only two teams will get it right and three are going to fail. it is not quite clear who has the right strategy at this point in time.
Adding a catcher would not have insured anything at this point. Need some proof. The Caps added THE BEST PLAYER AVAILABLE at the trade deadline and he was worthless in the playoffs. He was actually a detriment. There are no guarantees in a five game series. The Nats plugged the holes. No team is perfect going into the post season.
On a totally different topic. You and your readers were conjuring up horror stories about Stras and his future this year. if you doubt this go back and read your posts about his inability to return from injury. I counseled patience rather than fear which is reaction de jure of audience. Just as I said about BRYCE. It is outside our control so don't worry about it. Now he has pitched 26 scoreless innings and he has your approval.
If the group needs something to worry about, get your mind off of BRYCE. I have it on good authority that Rendon has a hangnail that is slowing down his bat speed. How will we survive if this develops into something really serious? Worry about something important, whatever that may be.

JE34 said...

Harper said...

Chas R - I'm not saying the Nats shouldn't go all-in. In fact at this point I'd like them to try because of the potential (theoretical) psychological benefits. But if all you want is in the playoffs and see what happens, with this division, it doesn't make sense. At least not for this trading deadline and off-season. (Things can change rapidly)

Bx - tough crowd. Even factoring in D Murphy has probably been a Top 25 player in my mind. That's borderline superstar. I mean I guess it's where you personally draw the line. I'd be happy to say just a star. Above average is a little underselling it.

John C - I'm going to throw in a line like this every other post just so you can come in here and do your thing.

Anon @ 10:11 - Eh it's average at best 9th for the season in the NL in RS. 9th in OPS last 28 days. As we've seen good pitchers can exploit a line-up with no depth easier than one that's solid but not great top to bottom.

The Nats are in great position as the season winds down SP wise. Of course you point out the dilemma - they probably had the SP advantage in 2012 and 2014 and it came to nothing. THe big difference this year is the bats... if they can come together too.

Anon @ 11:47 - yeah that sucked. My opinion post ASB has been that the Red Sox are just a smidge better so be happy with the WC but the Yanks keep getting so close! And I really want a playoff series - not just a game.

Jay - I commented a few days ago about how Rizzo hasn't "won" a trade in a while (yet - the Turner one should end up a win). But that's not a negative. It's hard to win trades especially with minor league talent so overvalued right now. I do think he's very good and think the Nats are lucky to have him.

Yeah, it's unfair to put the playoff losses on him, but we like to blame someone and we've gone through 2 managers now. Have to start looking at the other constant (And yes this is unfair I just said that!)

Anon @ 5:44 - I don't think Rizzo had to add a catcher or that it would propel them to anything if they did. Just using it as an example as an area that could be improved that wasn't because precisely what you and I say - individual evaluation suggests it's not necessary.

Also - I never said Stras couldn't return from injury. I said we didn't know because he didn't get a chance to pitch last year. I also am leery about the IP (he's at a three year high right now) and what that means for him, but I don't think it's a given he'll break at this point.

Bjd1207 said...

Can we get ANON in here to "stand up and be counted"? Werth almost literally O'fer after that comment, lol.

Still only at 30 PA's after returning from injury though, so still in wait and see mode

Flapjack said...

We're all anxious, of course. But Wieters is not going to be the reason we lose in the playoffs (certainly not when the alternative is Suzuki). Our bats will be competitive, regardless. I'd say the bigger lineup risk -- one out of Rizzo's control -- is whether Harper comes back as BRYCE. Meanwhile, it's hard to say whose pitching staff is better than ours right now, top to bottom.

I also remember reading a different analysis a week or two ago on how clever the Dodgers were being, using their reserves to half shut down their rotation in prep for the playoffs; and how, conversely, Dusty risked tiring everyone out before we got there. Then those clever Dodgers put themselves in a stunning skid that has to have shaken their confidence. If we keep winning seven out of 10 games, while the Dodgers remain stuck in neutral, next week at this time we'll be talking about taking home field advantage from them in our upcoming series. Either way, I'd say the Nats are as well-positioned to go deep in the playoffs as anybody, and in better position than they have been in any year leading up to this one.

Anonymous said...

Harp - Having just finished up with the Marlins for the season, and with no real NL East race to dig in to, I'd love to hear your opinion on who of the Marlins 1-5 line up (Gordon, Yelich, Stanton, Ozuna, Realmuto) that you might want to look to get if, as expected, the new owners will be in sell mode and looking for shed payroll...who would be realistic??

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