The Washington Nationals fell well short of expectations last season. Bryce Harper, Wilson Ramos, and Jayson Werth all missed significant time and that really took its toll on the offense. Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, and Dan Haren all had 15-day stints on the disabled list. The problem for the Nationals was that Werth went out right as Zimmerman came back and Harper and Ramos went down around the same time in late May while Werth was still out.
There aren’t many teams built to withstand injuries in succession like that and it definitely had an impact on the season. The Nationals scored less than 100 runs in each of April and May, averaging just 3.5 runs per game. In the final four months of the season, the Nationals averaged 4.3 runs per game, but by the end of May, the Nationals were already 4.5 games out and a series loss to the Braves put them 6.5 back on June 2. They would get no closer than four games out and a 2-11 stretch bookending the All-Star Break pretty much eliminated the Nationals.
The Braves dominated the season series against the Nats with a 13-6 record and held the Nationals to just 49 runs in 19 meetings. The final gap in the NL East standings between the two was 10 games, but those 19 meetings went a long way in dictating the division race.
What we saw from the Nationals in August and September may be a good indicator for the 2014 season. The Nationals ended the year with a 34-20 mark over their final 54 games and scored 4.7 runs per game once everybody was healthy. The door certainly swung wide open for the Nationals when Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy were sent under the knife for the second time to have Tommy John surgery. The Braves responded by signing Ervin Santana, but one has to assume that the Nationals are entering this season expecting to be better in the season series and with a serious amount of focus. They were going to anyway, but their chief rivals are vulnerable and that always takes things up a notch.
One thing that will have to change for the Nationals is their performance against good teams. The Nationals feasted on bottom feeders last season with a 62-35 mark against teams under .500. That means that they were just 24-41 against teams with a .500 or better record. Consider that the Nationals were 17 games over .500 against the Mets, Marlins, and Phillies and that partially explains the record against bad teams. Those teams might be better, but they’re still going to be below .500, so things are shaping up for the Nationals.
Oddsmakers believe that as well. 5Dimes.eu, BetOnline.ag, and Bovada.lv all have 89.5 posted for the Nationals with heavy juice on the over. The lowest juice is -130 at 5Dimes right now. BetDSI.eu has the total at 90 with -120 on the over. The market has pushed this number up, both because of the potential and the high ceiling that the Nationals have, but also because of the tough month of March for the Braves.
Key additions: Doug Fister, Jerry Blevins, Nate McLouth, Luis Ayala, Mike Gonzalez, Kevin Frandsen, Jose Lobaton
Key losses: Robbie Ray, Ian Krol, Dan Haren, Steve Lombardozzi, Fernando Abad
The mark of a good team is one that focuses on adding depth in the offseason. That’s exactly what the Nationals did, with the exception of the Doug Fister trade with the Tigers. Fister slots nicely into the spot vacated by Dan Haren. At the cost of a matchup lefty, a mid-ceiling prospect starter, and a utility infielder, the Nationals seem to have made a very good trade there.
The Nationals were blindsided by injuries last season and lacked quality depth. Guys like Tyler Moore, Danny Espinosa, Roger Bernadina, and Chad Tracy hit .222 or less with over 130 plate appearances. Lombardozzi posted a 69 OPS+ over 307 plate appearances in various fill-in roles and at second base before Anthony Rendon was called up. Guys like Frandsen, Lobaton, and McLouth are important pieces to the puzzle when most of the puzzle is completed. Major League quality depth is a good thing. In Lobaton’s case, Kurt Suzuki was brutal at the plate when Ramos was out. Lobaton is both a better hitter and better defender.
Similarly, the Nationals needed some bullpen depth. Jerry Blevins and Mike Gonzalez will replace Ian Krol as the team’s second matchup lefty throughout the season. Luis Ayala will fill the void left by the trade of Fernando Abad.
Why bet the over?
The sky is the limit for this team. The offense is extremely talented and nearly all eight positions can expect above average offensive production. The only questions are at first base and in center field. Adam LaRoche was slightly above average last season with a 103 wRC+ and Denard Span was slightly below average with a 97 wRC+. Other than those two, who really aren’t that bad anyway, this lineup is stacked.
Beginning with one of the game’s weakest offensive positions, Ian Desmond is one of the most valuable offensive shortstops in the game. Desmond’s career path has given credence to the long-time argument that power is the last thing to come. After hitting 22 home runs over his first 1,275 plate appearances, Desmond has posted back-to-back 20+ HR seasons. He has also stolen 21 bases in each of the last two seasons. Desmond doesn’t walk, but his speed allows him to have a BABIP north of the usual .290-.310 range that players fall into. Depending on what fielding metric you subscribe to, Desmond is either slightly above or slightly below average, but the fact remains that his defense doesn’t detract from his offense.
Offensively, Ryan Zimmerman had the type of season people have come to expect. He hit 26 home runs with an OPS above .800 and walked slightly more than average. What zapped some of Zimmerman’s value was his poor showing in defensive metrics that measure range. It’s hard to say if this is a disturbing trend or not, but give Zimmerman the benefit of the doubt entering his age-30 season, especially since he won’t turn 30 until late September.
As far as corner outfielders go, the Nationals might have the best tandem in the league with Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper. Both guys missed more than 40 games with injuries and still accumulated 8.4 combined fWAR. Both players draw walks at a well above average rate and both guys have 25+ home run power. If these two stay healthy in 2014, 10 combined fWAR is a distinct possibility and that would have to be near the top of the league for corner outfielders.
Wilson Ramos has shown so much potential in his injury-shortened Major League career, but his body has not cooperated. Ramos hit 16 home runs in just 303 plate appearances last season. Two long trips to the disabled list limited him to just 78 games. If healthy, Ramos can be a three-win catcher for the Nationals, giving them yet another above average full-time player in the lineup.
Anthony Rendon is this year’s player to watch. Rendon will turn 24 in June and his path to the big leagues was quickened as a result of being drafted out of Rice University at the age of 22. The former sixth-overall pick showed decent pop last season and, most importantly, put the bat on the ball in his first full season. Second base is a weak position to begin with, so as long as Rendon performs average with the glove and bats .270 with 15 home runs, he’ll be in the upper half of second basemen league-wide.
There aren’t many holes in the lineup and as good as that is, the starting rotation may somehow be better. The top four in the starting rotation were all drafted in the first, first, second, and seventh rounds, which tells you about the kind of talent this group possesses. Obviously the sexiest name is Stephen Strasburg, the former San Diego State Aztec who has no problem lighting up a radar gun. Strasburg was just 8-9 last season, but that’s an example of why win-loss record is a terrible way to gauge a pitcher’s performance. Strasburg struck out over 26 percent of opposing batters and posted a 3.00 ERA, a 3.21 FIP, and a 2.88 SIERA. He is a legit front of the rotation arm.
Gio Gonzalez and his devastating curveball did what he usually does and won’t stop doing. Gonzalez threw over 195 innings for the fourth straight season with a 3.36 ERA and a 3.41 FIP. His 2013 season was more indicative of his true ability than his 2012 season, so the mild regression was not surprising. Gonzalez has been consistently solid for four straight seasons and that’s not going to stop now at age 28 with a September birthday.
While Strasburg and Gonzalez have the gaudier profiles, it’s the elite command of Jordan Zimmermann that made him the most valuable (from an fWAR standpoint) pitcher for the Nationals last season. Zimmermann walked 40 batters in 213.1 innings. His 4.6 percent walk rate was good enough for ninth overall, behind guys like Cliff Lee and Bartolo Colon and ahead of Clayton Kershaw and Hisashi Iwakuma. Pinpoint control allows Zimmermann to be effective without the high strikeout rates associated with ERAs and FIPs like his. It helps that he throws 94, but the command and pitch mix from Zimmermann has led to an increase in ground balls and more pop ups over the last two seasons.
Doug Fister will miss time early in the season due to a lat strain, but when he does return to the rotation, he’ll fit right in as he boasts a similar control profile to Zimmermann with a higher ground ball rate. Luckily, the Nationals have some depth with Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan, both to fill out the #5 spot and to fill in for Fister.
The bullpen is also a strength with Rafael Soriano in the closing role and one of the game’s most elite setup men in Tyler Clippard. Soriano recorded over 40 saves for the second straight season. Clippard has been ridiculously reliable over the last four seasons with 296 appearances, elite strikeout rates, and great splits against both types of hitters as a lefty out of the pen. Drew Storen had a rough year as he ran into some regression, but he should bounce back as there were some anomalies in his peripherals and some bad luck with balls in play. The pen is deep as well with a second, or even third, lefty, Luis Ayala in a veteran role, and guys like Craig Stammen and Christian Garcia.
Why bet the under?
Any win total over 90 can be precarious because it takes a lot of things going right and falling into place to sustain that level of performance over a 162-game season. A simple four or five-game losing streak can drastically alter the team’s pace. That’s just an inherent risk with any high win total and not an indictment of the Nationals in any way. It’s always important to consider how hard it is to win 55 percent of the games over a six-month season.
There were some concerning developments during 2013 for the Nationals that aren’t likely to go away. The most obvious centers around closer Rafael Soriano. Yes, Soriano had good standard numbers with 43 saves and a 3.11 ERA. But, take a deeper look and you’ll see a pitcher that experienced a velocity decline and a sharp drop in strikeouts. Soriano’s slider became a much less effective pitch even though his cutter was more successful. It’s certainly something to watch for.
Not only does Doug Fister’s recent lat strain affect the team’s starting pitching depth, but it has allowed people to forget about how Fister had elbow inflammation earlier in the Spring. The Nationals were the only team in baseball to have four starting pitchers throw 150 or more innings and not make the playoffs. Strasburg, Zimmermann, and Gonzalez are clearly good enough to carry the load, but having a reliable, above average fourth starter is extremely beneficial. The lat strain to Fister may not be a big deal, but the elbow inflammation may be down the road.
Pick: Over 89.5 (-130, 5Dimes)
It’s hard to find things to dislike about this Nationals ballclub. The fact that the team was able to focus solely on depth this offseason is an indication of how good they truly are. Teams that only need to plug in replacements in case of injury or late-inning defensive changes are in that position because of the talent in the everyday lineup or among the regular pitchers. Between the Braves pitching injuries and three teams that should finish well below .500 in the NL East, the Nationals are in a prime position to win a lot of games.
While saying that a player is “average” sounds like a bad thing, take a look around the league and look at how many below average players play every day or play key roles on a team. The Nationals are average or better at all eight defensive positions and have four above average starting pitchers with Fister healthy. That wins a lot of ballgames. They also have a solid bullpen, especially with the setup guys.
The NL has a chance to be very top-heavy this season with the Dodgers, Cardinals, and Nationals winning well over 90 games. Don’t be afraid of the juice here. This team is in much better shape than it was last season and should surpass this number comfortably.
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Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball BangTheBook.com podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.