It's spring, so now's the time for wild, unsubstantiated optimism. Brad Eldred is the second coming of Barry Bonds! Anderson Hernandez is going to win a batting title! Jordan Zimmermann's a shoo-in for ROY, nay Cy Young! Unless Shairon Martis beats him out! World Series here we come!!!!
OK, let's not go that far. But I do think fans can realistically root for the Nationals can finish with 82 wins this year. I'm not predicting they will... I'll make my predictions soon, but not today. But I think they can win 82 games, and I made a list of seven key things that, assuming everything else goes about as you'd expect, need to happen to get there.
None of these things are necessarily likely to happen--which is why the Nationals probably won't finish above .500. But if these seven possible-but-not-likely developments occur, you as a fan will be able to finally enjoy at least one more win than loss in 2009:
1. Nick Johnson stays healthy
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: a healthy Nick Johnson is the best player on the Washington Nationals and one of the better players in baseball. His CHONE wOBA projection is .399, which for comparison is like David Wright's offensive value in 2008 (though Nick's value is derived more from his on-base skills, while Wright's is more dependent on his power). Based on his 3-year average Rate2 and UZR stats, he's a 7.4 fielding runs above average defender. Taken together, he's a 4.5 wins above replacement first baseman, which would have made him the fifth most valuable 1B in baseball in 2008. Of course, no projection has him getting 500 at bats like he has just once in his career (2006), but that's what we need.
2. Ryan Zimmerman takes the next step
In 2006, Ryan Zimmerman was 21 years old and put up a .287 / .351 / .471 line that, combined with his gold glove defense, had Nationals fans seeing a long line of all-star games and MVPs in his future. Since then, he's plateaued. Some would say he regressed last year, but I think that's unfair given the shoulder injury. But he certainly hasn't taken the next step. CHONE expects his contact rate and ISO power to improve a bit, allowing him to reach .296 / .364 / .488 in 2009. PECOTA sees him repeating 2006, but not much better. After last season, either would make me happy for Zimm, but for the Nationals to reach .500, we need him to reach the more optimistic projections.
3. Jordan Zimmermann cracks the big league rotation and succeeds right away
Starting pitchers in the NL averaged a 4.41 ERA. PECOTA projects him at 4.39 in 110 innings. Other projections are less sanguine, but we'll need at least that much from him.
4. Daniel Cabrera and Scott Olsen combine for 380 innings of league-average pitching
These two veterans absolutely must come through with both quality and quantity innings if the Nationals are to reach .500. The durability hasn't been a problem for either, but to finish the season around 4.40, both will need to substantially out-perform their career numbers. It's not impossible though--PECOTA has Cabrera and Olsen at 4.31 and 4.42, respectively.
5. At least 100 innings from Shawn Hill
I have little doubt that if Hill can stay out there that he'll be our best pitcher. He's not an ace, but he's a very good sinkerballing starting pitcher. Mapping out the path to 82 wins, I penciled him in for 120 innings and 3.80 ERA. Maybe it's impossible to imagine him pitching that many innings, but I don't see any other pitcher on the staff capable of pitching that well if he can't.
6. Elijah Dukes picks up where he left off
Dukes certainly doesn't need to do anything more than the .264 / .386 / .478 line he put up last year. In fact, he could even give back 10 points in each category, and if he does that with 450-500 at bats, he'll be a huge upgrade in the Nationals outfield.
7. Somehow, some way, the bullpen is tolerable
I don't know who will step up, but relief pitchers are erratic enough that in any given season a guy can appear out of nowhere and throw 50-60 innings with an ERA near 2 and never do it again (I'm looking at you Steven Shell). The Nationals need at least 2-3 guys to catch lightening in a bottle and keep this group from cratering the Nationals' whole season. They don't need to be good. They don't even need to be average. But they can't kill us.
Then it's obviously complete conjecture, but I would rank these developments from most to least likely in this order: 2, 6, 1, 7, 3, 4, 5.