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Are We Overrating the Nationals Again?

A year ago, pretty much everyone picked the Nationals to win the NL East. Why not? They’d won 98 games in 2012, and they’d done so without full seasons from Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, or Jayson Werth. They’d done so without a real center fielder, since Rick Ankiel and Roger Bernadina had started 64 games there while Harper was still in the minors or otherwise unavailable, a problem that newcomer Denard Span was intended to fix. They’d also won 98 without Rafael Soriano, a seemingly luxurious addition who had been added to a bullpen that was already solid, and without Dan Haren, who was a risk but had many years of excellent performance behind him and wasn’t being counted on to be more than the fourth starter.

No one wanted to say that the Nationals were going to top 100 wins, but plenty of us thought it. In a division with only one other serious contender, they seemed like a lock. They seemed like the safest bet in the game.

It didn’t work out that way, because it never does. The Nationals didn’t win 100 games, or anything close to it. Besieged by injuries to Harper, Werth, and Ross Detwiler, as well as an atrocious first half from Haren and big steps back from Danny Espinosa and Drew Storen, Washington was still a .500 team into late August. That they managed to even get to a final record of 86-76 was due to a furious 18-9 September and big contributions from a healthy Werth and a repaired Haren, but they didn’t come close to the playoffs and ended the year as one of 2013’s biggest disappointments.

A year later, we’re doing it again. The Nationals are routinely appearing on lists of “best winters” or “most improved,” largely due to the heist that added Doug Fister to what is now one of baseball’s most fearsome rotation foursomes without subtracting much in return. The moves to import lefty reliever Jerry Blevins and backup outfielder Nate McLouth weren’t quite so splashy, but each should add a small amount of value, and that great September run certainly didn’t hurt. Just yesterday, Buster Olney named the Nationals as his pick to win the NL East, and he’s not wrong; I’d probably do the same, because Fister is great, the East still only has one other good team, and I don’t fully trust an Atlanta lineup that didn’t replace Brian McCann and still has to depend on B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla.

Rank Team WAR
16 Pirates 36.9
17 Giants 36.6
18 Nationals 36.5
19 Mariners 36.5
20 Orioles 33.5

By all accounts, the 2014 Nationals are going to be the best team in the division. And yet, I can’t help but remember what happened last year and look at our Depth Charts, which have a decidedly less rosy outlook on Washington. The Nationals are seen as being essentially tied for 17th with the Giants, who lost 88 games last year and didn’t do much to improve this winter outside of Tim Hudson and Michael Morse. They’re seen as being equal to the Mariners, who lost 91 games and had to add Robinson Cano just to get to this point. They’re below the Yankees, Blue Jays, and Rockies, who didn’t make the playoffs last year and probably aren’t going to be on many preseason predictions lists this year.

Obviously, in order to put stock into that, you have to believe in two things: Steamer projections and the playing time estimates entered by our depth chart team, comprised of FanGraphs authors. (I manage the NL West, so you know where to go if anything seems off to you.) Neither of those are infallible, though I think both do a pretty good job, so you’re free to put as much or as little faith into those projections as you like.

For my part, I’m not comfortable just pushing those numbers aside, so let’s look into this. Are we completely overrating the Nationals again? Or is it something else? Eyeballing the lineup projections, most seem about right, with maybe a few sticking points. Adam LaRoche at 1.1 WAR isn’t unfair as he heads into his age-34 season, not when he’s been worth less than a win in three of the last four years. (The Fan Scouting Report has him at 1.7 WAR at the moment, so you apparently don’t feel too differently.) Ryan Zimmerman may yet have another elite season in him, but for now he’s projected to essentially repeat 2013, and I think we all know at some point in the near future he’s no longer a third baseman.

Werth at 2.0 WAR definitely feels low, but then again, he’ll be 35 years old and he’s seemingly always fighting injuries, so part of that projection is the fact that he’s only pegged for 476 plate appearances right now, as well as that he was worth only three wins total in 2011-12. (What the projection systems can’t know, of course, is the change in his batting stance last summer that seemed to kick off his fantastic tear.) If anything is going to stand out there to Nationals fans, it’s going to be shortstop Ian Desmond, projected for 3.0 WAR after back-to-back seasons of 5.0 WAR. Steamer expects him to give back some of his value on offense — and he largely didn’t maintain his 2012 power in 2013 — as well as being less valuable on defense. I’m not going to put money on another five win season from Desmond, but if you feel that’s a little light, I wouldn’t argue all that strenuously with you about it.

When you flip over to the rotation, some of the risk begins to appear. The top four, with Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann joining Strasburg and Fister, is one of the top quartets in the game. Argue for the Dodgers, maybe, or the Tigers — less so now that Fister is gone, of course — or maybe the Cardinals, but this is a projected group that’s tough to beat:

Stephen Strasburg 186.0 9.9 2.8 0.7 .305 73.2 % 3.13 2.90 4.0
Gio Gonzalez 180.0 8.9 3.4 0.7 .304 71.1 % 3.68 3.37 2.9
Jordan Zimmermann 174.0 7.0 2.0 0.9 .305 70.3 % 3.77 3.54 2.5
Doug Fister 164.0 7.3 1.9 0.6 .310 70.8 % 3.32 3.09 3.1

…but then, that’s what we said last year too, and when Detwiler couldn’t answer the bell — he made just one start after June — the team’s lack of rotation depth was exposed. Ross Ohlendorf and rookies Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark actually pitched well in limited time, but so far 2014 looks like the exact same situation:

Tanner Roark 122.0 6.9 2.7 0.8 .306 69.7 % 3.93 3.68 1.5
Ross Detwiler 28.0 6.0 2.7 0.9 .306 68.1 % 4.33 4.00 0.2
Taylor Jordan 28.0 6.1 2.5 0.7 .307 68.2 % 4.06 3.74 0.3
Ross Ohlendorf 28.0 7.2 2.9 1.1 .299 73.5 % 3.91 4.13 0.2
Danny Rosenbaum 28.0 5.2 3.7 1.0 .302 66.7 % 4.99 4.65 0.0
Chris Young 21.0 5.7 3.0 1.5 .291 71.1 % 4.88 5.08 -0.1
Nate Karns 21.0 8.6 4.1 0.8 .301 70.6 % 4.08 3.87 0.2

Roark’s not a bad guy to have around — I assume I don’t need to tell you to ignore the 7-1 and 1.51 ERA in limited time last year, largely against lousy competition — but ideally, he’s someone who steps in when you need a replacement, not someone you’re counting on. Detwiler plans to compete to win his job back; he’s also been healthy enough to throw more than 75 innings exactly once in his career, and was one of just six pitchers last year to throw at least 70 frames and strike out fewer than five per nine. As for the rest? If Young or Rosenbaum is actually seeing signficant time, something has gone extremely wrong.

Maybe this is a landing spot for A.J. Burnett, if reports that he’ll pitch for a team that isn’t the Pirates (but presumably not far from his Baltimore home) are true. Maybe, as illustrated in Jeff Sullivan’s article earlier this week, perhaps the additional win or two or three that an Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez could add makes Washington the ever-present “mystery team” who finds more value in that small boost than other teams might. Yes, a draft pick would be lost, but clearly Nats GM Mike Rizzo hasn’t been averse to the surprise January move, as we saw last year when he grabbed Soriano out of seemingly nowhere, and Detwiler might be better off a second lefty in the pen than he’d ever be as a mediocre starter. (For the record, I wrote something very similar about the possibility of them going after Kyle Lohse last year, for nearly identical reasons. Nats fans were not pleased, to put it lightly. I wonder if that’d be the same reaction now.)

Back to the original topic, when we make division predictions again, I’m probably going to pick Washington. It’s hard not to, with the idea of Harper and Werth and adding Fister to that rotation, especially when the Mets, Marlins, and Phillies look like disasters and the Braves have issues of their own. With everything running at full speed, this could very well be the 100 win team we thought we’d see last year. But it’s hard to wash over how injury-prone their offensive stars seem to be (toss in Anthony Rendon‘s ankles to that conversation), or how boom-or-bust LaRoche is, or how little they have behind catcher Wilson Ramos, or how much of a question mark their rotation depth could be, and so that pick is going to get made with just a little more hesitation on my part. Adding another starter, even with how talented that rotation appears to be, would go a long way towards alleviating that.