Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Next Step Is A Lot Harder

Watching these final weeks of the season tick down, I've been digesting the meaning of the 2011 season. Certainly, this year marked the end of the cellar-dwelling, laughingstock "Natinals" era in Washington. Thank gawd.

I took a Murphy's Law approach to my own Nationals predictions before the 2011 season, guessing for instance that Jordan Zimmermann would struggle with command in his first season back from Tommy John. I (and plenty of others) saw Michael Morse as the second coming of Wily Mo Pena, a career part-time player with massive holes in his swing who would be exposed in full-time duty. Relief pitcher performance tends to fluctuate wildly from year to year, and I guessed that the Nationals might be due for a run of bad outings. I figured Wilson Ramos and Danny Espinosa would struggle more in their first years of full-time duty. I didn't see Davey Johnson coming.

(I also guessed that Ryan Zimmerman would miss time, Jim Riggleman would be gone, and Jayson Werth wouldn't adjust well to playing with a huge contract for a non-contender. So I got a few things right.)

Those were all reasonable concerns, but to guess that everything that could go wrong would go wrong--that was pretty unlikely. But hey! It's the Nationals!

Not anymore. They spend like a normal team now (if not more). They've been picking at the top of the draft for a decade. Jim Bowden is gone. So is Stan Kasten and his multiple, conflicting lines of authority.

But the even bigger factor is the simple fact that it's really hard to be--and stay--as bad as the Nationals were. And in the reduced run-scoring environment of the last two seasons, plus the overall mediocrity of the National League, it's even harder.

Not to take anything away from the progress the Nationals have made upgrading the talent in the franchise, but Philadelphia is probably the only really good team the Nationals played all season--and even they're not a great team because of their problems scoring runs. The Brewers and D'Backs are solid, but no one is going to mistake them for juggernauts. The Braves and Cardinals are both deeply flawed. And everyone else in the National League really truly stinks.

In interleague, the Nationals got 6 games against Baltimore (pretty soon people are going to notice that it's really unfair that the Nationals get two series against the Orioles while the Mets have to play the Yankees.) And then they got 9 games against the White Sox, Mariners, and Angels. That's 12 interleague games against truly rotten teams, plus 6 more against the just-OK Angels and White Sox. Not many NL teams got off so easy.

Again, I'm not dissing the Nationals because of who they played. They can't control that--and all you can do is beat the teams you're scheduled to play. But it's pretty hard to lose more than 90 games in the NL right now. Look at the lengths Houston had to go to.

Now, Mike Rizzo says the Nationals are a frontline starting pitcher and an top-of-the-order centerfielder away from contending in the NL. Is he right?

Maybe, although remember that those are two of the hardest things to find in all of baseball. It's a little like saying all the economy needs is an increase in consumer demand and a solution to the European debt crisis.

And even then, if Michael Morse regresses, or Zimmermann and/or Stephen Strasburg don't do what we expect, or this, that, and the other... There are plenty of ways the Nationals could upgrade at a couple key spots and remain stuck right around .500.

The league is shaped like a bell curve. Not a ton of teams finish with 90 or more losses, while not very many teams finish with 90 or more wins. Lots of teams finish clustered around 81-81. It took a lot of work to get from consecutive 59-win seasons to this year's quasi-.500, 80-81 team. But getting from 80 wins to 90 wins is way, way harder. The low-hanging fruit has been plucked. Now the hard part--and the fun part--begins.

16 comments:

Will said...

I agree, that the hardest part is going from .500 to playoff contender. However, I think there is a lot of potential for improvement just within this year's team (and farm system).

Besides Morse and Clippard, the Nationals didn't have any players have career seasons, and would subsequently expect severe regression next season.

Desmond, Espinosa, Ankiel, and Ramos all had what-was-to-be-expected seasons, with some glimpses of what they could be. Ankiel and Desmond had awful first halfs, and Espinosa- an awful second half, and Ramos had an awful middle-half. But going forward, an improvement can be reasonably expected from all but Ankiel. However, the degree to how much they improve can be debated.

The two best players on the team, Werth and Zimmerman substantially underperformed. Next season's reasonably pessimistic scenario for the two of them is essentially what they did this season: miss substantial time and/or post career-worst offensive and defensive numbers. A slight to significant improvement should be expected next season.

Finally, the pitching staff has less certainty for improvement, but greater upside than the batters.

Stephen Strasburg has shown that he is still, at his worst, a very good pitcher. At his best, he is one of the best pitchers in baseball. The 125 more innings he gets next season will be a drastic improvement upon those that we gave to Tom Gorzelanny and Yunesky Maya.

Next year, we won't have reliable innings eaters in Livan or Marquis. However, they were both merely average starting pitchers (only 3.5 WAR between them). The potential upside and competition between Peacock, Milone, Wang, Detwiler, and other farmhands like Meyers, Purke, Meyer or even Cole or Ray, ensure that we'll get at worst replacement level production and at best very good production from our 4th and 5th SPs.

Within the bullpen, you'll see our pitchers both improved and regressed. We will see the same thing next year. This year Burnett and Slaten were awful. Next year it will be someone else. However, given the minor impact the bullpen has in the overall game, I don't see any reason why the bullpen will have a catastrophic melt-down or all turn into Mariano Rivera-clones.

So to summarize, I think it is much more likely to improve. Besides Morse, this team wasn't built on unsustainable performances that skyrocketed it to near .500. Some regression can be expected, however, I think that regression will be outweighed by natural improvement from the many talented, young players on the team.

It's probably not reasonable to expect another 10 win improvement, but the only aging vet we have (Werth), put up career worst numbers en route to an 80-81 season. Further regression from him will not derail this team. In fact, they seem pretty nicely situated over the next few seasons. A FA addition like Sabathia, while not likely, could be what it takes to get the Nats into October.

Steven said...

Maybe. I think you're underestimating a bit just how good Ramos and Espinosa were overall. I have an easier time seeing them lose a win of value than add a win. I think Desmond is who he is, but he's young enough I could be wrong. Relief pitchers are just so volatile.

I want to see Morse do it again before I'm ready to carve in stone that he's a 4+ win player.

The question is where are they going to get big improvements. It won't be the bullpen. Werth and Zimmerman certainly could add a couple of wins each, but I don't see anyone else really taking major steps forward.

The rotation has potential for improvement, but Livan, Marquis, and Wang gave them 350 innings right around 4.00 ERA. That won't be that easy to replace, much less improve on. If the season started today, Peacock, Milone, and Gorzelanny would likely fill those innings. We'll see.

Piero said...

Just maybe the improvements are already there.

Johnson, Zimmerman, and Werth keep wondering why everyone is so hot about getting a left-handed bat (read Fielder et al) when Bryce Harper is almost ready? What does that tell you?

Now, because its Ratzo Rizzo as Brue refers to him you have a first rounder named Anthony Rendon the best college hitter in over a decade, a guy even though purportedly injured had the highest OBP? WHERE DO YOU play him if he is ready, perhaps far more ready than Harper?

The Nats had the equivalent of the AAAA Morse flop you wrongly predicted in Adam LaRoche, so in a sense you were right ... the Nats did end up with a quasi AAAA in LaRoche and who knows if he will come back. AZ got the playoffs losing both he and Reynolds at the corners ... has to say something don't you think?

But, what if that left-handed bat does come around? And you mix in Rendon and Harper. And then you have Morse who has yet to decline from his return from a season long injury in 2008 until now? He's going to hit .300, he's going to hit homers, that's what he has been doing during that time. Its what he does. His fielding might be suspect at times but he is athletic enough (unlike Marerro) to make up for it.

What the Nats need is 1 or 2 top starters to bookend with Strasburg and Zimmermann. Then pick from the rest. And you know perhaps lefty Matt Purke will be in that mix? Davey Johnson isn't afraid to go to youth early and often if he thinks it can help him win.

Could this have ever happened under Bowden? Highly unlikely.

Will said...

Werth and Zimmerman certainly could add a couple of wins each, but I don't see anyone else really taking major steps forward.

What about Strasburg?

Just to give you an idea of how good he can be- in 24 IP this season, he was worth 1.1 WAR. Extrapolate that over 150 IP, and he's worth 6.9 WAR. That's not scientific, nor should that be expected. But it's not hard to see significant improvement, just because we'll get 125 more dominant innings from Strasburg.

Plausible optimistic scenario: Zimmerman and Werth revert to 2009-2010 form (7 and 5 WAR), and Strasburg pitches as he did this September over the course of the season (6 WAR). Just with those 3 players alone, you have a 12 WAR increase upon this past season! This isn't very likely. Instead, Zimm could put up a respectable 5 WAR and Werth could continue to struggle, but it's not hard to see that there's some serious room for improvement, and that's without arguing over whether Ramos, Espinosa, Desmond, Zimmermann, Detwiler, Peacock, Milone, HRod, Storen, Clippard, Severino, Kimball will naturally improve upon this Rookie and sophomore seasons, which is often the case for young, highly regarded players.

traderkirk said...

As constructed in April 2010, this was a 70 win team. Now with Morse doing what he did, Espinosa and Ramos being much better than expected and the outstanding ( and unpredictable) bullpen you got a team that won 80. And it wasn't really a lucky 80 either.

Assuming no additions this offseason, would you say they were an 80 win team? I think I would. If you add the starter and the CF then you would have to say they would be in the range of luck to get to 90 wins. That's a contender.

Granted adding those two parts is highly unlikely and the most likely scenario is to spend another season in the vast middle of the National League.

Steven said...

I was talking about position players. But definitely if Strasburg, Zimmermann, and later Meyer, AJ Cole, Peacock, Solis, etc. all pitch up to their potential, the Nationals will surely be a perennial playoff team.

Steven said...

@trader--well, to be really precise they're a 78-win team based on run differential, so they were a little lucky.

But yes, if they can replace everyone they're losing this off season with equal value, and everyone else repeats or improves on their performance, and they add a 5-win CF and a 5-win SP (those would be two of the best players at their positions), that would get them into 88-90 win territory.

Fans can root for that and not be crazy. I wouldn't consider that a likely scenario however.

Will said...

My point is that the only players of value that will not be here next season are Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis, who put up a 3.80ish FIP or 3.5 WAR over 300 innings.

Todd Coffey, Brian Broderick, Chad Gaudin, Doug Slaten, Laynce Nix, Ivan Rodriguez, Jonny Gomes, Jerry Hairston, Alex Cora, Brian Bixler and Matt Stairs provided collectively 1.3 WAR (Coffey and Nix, who could very well return, accounted for 1.1 WAR of that total). We are not losing any value. There is no worry to replace all these players with equal value, because they're all replacement level players.

With that said, it is not a stretch to expect a combination of Wang, Peacock, Milone and Detwiler to accumulate about 300 innings. Even if only one of them pans out and posts a 2ish WAR season, while the other three wallow around replacement-level, the drop off from this season will have only been a win, which will have been totally offset (and more) by Strasburg.

I'm also not sure why you're so bearish on players like Espinosa and Ramos. Both posted numbers in line with expectations. For example, Marc Hulet's preseason description of him, "Espinosa will likely hit 10-15 homers in the Majors but he could flirt with some 20-homer seasons unless he adjusts his approach to be a No. 2 hitter. He may not hit for a high average because he strikes out a lot (24.4 K% in AA) but he does get on base a fair bit, too. Along with some pop, Espinosa offers some stolen base ability and could nab 10-15 in a full big league season. On defense, he flashes a solid glove and a strong arm. He could end up at either second base or shortstop."
Nothing he did this season is out of line with what was predicted.
Ramos- did outperform what was predicted of him, most notably his BB% as well as a moderate increase in ISO. But what I thought was most interesting was his consistent patience at the plate the whole season. 7, 8, 7, 6, 2, 8 were his monthly walk totals in similar number of PAs. You'll also see that his ISO was also rather consistent throughout the year. I think consistency in those two peripherals are a pretty good indication they weren't a random fluke or unsustainable.

You'll also see that luck wasn't driving either players numbers. They had BABIPs of of .292 and .297, respectively.

I place little value in Desmond. He's a bad player all around. No power, no plate patience, no defense, but I'd like to think that it can't get much worse than a .298 OBP... but maybe I'm just an optimist.

Either way, I'm not so sure our young position player are more likely to regress than improve. I think there are a lot reasons to expect, at least, similar seasons next year.

Positively Half St. said...

This might be the best post-season conversation I have seen yet. Will's point about Coffey and Nix providing 1.1 of 1.3 WAR for that sorry collection was my biggest eye-opener, but then I realized Slaten certainly must have been solidly in negative territory.

I will try to spend time passively enjoying what the team accomplished this year before worrying too much about next. I look forward to some of the dreck being released (Slaten first, please!), and enjoying the AFL. If I can hold off contemplating next year until the November GM meetings at least, I can avoid thinking how hard the next step will be for a while.

+1/2St.

Steven said...

@Will--I'm not bearish on Ramos and Espinosa. I just think they had really fantastic seasons. Could they do better? Sure. But I'd be happy to see them just repeat what they did in 2011, and I think we'd be expecting too much to look for big improvements. Yes, they're young, but they did really really well this year, so I just think the potential for major backsliding is greater than the potential for major upgrades. It's more an acknowledgement of how good they were this year than a knock on their abilities.

Piero said...

Agreed, Desmond seems like the weak link in the infield in spite of his September improvements. He looks more-and-more like a high-end UTL or traded for prospects in order to make room for Rendon.

Its really about getting 1-2 top starters. One would think the team and its payroll (lots of space) would be attractive to top free agent starting pitchers.

Piero said...

It is interesting to look at the season ending WAR and the positional players way outweighed the pitchers:

From Fangraphs:

Espinosa (first and foremost NOT Desmond) 3.5
Morse (Mr. AAAA :) 3.3
Ramos 3.1
Zimmerman 2.5
Werth 2.5
Desmond 1.4
Ankiel 1.4

The nearest pitchers?

Zimmermann 0.4
Hernandez 0.3
Marquis 0.3
Milone 0.2

KInd of eye opening given the criteria for measuring this, given the difference in how its calculated between the pitchers and position players.

One thing stands out very clearly and I think its a good thing:

The highest WAR was held by a rookie. Two of the four top WAR's were held by rookies. Also a player who really had his first full year in the majors and as a starter (Morse), plus Desmond in his second year.

in the case of the pitchers two pitchers out of the top four where either a rookie or close to it in Zimmermann and Milone.

Johnson's philosophy (which appears to contradict / counter Riggleman's ) is to play the youth or at least try them to see what they can do ... and Riggleman's was always to play the veterans first and let prospects/new players compete for backup jobs in the spring ... except those made starters by FO edict.

Who's philosophy looks like the right one for this franchise?

Piero said...

So, after that exercise let's see what signing two top starters might add to the WAR totals:

CJ Wilson: 5.9 WAR
Edwin Jackson 3.9 WAR (previously a Rizzo fav?)
Mark Buehrle 3.4 WAR

Let's just say that both Zimmermann and Strasburg are good for at least a 3.0 WAR. Plus 1 or 2 of the above?

Add in the return of LaRoche, the possible entrances of Harper and Rendon?

It looks like 90 wins with some decent insurance?

Do they need Prince Fielder (5.5 WAR) or pitchers? Do they need a high OBP multi-positional including the OF like Michael Cuddyer with .343 OBP, 20 homers,.284 avg, 11 SB, 70 runs and a 3.1 WAR?

Steven said...

Don't forget that if you take innings from Marquis and Livan and give them to another pitcher that you have to subtract the WAR that Marquis and Livan provided.

More on C.J. Wilson later in the week. I'm not for that signing.

Jon said...

@piero You aren't looking at the pitchers' "pitcher war," you were looking at their "hitter war," I think. Zimmermann had a fWAR over 3 last year. Not 0.something.

Will said...

Indeed, Nats SP WAR (Fangraphs)
Zimmermann: 3.4
Livan: 1.9
Marquis: 1.6
Lannan: 1.3
Clippard: 1.2
Strasburg: 1.1

Everyone else: somewhere under 1