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August 15, 2013

Skewed Left

The Nationals' New Future

by Zachary Levine

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If you like the Washington Nationals, and we certainly do here, you’d better find some way to like what you’re seeing in 2013. You’re probably going to be seeing a lot of the same in 2014, especially in the area that’s been the most depressing.

The offense has cratered from a 2012 team that won 98 games before losing in the NLDS to the Cardinals. But while this is going to be the main answer to the question of what went wrong, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the answer to what needs to change in an offseason of many questions in Washington, from the manager’s seat on down. What needs to change is very little, and that’s probably more a function of the fact that what can change is very little.

Yes, they’re the National League’s most disappointing team—or at least a close second in that category to the defending champions. This isn’t the Angels, though, with their future commitments largely tied up in cash vortexes on the wrong side of their primes. There is actually very favorable roster construction here. The Nats’ top players are for the most part still young and, if not improving, then certainly not supposed to be declining rapidly.

So what exactly happened here this year?

First of all, it must be said the Nationals aren’t really dead-dead. They’re 8 ½ back of the second wild card and after sweeping the Phillies and taking the first two of three from the Giants, they have a 2.4 percent chance of making the postseason.

Still, how did they go from 98-64 and fired up to be getting the whole team back plus Denard Span and Rafael Soriano to now losing more than they’ve won and putting a whole new tenor on getting the band back together for 2014?

The first place you always look is injuries, and it’s not injuries. Wilson Ramos has been hurt on-and-off, which didn’t help at catcher, but he was going to split time with Kurt Suzuki anyway. Ross Detwiler has been hurt, but Taylor Jordan has pitched to the same level.

It’s also not bad luck. That’s distinct from the Plexiglas principle, which foretells regression for teams that had huge win jumps like the 2012 Nationals did (which was considered the primary Nats narrative in a recent Effectively Wild episode). This year’s version is actually outperforming its third-order winning percentage, so no matter how bleak the standings situation looks compared to our expectations, it’s actually been worse in terms of raw components.

As you might expect, when a team is on pace for an 18-game drop in the standings, it’s probably not one thing. It’s mostly the hitting, with runs per game down from 4.5 to 3.8, but everything’s been down for the Nationals this year, and don’t overlook the shaky defense that’s crept in, especially on the corners of the infield. (Statistics are as of the close of play Tuesday.)

Statistic

2012

2013 162-game pace

Batting VORP

361.6 (2nd)

224.9 (19th)

Pitching WARP

165.2 (2nd)

151.7 (4th)

Defensive efficiency

.718 (5th)

.707 (18th)

The team was expected to fall off. This is undeniable even for those of us who picked them to win the World Series. PECOTA figured them for 88 wins, a hallmark of the Plexiglas Principle. But they’d need to finish 29-14 to reach even that marker, as seven of the 12 regulars or semi-regulars have underperformed their expected true averages.

Underperforming TAv

Roger Bernadina
Projected: .255
Actual: .184

Danny Espinosa
Projected: .254
Actual: .175

Adam LaRoche
Projected: .271
Actual: .258

Steve Lombardozzi
Projected: .245
Actual: .216

Denard Span
Projected: .266
Actual: .233

Kurt Suzuki
Projected: .254
Actual: .224

Ryan Zimmerman
Projected: .293
Actual: .273

Outperforming TAv

Ian Desmond
Projected: .262
Actual: .278

Bryce Harper
Projected: .275
Actual: .306

Wilson Ramos
Projected: .261
Actual: .291

Anthony Rendon
Projected: .246
Actual: .247

Jayson Werth
Projected: .285
Actual: .325

The good thing for the Nationals is that the biggest trouble spots are able to be addressed, starting with second base, where Espinosa and Lombardozzi have not looked like the answer, but Anthony Rendon might be, assuming Zimmerman can remain at third. And where Suzuki has struggled at catcher, they can pencil in at least a more complete season from Wilson Ramos if a full season feels ambitious at this point.

They will be one of the teams least disturbed by free agency in all of baseball. Haren will be a free agent and probably won’t be back barring a huge discount, but Ross Detwiler’s injury replacement Taylor Jordan could get a full season, which would bring them back to five starters. Suzuki won’t be under contract, but he’d be purely a backup. And Chad Tracy, who has hit .175/.206/.291 in 107 plate appearances as a backup corner infielder will be their only other free agent.

Despite the 20th-place standing in offense, all eight of their current starting position players will be in place on Opening Day 2014, because there’s really no obvious place to upgrade. The bench, which has added Scott Hairston, has been pretty poor with a league-worst .224 on-base percentage, so that’s a place where one would expect to see some addition.

We’ve discussed before how much the Nationals have been able to solidify their team by trade, and while this piece on trades was in the context of what appeared to be a team building on a 98-win season, the principle still applies. Mike Rizzo’s trades have largely been very beneficial, and it wouldn’t be surprising if another arm came out of a trade, either of a farmhand or one of the back-end relievers who are getting more expensive.

The odd part is that if the Nationals are going to spend, the pitching staff appears to be the place to do it, even though the offense has been the problem. It’s a point that’s been discussed a little bit on Effectively Wild, especially in relation to this year’s Mariners, who overpaid to chase bats because their pitching was better than their offense, whereas every run counts the same whether it’s with one elite unit and one poor one or two middling ones.

The Nationals don’t need to make such a mistake if they recognize that upgrades are upgrades even if they result in a tilted team. Tilted teams can still win.

For the last couple seasons, the Nationals have invested very little energy and resources into a no. 6 starter, and this year it’s hurt them a bit. Jordan has been so-so, and they squeezed all they could out of Ross Ohlendorf, but neither of the two of them nor Zach Duke was an ideal option. If Jordan takes Haren’s spot in the 2014 rotation, they still would need another starter to avoid going into the season with five and only five.

The temptation will be to spend on offense because:

1. The Lerners like to spend when they think the time is right, as they showed with Rafael Soriano.
2. Unlike some teams who declined this year, the time still looks right.
3. The offense is what looks broken.

But the offense is primed to bounce back and have some full seasons out of 2013’s limited contributors, while the pitching has been fairly lucky and still shorthanded at times this year. If it’s not a trade, another Haren-like one-year deal would serve them well to ensure some depth.

There’s an important fourth bullet point to remember in why the temptation will be to spend now. Everything the Nationals have done has been for these few years. They had the controversial shutdown of Stephen Strasburg that hangs over everything in the coming years. They have gone out and acquired current players at the expense of a farm system that lacks a lot of reasons for optimism in the upper levels. And on top of that, they’ve chased free agents for the price of draft picks and didn’t choose until no. 68 overall this year.

And while a problem jumps off the page at anyone looking at a shell of 2012’s best team, it might not be the one most worth solving to secure what looks like it still could be a bright next couple years.

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

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