Like El Guapo with his many piñatas, the Nationals certainly do not want for starting pitching. Given how good the top of their rotation looks to be, it would be tempting to call them top-heavy, but that does a serious disservice to Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler, who would be much higher ranked in a rotation that didn’t boast arguably the best pair in baseball with Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez. Whether this rotation challenges the Reds and others for the title of best in baseball may depend on Dan Haren’s ability to recover from a disastrous 2012 season.
Waiting in the Wings
Even though Gonzalez finished third in the Cy Young Award voting last year, there is little doubt that Strasburg is the ace of this rotation. He’s a fantasy monster, racking up wins, striking out 31 percent of the hitters he has faced so far in his career, and posting the low ERA and WHIP that one might expect from a pitcher who isn’t allowing much contact. He doesn’t generate quite as many groundballs as some of the other elite pitchers, but it’s hardly doing his overall line much damage. There’s very little not to like about Strasburg, even if he’s never had a full season at the major league level.
In the grand sense, I’m a little concerned about his mechanics, but there’s nothing in them that is going to pose a problem in the near future, meaning he’s definitely worthy of competing the Clayton Kershaw for the first NL pitcher taken in drafts. It’s little more than a curiosity, but still interesting to note that – due in large part to his two terrible outings against the Marlins at the end of his season – Strasburg actually ended up with a slightly worse line against teams that were below .500 last season than teams that finished above .500.
There seems to be some lingering concern that the players named in the Biogenesis reports, including Gonzalez, will face some discipline from the league office. I’m not buying it; I’m drafting Ryan Braun and Gonzalez with impunity (Francisco Cervelli and Danny Valencia, less so). If the league did decide to pursue action, and I doubt they will given the lack of compelling evidence, Gonzalez stands an excellent chance of winning on appeal since he can provide a credible reason why his name would appear on those documents without a connection to PEDs.
On his merits, Gonzalez looks like a good bet to follow up his 2012 with another strong season, but I do think some regression will mellow his production a bit. His BABIP has always been low, as evidenced by his .286 career mark, but 2012 was even a notch below that at .267. It’s even more remarkable that he was able to keep his BABIP so low with a line drive rate that was 3.5 percent above his career average. If he gets that back down into the high teens instead of the low 20s and keeps his walk rate under 10 percent, he’ll be just fine. I expect a WHIP in the 1.20s and an ERA a bit over 3.00, so he’ll still be extremely productive, just not quite as good as he was last year.
The Nationals match up with anyone at the top of their rotation, but the difference between them and a team like the Dodgers is that there’s comparatively little drop off once Strasburg and Gonzalez are gone. A illustrative comparison:
Player A: 2.94 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 19 percent K%, .288 BABIP
Player B: 2.78 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 19.1 percent K%, .296 BABIP
It’s close, Player B obviously had a slightly better season, but those lines are remarkably similar. They’re being drafted about a round apart on average, due in no small part to the fact that Johnny Cueto – Player B – has the name recognition and a solid Cy Young showing last season over the criminally underrated Zimmermann. His relatively low strikeout rate is going to make him better for the Nationals than he is in fantasy, and that’s fine, but he’s fantastic in the rate categories and facing opposing third and fourth starters should help him notch a solid number of wins as well.
Going into last season, Haren hadn’t produced a WAR under 4.0 or a worse-than-average ERA- since his 2004 stint with the Cardinals. He was rarely Cy Young material, but consistency has a value all its own and while there was definitely some ebb and flow in his numbers, he was never objectively poor even if he was disappointing. And then came 2012. It all went wrong for Haren: He allowed one of the highest contact rates of his career, had some bad luck with a .302 BABIP, turned too little of that contact into grounders with a career low groundball rate, and had a career high 13 percent of his flyballs leave the ballpark. That’s a perfect storm unlikely to repeat itself this season.
The most consistent problem Haren has had over the last three seasons is a declining strikeout rate. His velocity is down across the board, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he’s not missing as many bats as he used to. His move to the National League will help him recover some of those lost strikeouts – which is good on its own in addition to helping his WHIP and ERA – but that decline in velocity isn’t going to solve itself. His spring velocity looks good, which bodes well, but with his extant hip and back issues, concerns about his ability to keep his velocity in the 90s aren’t without basis.
To say I’m of two minds about Haren this season belies just how unsettled I am. At the very minimum he’s a big risk because of those injury issues, but he still has ace potential even if he doesn’t hit that upside as often as he used to. Given all the factors surrounding him this season, looking at his ADP is instructive. MockDraftCentral has him falling at 132, virtually identical to Aroldis Chapman – another player with notable risk – and less than a round ahead of Brandon Morrow, Matt Moore, and Jeff Samardzija. As much as I’ve loved owning Haren in a lot of leagues over the past few seasons, I’d rather have the others than hope against hope that he can recover some of his lost velocity and keep the ball in the park better than he did last year.
Detwiler was one of just 22 pitchers who both threw 150 or more innings last season and forced 50 percent more of the hitters who put a ball in play to do so on the ground, which was the key to his success. In his first full season in the rotation – such as it was, he was actually bounced out of the rotation at the end of May before finding his way back into the mix a month later – Detwiler was a pleasant surprise. He allowed contact at a rate well above league average, but so much of it came on the ground that he rarely suffered for it.
Like Zimmermann, Detwiler isn’t going to help much with strikeouts and derives his value almost solely from his rate stats. If he continues to produce very few line drives and a ton of groundballs, there’s a decent chance he’ll repeat last year’s effort, but every projection sees his BABIP regressing to near .300, which pulls his WHIP up into a pretty mediocre range. Mixed players can probably afford to wait on him as he’s only being drafted in about half of MockDraftCentral mixed drafts and even less in ESPN’s. NL-only players may have to actively choose whether or not to believe in Detwiler’s potential, which really does boil down to his ability to keep his BABIP low.
The one thing the Nationals lack is depth beyond the starters they already have in place. They have compelling pieces in the minors with Lucas Giolito, Matt Purke, and the recently acquired A.J. Cole, but not one of them is going to be ready to contribute this season. Young isn’t likely to break camp with the team, giving him the chance to opt out of his contract. Perry is a decent option, but his experience as a starter since leaving college is limited to 13 games at Double-A Harrisburg and six starts in the Arizona Fall League last season. Maya and Ohlendorf have experience starting in the majors, but neither has acquitted themselves particularly well when given the chance.
Thankfully, the rotation isn’t particularly risk heavy. Gonzalez has made more than 30 starts three seasons running, Zimmermann and Strasburg are still in their honeymoon period after their respective Tommy John surgeries, and Detwiler has no history of arm issues. Haren is the weak link, but that’s not going to surprise anyone in the organization, which means they can be proactive in keeping his back and hip loose.
The Nats have enough offense to win a shootout if they need to, but with the rotation they’ve assembled, those should be few and far between. They have designs on a deep playoff run, the one they were denied last year, and it’s hard to bet against them at this point. However, it won’t take much to expose their lack of depth and with the Braves not far behind them in terms of quality, they simply don’t have much margin for error.