Can the Nats Contend?

The Washington Nationals, despite being linked in the media to almost every high-dollar free agent, have had a somewhat quiet winter. As such, it’s tempting to dismiss them. After all, an 80-win team whose primary offseason addition is a Type-B free agent (Edwin Jackson) isn’t redolent of “contender.” In the Nats’ case, however, that’s precisely what they are: a contender.

To be sure, the Nats can’t be considered the favorites for a playoff berth, in part because they have the misfortune of playing in a division in which only one team — the Mets — can be brushed aside as a non-factor. But they’re in the fray, which is more than can be said for the remainder of recent franchise history.

In 2011, the Nationals, as mentioned, notched 80 wins. However, their team WAR totals (i.e., hitting and fielding WAR totals for position players + WAR for pitchers + the 43.0 WAR that constitutes the replacement-level team) show they have the underlying indicators of a “true” 77-win team. That means their foundation for 2012 might be a little shakier than you might think.

With all that said, the Nats are to be taken seriously, and their rotation depth has much to do with that. After all, D.C. had a fairly enviable starting five even before adding the underrated Jackson. Fronting the group is, of course, Stephen Strasburg, who, even at age 23, is potentially one of the top starters in all of baseball. The question is whether Strasburg, in what will be his first full season since undergoing Tommy John surgery, can stay healthy and log enough innings to help the Nats contend. It’s uncertain to what extent the organization will pump the brakes on Straburg in the season to come, but the team’s proximity to a playoff spot will certainly have some bearing on that decision.

Elsewhere in the rotation, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman and Jackson all figure to post ERAs comfortably better than the league average. For those counting, that’s four plus starters. The Nats also have the luxury of depth, what with John Lannan, Chien-ming Wang and Russ Detwiler competing for the fifth spot and other otherwise poised to step in should injury strike. Throw in a bullpen that should to be exceptional from the right side, and the D.C. staff should be the envy of most teams in baseball.

Offensively, things are less sure. Last season, Washington ranked 12th in the NL in wRC+ and 11th in the NL in wOBA. Obviously, if contention is the aim, then offensive improvement is in order.

To that end, better health from Ryan Zimmerman is good starting point. Last season, Zimmerman missed time after undergoing abdominal surgery, but just twice in his big-league career has he failed to play a full or near-full season. As well, the hand and wrist problems that hampered Zimmerman early in his career haven’t been a concern since 2008.

The other, arguably more pressing concern is whether Jayson Werth can improve. There’s not much that can prevent Werth from being a long-term boondoggle for the Nats, but there’s hope for better numbers in the here and now. In 2011, Werth posted career lows in BABIP and line-drive rate and his worst HR/fly ball percentage since 2005. Werth also hit a galling .184/.307/.368 against the opposite side despite the fact that he’s been highly effective against lefties throughout his career — much better than against right-handed pitching. Perhaps that seeming aberration is why the Bill James and ZiPS forecasting systems both see a bounceback season for Werth. The Nats had better hope that’s the case.

Elsewhere, the possible center-field platoon of Rick Ankiel and Mike Cameron could provide a glancing upgrade over what the Nats received from the position in 2011, and continued development from Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond will also help. Reasonable assumptions, all.

What may need to happen, however, is for top-shelf prospect Bryce Harper, assuming he doesn’t make the team out of spring training, to prove himself quickly in the high minors and earn a permanent call-up well in advance of the All-Star break. That, in turn, would allow the Nats to cut bait on Adam LaRoche and move Michael Morse to first base. And thus the defensive alignment is improved, and the Nats potentially have another heart-of-the-hear-of-the-order bat.

In the NL East, of course, the Nats could wind up a fourth-place team and still turn in a respectable season. However, if the right people stay healthy and things break helpfully on offense, then Washington can make the postseason in 2012. Likely? No. Quite possible? Absolutely. And that goes double if an additional wild-card berth is in play.

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One Response to “Can the Nats Contend?”

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  1. mockcarr says:
    FanGraphs Supporting Member

    I would guess the offensive-minded Davey Johnson would go with a Morse/Werth/Harper outfield and LaRoche at 1st if Harper made the club. LaRoche is still more valuable as another lefty in the lineup than Ankiel or Bernadina in some combination. I wouldn’t predict Ankiel coming close to the defensive value he had last year, and unless DJ has some magic advice for him, he’s not worth giving at bats to over Bernadina against RHP anyway. If he proves to be healthy, they are going to try to get squeeze 1-2 WAR from LaRoche, he’s at least shown signs of being able to hit in the last four years, and is a good defender, much better than Morse there.