Sunday, March 15, 2009

How the Nationals Can Finish above .500 in 2009

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.

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.

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.


Positively Half St. said...

I really like your apparent optomism that Nick could play the whole year. The weird thing about it, really, is that some of his injuries have been so fluky. Honestly, the collision with Austin Kearns is another reason I am sorry we traded for him. Stepping on a catcher's foot when he was illegally blocking the plate without the ball was a killer, too. Nick is certainle made of glass, but not everybody has suffered the kind of injury that seems to follow him.

Unfortunately, the necessity to rely on Shawn Hill is much like our hopes to rely on John Patterson last year. I am not saying that Hill is on his way to retirement, but I wouldn't be completely shocked if that is the end result, unfortunately. At least he got that $775K to work with if this is the end.

Steven said...

I'm not sure I would say I'm optimistic about either Johnson or Hill staying healthy. I'm just saying them staying healthy are keys necessary for the Nationals to make .500. In fact, of all these things I said that Hill staying healthy was the least likely.

Groundskeeper Willie said...

Yeah, you gave yourself a big out with the point that Johnson has to stay healthy. That won't happen.

Although. He looked good in Spring Training and fit.

Steven said...

Each one of these items in isolation is unlikely. That's why the Nationals almost surely won't finish above .500.

Will said...

I'd change #6 to include Milledge as well. His first half splits were .245/.312/.368, in the second half he put up .299/.355/.448. If he and Dukes can replicate the second half of last season, we'll have two very good young players on our hands.

Roberto said...

It's not quite a unlikely as you think: as Baseball Prospectus pointed out, in 2006-2008, Josh Willingham's road numbers were .280/.373./.514. If this holds, he could be an adequate or better replacement for Nick Johnson if Johnson, as expected, gets hurt.

Thus, the Nationals have a little more margin for error than we think. Maybe.

Will said...

I was actually curious about first/second half splits, and I didn't realize how unbelievably bad we were in the first half. As a team, we batted .239! (Total line was .239/.314/.358)
In the second half, we were much better, putting up .267/.335/.395

Milledge and Dukes have already been mentioned, but Ryan Zimmerman was also much better in the second half going from .257/.291/.427 to .306/.370/.455 (which would be a fantastic season)
Willie Harris: .221/.335/.379 to .270/.351/.441
Cristian Guzman: .313/.340/.424 to .324/.356/.477
Ronnie Belliard: .233/.332/.472 to .353/.423/.474
Then factor in the additions of AHern's .333/.407/.383 and AGonzalez's .347/.407/.531, we had a pretty good team. I don't know what it was that clicked, but hopefully we'll start this season where we left off last year.

Wil Nieves said...

Perhaps drafting/signing/calling up Strasburg should be on this list. If he's everything people say he is, he could make a difference even if he doesn't pitch the whole season.

Particularly since even with the offensive improvements in the second half, the winning percentage actually dropped...

Steven said...

Roberto--I appreciate your point to the extent that the Nationals have a much better plan b in the event of a Nick Johnson injury than they had last year. The drop-off from Nick to Willingham isn't nearly what the drop-off to Paul Lo Duca or Ron Belliard was. But make no mistake--Josh Willingham is nowhere near the offensive player Nick is. Nick's had an OBP over .400 3 seasons running (not counting his lost 2007). Willingham's career OBP is .360. Fifty points in OBP is an enormous difference. As big as Dmitri Young's jockstrap. Yeah, that big.