Two things were dumped on the DC area over the course of the weekend: an unfathomable volume of snow, and the news that Yoenis Cespedes was turning down the Nationals’ offer and returning to the Mets. In Washington, Cespedes would’ve replaced someone who’s already a decent center fielder. In New York, Cespedes will replace someone who’s already a decent center fielder. But now Juan Lagares is valuable depth, instead, and for either team, Cespedes represented some sort of improvement. So it was a damaging blow, effectively concluding what for the Nationals has been a frustrating offseason of almosts. The Mets, on the other hand, have reason to celebrate. They kept Cespedes, and on their own terms.
In a way it’s an extension of the Nationals’ narrative of disappointment. It’s also an extension of the Mets’ narrative of triumphant underdogging. There’s carryover from the last regular season, when the Nationals were one of the most disappointing winning teams in memory. That’s going to remain the most recent baseball until there’s even more recent baseball, but for the Nationals it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. Spoiler alert: this is going to be another poll post. I’m going to ask you to pick the top of the NL East. I’ll offer my own pick, but I’ll put it down in the comments, so as to avoid any bias.
As we all learned literally just last season, it’s dangerous to make any assumptions before the year begins. How many of us were handing last year’s NL East title to Washington in February? There’s risk here, because you never really know what’s going to happen, but it’s with a high degree of confidence I predict the NL East winner will be either the Nationals or the Mets. The Phillies expect to be in a wonderful position, three years from now. The Braves have at least a handful of players other teams would recognize as being major-league players. The Marlins strike me as an in-between ballclub, although in fairness they could be something given sufficient health. Maybe the Marlins will mess this up, but I doubt it. I expect the division to play out in basically the same order.
So let’s talk about the top two. The easy position is that the Mets are the favorites, because they just stormed past the Nationals and made it to the World Series. They have Cespedes again, now, and they have all that young pitching, so you could say they have psychological momentum on their side. The Nationals know 2015 was a disaster, above-.500 record be damned, but even given all this, here’s one table of interest:
|Team||2015 Wins||2015 Pythag||2015 BaseRuns||2016 Steamer|
Last year, the Mets cleared the Nationals by seven games. They had basically identical run differentials, and they had basically identical performance differentials, overall. Now for the upcoming year, Steamer is even giving the Nationals a slight edge, and though ZiPS might slightly prefer the Mets, it seems like it’s close, based on the depth charts. I’m not trying to argue that the projections are right or wrong — they are what they are, as calculated. But the projections appear to agree that the 2016 NL East should be awful close. Trendlines make the brain want to believe otherwise. It’s up to the individual to figure out whether the Mets should be favored, or if that’s just recency bias.
For what it’s worth, the Nationals right now have slightly better World Series odds. So the suggestion the Nationals might keep up isn’t just coming out of the projection systems that FanGraphs bothers to host. The Mets feel like the team to beat. Yet feelings can misrepresent the reality of things.
Here’s a quick review of how the depth charts break down, mostly leaving out bench guys, prospects, and middle relievers. So you can try to compare the Mets and the Nationals side-by-side:
The Nationals can’t quite keep up with the Mets’ number of would-be aces, and though this year could see the debut of Lucas Giolito, the Mets could try to counter with Zack Wheeler. The big Nationals advantage is the presence of Bryce Harper — he’s probably the best player on either roster. He’s quite possibly the best player in the whole National League. But the Mets might have the deeper lineup overall, depending on how you feel about Michael Conforto, and depending on how you feel about bouncebacks from Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth. August just found that the Nationals might lead the league in bounceback potential, which sounds about right, but another way of putting that is that in the most recent regular season, a good number of Nationals players under-performed. How much of a comeback should be taken for granted?
Of course, there’s one big variable that leaves so much of this up to the reader. The Mets are returning much of their roster and coaching staff. They know that they just won, and they feel good about what they pulled off. The Nationals, meanwhile, have replaced Matt Williams with Dusty Baker, and there are some who figure 2015 was more or less Williams’ fault. Baker is supposed to be a player’s manager, which could improve the team’s atmosphere, and you’ve also got Ian Desmond and Drew Storen gone, among others. In a new year with a new manager, maybe the Nationals can turn the page. Or maybe they’re just too poisoned. Maybe you think there’s something about the Nationals that causes them to under-achieve. Jonathan Papelbon is still around, possessing great responsibility. I don’t have a mathematical way to investigate the Nationals’ dynamic, but that could be where you assign the greatest difference between these two teams. I’m curious about however you feel.
The poll, then. Assuming that the division comes down to the Mets and the Nationals, how do you think it’s going to play out, given what we know now? Do you buy the projections that say it’s almost a coin flip, or do you see a reason to strongly favor either side? This is your chance to express your disagreement with the numbers. Or your agreement. This is your chance to express whatever.
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