The MLB has recently announced that the playoffs will expand to 10 teams for the 2012 postseason, with the two wild cards in each league playing in a one-game playoff in order to determine which team will advance to the division series. With the Nationals’ new additions, and the extra spot in the playoffs now open, can the Nationals seriously contend for a postseason berth?
For the past five years, the runner up for the NL wildcard has averaged exactly 89 wins. Basing our estimates on this, we can say that 90 wins will be a safe bet to make the postseason. The Nationals were 80-81 last year, but based on Bill James’ Pythagorean wins expectation formula, they should have been 78-83, so we’ll base our estimates on that. In order to make the postseason, the Nationals would need to add around 12 WAR.
For the sake of hope, I’ll make an optimistic projection for the team this year. At first base, Adam LaRoche earned precisely 0 wins above replacement in 43 games according to Baseball Reference. Mike Morse played 85 of his 146 games at first, earning 3 WAR over the whole season. Morse did hit and field much better at first base, so to assume unscientifically, we can say Morse generated around 2 WAR at first. Most of the rest of the games were started by Chris Marrero and his -0.2 WAR, giving us a total of 1.8 WAR from the first base position in 2011. For 2012, Adam LaRoche will be the starter if he is healthy, which he will likely be. He averaged precisely 1 WAR for 2009-10, so we can assume that he’ll get around the same amount this year, giving us a grand total of -0.8 WAR from 1B.
Things figure to be much clearer at 2B and SS than at 1B. Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond combined to play in 312 of 324 possible games last season, and together generated 3.6 WAR. They figure to retain their jobs for 2012, and any change in the production from those two spots will be based solely on their improvement. Desmond played much better once Davey Johnson took over, hitting .289/.338/.417. If, and this is a big if, he can maintain numbers like those for the entire 2012 season, he will generate much more than the 1.1 WAR he was good for last year. However, it’s unlikely that he will be able to sustain numbers like those, so to be safe, let’s say he’ll add .4 WAR. Espinosa was worth 2.5 WAR for all of last season, and was tearing up the league for the first half before a disastrous stretch from mid-July to mid-August when he hit .144/.212/.192. To contrast, Espinosa was hitting .248 at the beginning of the slump and hit .277 for the remainder of the season following it. Assuming he can avoid a slump like that one and perhaps cut down on his strikeouts, it does not seem unreasonable to add another half WAR to his total, bringing our total middle infield WAR to 4.5, good for a +0.9 WAR increase.
At third, Ryan Zimmerman was injured for a lot of the season, but was able to produce 2.3 WAR during the time he was healthy. His replacements were Alex Cora and Jerry Hairston, who respectively generated 0.0 and 0.3 WAR at third, giving us a total of 2.6 WAR. Assuming Zimmerman will be healthy (fingers crossed), he is likely to put up big numbers. He averaged 5.2 WAR in the 2009 and 2010 seasons, and is only reaching his prime just now. With a stronger lineup to support him, it shouldn’t be a shock if Zim is able to generate 6 or more WAR, but to be somewhat more realistic, we’ll assume 5.0 WAR. This gives us +2.4 WAR at third, and, if you’re keeping score, +2.5 WAR overall through the infield.
Wilson Ramos played 113 games at catcher last year, and earned 2.5 WAR during those games. Ivan Rodriguez and Jesus Flores played the remainder of the games there, but combined for 0.2 WAR, thanks to Flores’ -0.2 WAR in his injury return, making for 2.7 total WAR from the catcher spot. Ramos stands to play more games this year, perhaps around the 130ish mark played by MLB’s most reliable catchers. If he reaches that 130 game level, he would generate 2.8 WAR if he produced at the same level as 2011. To account for some improvement, but not too much, we’ll predict 3 WAR for Ramos in 2012. Jesus Flores will play the remainder of the games, finally healthy after an arduous 2-year recovery from a shoulder injury. He earned 0.8 WAR in a torrid 29 games in 2009 before suffering his injury, and looked to have that same form back when he tore up the Venezuelan Winter League this offseason. However, we’ll be somewhat more conservative, and assume 0.4 WAR for Flores. This leaves us with a total of 3.4 WAR from catchers, an increase of +0.7 WAR.
The Nationals’ outfield was such a revolving door last year that it is impossible to discern by position, so we’ll just view it as a whole. Almost all of the games were played by some combination of Jayson Werth, Michael Morse, Roger Bernadina, Rick Ankiel, Laynce Nix, and Jonny Gomes, all of whom combined to produce roughly 7 WAR. Going into this year, however, the outfield picture seems much clearer. Morse is cemented into left and Werth into right. Morse is a major candidate to regress this year, but he will also likely play more than the 146 games he appeared in last year, so we’ll call it even and give him last year’s total of 3.0 WAR. Werth garnered 2.1 WAR in right last year while posting numbers incredibly far his career norm. He is certain to bounce back, and if he were to reach an average year for him from 2007-10, he would get 3.8 WAR. However, that seems to be a big jump, so a better guess would be around 3.2 WAR. Centerfield will be a platoon between Ankiel and Bernadina, who generated a combined 2.9 WAR in 161 combined starts last year. There is no real reason to think that either will regress or improve greatly, so expect that same 2.9 WAR. This gives us a total of 9.1 WAR for the outfield, +2.1 WAR over last year. That 2.1, along with the +0.7 WAR from catchers and +2.5 WAR from the infield, gives us a grand total of +5.3 WAR from the offense.
Bullpens tend to use lots of guys throughout a season, but this prediction will be based on the main six or so guys, assuming that the other innings pitched will be similar enough in WAR between 2011 and 2012. Last year’s pen of Clippard, Storen, Henry Rodriguez, Sean Burnett, and Gorzelanny/Slaten/Mattheus created roughly 7.5 WAR. This year’s pen will look somewhat similar, with Clippard, Storen, Rodriguez, Burnett, and Gorzelanny/Lidge/Detwiler.
Clippard and Storen combined for 5.2 WAR in 2011, and while Clippard is expected to regress from his unreal year, Storen will likely improve just as much; 5.2 WAR seems to be a good guess. Burnett had 1.4 WAR last year, which is nicely in line with his career numbers, so we’ll assume his numbers stay the same as well. H-Rod was worth only 0.2 WAR last year, but if he makes expected improvement with his control, he could bring that number up, so 0.4 WAR looks reasonable, with a high ceiling. Lidge has had just around 1 WAR for the past few years, with the exception of his incredible 2008 and equally awful 2009. However, he has been injured and perhaps may not pitch as much, so 0.5 WAR makes sense for him. Gorzelanny generated only around 0.2 WAR in his 22.1 relief IP, where he performed quite well, with an ERA of 2.42. If Gorzo were to extend those splendid numbers over a whole season, 1 WAR is not out of the question. However, a more realistic idea is around 0.7 WAR. Detwiler was much like Gorzelanny in that he threw only 10 innings in relief last year, but excelled with a 1.80 ERA. Given his few innings pitched, he did not have much WAR as a reliever, but with 1.1 WAR overall in 66 IP, it’s not unrealistic to see 1 WAR from him this year. However, like Gorzelanny, it is best to be more conservative and guess around 0.7 WAR. These all add up to 8.7 WAR, giving us a net +1.2 WAR from the bullpen.
The Nationals’ rotation in 2011 consisted of Liván Hernandez, Jordan Zimmermann, John Lannan, Jason Marquis until he was traded, and Tom Gorzelanny/Ross Detwiler/Chien-Ming Wang with a little dash of Stephen Strasburg. This is perhaps where the team has made the most improvement, with the projected 2012 rotation of Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson, and Chien-Ming Wang. As a whole, the Nats 2011 rotation generated around 8 WAR, thanks in part to Strasburg’s 0.8 WAR in only 24 IP. Strasburg is unlikely to maintain that pace, however, because that was the pace that Justin Verlander had last year in his historic season. If Strasburg were pitching a full season, 5 WAR might make sense for him, given how amazingly talented he is at just 23. However, since he is likely to be cut off after 160 innings, 4 WAR seems a lot more reasonable, especially considering that he has pitched at an exact rate of 1 WAR per 40 IP in his professional career of 92 IP.
Gonzalez is the new acquisition from Oakland, averaging 201.1 IP and 4.6 WAR in his last two seasons. Some predict regression as Gio leaves the purported extreme pitcher’s park that is the Oakland Coliseum, but ESPN’s Park Factor stat lists the A’s park as only 2 spots farther from neutral than Nats Park, meaning the two are similar and both favor pitchers. Even if you do believe that Gio was greatly helped by the A’s park, it is clear that being able to face a pitcher once per 9 batters as opposed to a DH when playing at home is a huge benefit, and will more than make up for the change in ballparks. As such, we can project another good year for him, at around 4.6 WAR.
Zimmermann is coming off a season in which he was limited to 161 IP thanks to Tommy John surgery the year before, but still managed 2.9 WAR in those innings. At that same rate, he would produce 3.6 WAR over 200 innings. To account for some development and being more comfortable a full two years removed from surgery, 3.8 WAR looks right for Zimmermann.
Edwin Jackson is a newcomer, signed to a one-year deal as a surprise in the offseason. He has bounced from team to team, the Nats being his 6th since 2009, but has produced everywhere, averaging 3 WAR for each of the last three years, despite being traded midseason twice. With another new team, things ironically look to stay mostly the same for him, and he will likely create around 3 WAR.
Chien-Ming Wang is the enigma of this rotation. Returning from two years of rehabbing a shoulder injury, Wang has not pitched more than 95 innings in a year since 2007, when he won 19 games for the Yankees. It is doubtful that he will return to the elite form that made him the Cy Young runner-up in 2006, but he has looked sharp in Spring Training thus far. It is hard to predict a season for a player who is returning from a long injury hiatus, but we will guess low, seeing as Wang produced 0 WAR in 62 IP last year. 1.5 WAR is likely around his level of production. This adds up to 16.9 WAR, an increase of a whopping +8.9 WAR from the overhauled rotation.
Adding up the total projected WAR increases for each player yields a +15.4 WAR increase from the team, meaning that the Nationals should win around 92 games next year, likely enough to make the playoffs. However, given the incredibly unscientific nature of my projections and WAR guesstimations for players who split time between positions, things can change a lot. These numbers by no means guarantee a playoff spot in 2012, but they do show one critical thing. If everything falls right, the Nats could make a push for the wild card, and once you’re in the playoffs, anything can happen. Just ask the 2011 Cardinals.