Nationals still long shots to catch Phillies

With a full season from Stephen Strasburg, do the Nationals have the firepower to win the NL East? AP Photo/Julio Cortez

There's a lot of buzz building up around the Washington Nationals.

After trading for Gio Gonzalez and signing Edwin Jackson, the club has rebuilt a rotation that will also get an entire season from Stephen Strasburg. The Nationals didn't add any new bats, but are hoping for healthy seasons from newly minted third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and first baseman Adam LaRoche. And looming in the background is the wunderkind, 19-year-old Bryce Harper, who has a chance to break camp with the team.

So the question: After winning 22 fewer games than the Phillies in 2011, do the Nationals have a chance to compete with the beasts of the NL East?

Let's use 2011 as the starting point.

Philadelphia Phillies

Washington Nationals

  • 80 wins, 81 losses

  • 624 runs, 643 runs allowed (minus-19 run differential)

  • Pythagorean W-L record: 78-83

  • Major injuries: Stephen Strasburg 27 starts, Ryan Zimmerman 60 games, Adam LaRoche 118 games, Jordan Zimmermann 6 starts

The Nationals have a lot of ground to make up. If the Phillies produced the same totals of runs scored and runs allowed as 2011, the Nationals will need to score 89 more runs and allow 114 fewer. Is that possible? Let's start with the offense and see where the Nationals might improve.

Catcher: Wilson Ramos

Ramos hit an impressive .267/.334/.445 in 435 plate appearances as a rookie. Most projection systems peg him putting up similar numbers, albeit perhaps in more playing time since the rotting corpse of Ivan Rodriguez received much of the playing time early on. Say Ramos gets 535 plate appearances this year. Replacing 100 plate appearances of Rodriguez with 100 from Ramos at Ramos' 2011 rate of production is about five runs.

First base: Adam LaRoche

LaRoche tried to play through a torn labrum in 2011 but finally called it a season after hitting .172 with three home runs in 177 plate appearances. A healthy 2012 LaRoche is essentially replacing the at-bats given to injured 2011 LaRoche, Laynce Nix (.250/.299/.451 in 351 PAs) and Chris Marrero (.248/.274/.294 in 117 PAs). In 645 plate appearances, those three combined to create about 67 runs (while posting a sub-.300 OBP). In 2010, LaRoche created about 84 runs in 615 PAs, or 88 over 645. But that came in Arizona, a good hitting environment. LaRoche is certainly a wild card due to his health and even his age (32). If we put him at 80 runs that's still a 13-run improvement.

Second base: Danny Espinosa

The projection systems don't see much growth, if any, in store for Espinosa. Though I see the potential for him to raise his average a bit and draw a few more walks, let's be conservative and call for a repeat season and no change.

Third base: Ryan Zimmerman

In 2009, Zimmerman hit .299/.375/.518. He missed most of April and all of May with an abdominal issue and finished at .289/.355/.443. While he was out Jerry Hairston and Alex Cora started 58 games at third base. Hairston wasn't terrible; Cora was. All told, Nats third basemen created about 77 runs. Zimmerman created about 104 runs in 142 games in 2010. Will he be that good again? The Nationals certainly believe so. Let's be a little conservative and say 100 runs over a full season of 150 games. That's still 23 runs better than 2011.

Shortstop: Ian Desmond

Entering his third full season, it's probably a make-or-break year for Desmond. The projection systems see minimal improvement in store. We'll add three runs.

Left field: Mike Morse

It's certainly possible Morse will match his .303 average and .550 slugging percentage. And also unlikely. On the other hand, he had just 575 plate appearances in 2011, so he could get an extra 75 to 80 PAs. Let's call this a wash.

Outfield: Jayson Werth

The Werth of 2010 was a star, creating about 120 runs. The Werth of 2011 created about 78 runs in the same playing time. I think we can safely rule out another 2010. Projection systems foresee some rebound ... but not a ton. Let's go 10 runs improvement.

Outfielder: Bryce Harper???

Roger Bernadina is pretty much who is at this point and over 600 PAs we would expect him to produce about 62 runs (about the same rate that Rick Ankiel produced as the team's de facto center fielder a year ago). Dan Szymborski's ZiPS system isn't a whole lot more optimistic about Harper, projecting 61 runs created over 550 PAs. Now, there are obviously few players Harper compares to, so he's extremely difficult to project; I do think he can exceed the .238/.317/.405 line ZiPS projects. We haven't touched on defense in this analysis, but a Bernadina/Werth outfield would probably be better than a Werth/Harper outfield. As much as I'd love to say Harper gives the team a big boost, I'm not sure that's the case. Let's say he gets 450 PAs and gives them an additional five runs.

Leaving out the bench and pitchers' hitting for now, we get a total of 59 runs better on offense. The main issue with the Washington offense is that Zimmerman projects as the only top-flight OBP guy. Even if he's healthy, LaRoche isn't an elite first baseman and while Ramos, Espinosa and Desmond have promise, none of the three project as true middle-of-the-order hitters or solid table-setters.

Now to the pitching.

In 2011, Nationals starters allowed 441 runs in 928.2 innings. The worst regular starter for the Nats was Livan Hernandez, who allowed 98 runs in 175.1 innings (5.0 runs per nine). I'll break down various combinations of Nationals starters from 2011 and compare their totals to their replacements for 2012. For 2012, I'll use a stat line based on some of the various projections systems.

So, we get:

Old guys: 161 starts, 928.2 innings, 441 runs

New guys: 155 starts, 945 innings, 405 runs

Throw in seven more starts for the new guys, 40 innings and 20 runs allowed (4.5 runs per nine) and you end up with 162 starts, 985 innings and 16 fewer runs allowed.

For those who thought the improvement would be more dramatic, consider that the Nationals' rotation was pretty solid from top to bottom a year ago, without a glaring weakness; plus some of the part-time starters like Ross Detwiler, Tom Milone, Strasburg and Peacock performed very well. So while the upgrades from Hernandez and Jason Marquis to Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson seem large, they're not as dramatic as you may think. It's also worth noting that the projection systems show Gonzalez allowing a few more runs than he's averaged over the past two seasons (due to leaving the friendly confines of Oakland) and Zimmermann essentially matching his 2011 run rate (3.6 per nine versus 3.5 in in 2011). We have the Nationals being careful with Strasburg's innings limit and posting about a 2.85 ERA.

As for the bullpen, in 2011 it pitched 520.2 innings and allowed 202 runs (3.5 runs per nine). Their 3.20 ERA ranked fourth in the NL. Setup man Tyler Clippard (1.83 ERA in 88.1 innings) and closer Drew Storen (2.75 ERA in 75.1 innings) led the way while carrying fairly sizable workloads for modern-day back-of-the-bullpen guys. Henry Rodriguez, Sean Burnett, Tom Gorzelanny, Detwiler, Brad Lidge, Ryan Perry and Chien-Ming Wang (if he's not in the rotation) provide plenty of depth. It looks like a stellar pen, but I'm not sure it will be more stingy than 2011, especially considering Clippard's dominance over nearly 90 innings. Let's say they allow runs at a slight lower rate -- 3.4 runs per nine -- and subtract 57 innings off their workload since the starters will go deeper. Totals: 445.2 innings, 168 runs allowed -- or 34 fewer runs, mainly due to the lighter workload.

So what do we end up with?

Offense: +59 runs; new total of 683 runs scored

Pitching: -50 runs; new total of 593 runs allowed

And that translates to a record of 87-75.

So while nobody projects the Phillies winning 102 games again, it appears it will took a big fall on their part -- or a lot of big seasons from players we've underestimated in this analysis -- for the Nationals to catch their NL East rivals.

Note: I screwed up the math in the original post. Totals of 683 runs scored and 593 runs allowed translates to a record of 91-71. So ... yes, maybe the Nationals CAN compete for the NL East title.