The Nationals last year started 3-0. You know how the rest of the season went. Given that, I expect we're in line for about 102 wins from here on out. Go Nots!
When the Braves Are Up
--Aw hell, I admit it. Chipper Jones is a great, great player. I've spent most of the last four years heckling him, but I think it might be time to enjoy the up-close look at the last few years of a Hall of Fame career. Last year he flirted with .400 on the strength of a .388 BABIP. But he wasn't just lucky. His 13.9% K-rate and 17% walk rate were both the second best of his career (he beat those rates in different years btw). Maybe his most important stat though is that he swung at just 15.2% of pitches out of the zone. No one commands the strike zone better than Chipper. OK. Enough nicey nice. Hey Larry! Yer a bum! And yer ugly! Boo!!!
--Jordan Schafer hit a home run in his first major league at bat and was intentionally walked later that night. Clearly, he's still on the juice. It won't be long before Schafer is known for his play more than for the HGH suspension that cost him 50 games last year. He's a plus defensive center-fielder and has solid power and on-base skills, though he has a tendency to strike out too much and go into extended slumps. He's arguably one of three prospects in the Braves system who would be the #1 prospect in the Nationals'.
--"Position scarcity" refers to the fact that, because some positions are harder to play than others, players who can provide offensive value at the more difficult fielding positions give their teams a double advantage. Tom Tango's position adjustments tell us that in 2008, all other things equal, a catcher was worth 2.5 wins above replacement more than a 1B. That's the same as the difference between Wily Mo Pena's value in 2008 and Ron Belliard's. Or the difference between Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla. It's a lot. Brian McCann, Geovany Soto, and Russell Martin were by far the three best offensive catchers in the NL, and in 2008 McCann was the best of the bunch. He showed a combination of power (.222 ISO), contact skills (12.6% K-rate), and plate discipline (10.1% walk rate) that is rare at any position and will allow him to give the Braves a huge advantage at the catcher position for years to come.
--Remember that impressive 15.2% out of zone swing rate of Chipper's? Jeff Francouer could learn a thing or two. He chased three times as many--36.2%. The list of players who do this includes guys like Corey Patterson, Angel Berroa, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Wily Mo Pena... generally underachievers and just plain bad hitters. Yeah, there's the odd Vlad Guerrero and Alfonso Soriano who can be successful with such a free-swinging approach, but mostly this is a path to the bench or AAA. Frenchy has been an out-making machine since he came up, posting a career .312 OBP that sunk to .294 last year. The Braves would be wise to upgrade to a guy like Austin Kearns unless Francouer can show dramatic improvement in pitch recognition, like, now.
--Yunel Escobar has solid contact skills (12.1% K-rate in '08), and last year he upped his walk rate to a solid 10.3% from a fair 7.8% the year before. That's going to allow him to keep posting very good on base skills, even when he runs into an inevitable patch of bad BABIP luck. Last year he finished with a .366 OBP, and there's no reason he shouldn't be able to continue that. He doesn't have a ton of power, but he's a solidly average fielder and generally an under-appreciated asset.
--I'm not sure why the Braves feel good about Garret Anderson as their left fielder, but apparently they do. He makes too many outs (.325 OBP in '08), doesn't walk at all (4.7% career), and is well into the declining phase of his career. Anaheim kept him reasonably fresh by DH-ing him half the time last year, but you wonder how long he'll hold up. The Braves can win with him because of the offense they get from premium defensive positions like catcher, but with guys like Adam Dunn and Pat Burrell available so cheap, I'm not sure why a contender like Atlanta would settle for GA.
--Kelly Johnson is the kind of guy who's a lot more useful in fantasy baseball than real life. He's a flat-out bad fielding 2B. He steals a few bases but gets caught often enough that the Braves would be better off with Bengie Molina on the base paths. He has solid on-base numbers at first blush (.349 last year), but last year is walk rate fell from 13.2% to 8.7% while his batting average floated on an unsustainable .344 BABIP. When that regresses, Johnson will be one of the least valuable overall second-basemen in the league.
--Casey Kotchman has long earned admirers with his approach at the plate, drawing walks in 10.7% of his minor league PAs and posting a similar total in his first full year as an MLB regular in 2007. Last year that number cratered to 6.4%, but even if you chalk that up to an extended slump and assume it will bounce back there's a big problem. High walk rates for a first-baseman usually lead to big power numbers. Casey's never really had them. His career .143 ISO is really just not very good for a premium offensive position. Dave Golebiewski pointed out a statistical oddity that I wouldn't have found on my own--Kotchman hits an inordinate number of groundballs--53% of his balls in play in 2008. That's what you expect from a slappy, speedy middle infielder. Bottom line is that there almost surely isn't another level there for Kotchman, and their Mark Teixeira experience (both what they gave up to get him and what they got in return) is looking worse and worse all the time.
On the Mound
Here are some examples of the Nationals' performances (BA/OBP/SLG) against good sinker-ballers in 2008:
Tim Hudson: .248 / .278 / .327
Brandon Webb: .214 / .267 / .232
Mike Pelfrey: .242 / .336 / .347
Jason Marquis: .211 / .304 / .263
Carlos Zambrano: .200 / .333 / .240
Derek Lowe: .130 / .161 / .204
In fairness, a lot of people struggle against Brandon Webb and Tim Hudson, and the Nationals did ok against these two-seam fastball specialists:
Aaron Cook: .375 / .423 / .583
Kyle Kendrick: .317 / .388 / .517
Still, anyone who's watched Tim Hudson shut down the Nationals time after time knows that this team has had problems with the heavy fastball. Lack of team speed, patience, and power will make you a bad offense regardless, but it's especially vulnerable to sinker-ballers.
This year's lineup I really think will fare better. The combination of patience and power that Dunn, Dukes, a healthy Kearns, and Nick Johnson bring is what you want. Still, I drafted Derek Lowe in all my fantasy leagues with this match-up in mind.
Braves relievers had a total -1.64 win probability added as a group, indicating a that overall they were more bad than good. But they were asked to do more work than almost any group in the league, throwing 554.1 innings, a total exceeded only by the Pirates and Rangers.
They didn't do much this off-season to upgrade. Mike Gonzalez is still their less than inspired choice as closer. Will Ohman, who was probably the MVP of their pen last year, is gone. They do get back Rafael Soriano, who spent most of last year on the DL with elbow pain that is supposedly all solved now after surgery to clean up bone spurs and stuff. He's their set-up man and closer-in-waiting should Gonzalez falter. Otherwise, the best thing that could happen to this group would be to have Lowe and Javy Vazquez go 200 innings each.
Season record: 3-0
Sorry, Nationals fans, you're going to wait at least one more day for the first win of the year. Lowe shuts 'em down and helps me put away Kristen from We've Got Heart in our week one head-to-head match-up in the Natmosphere fantasy league. Martis holds his own, but the Braves hand the Nots their first shutout of the year, 5-0.