Unlike the American League, the three division winners in the National League seem like a foregone conclusion and everybody else is just playing for a wild card spot. The Washington Nationals are one of those three division winners. After signing Max Scherzer to a huge free agent contract, the Nationals look like a runaway winner of the NL East with probably the best starting rotation in Major League Baseball. Their lineup isn’t too shabby either. General manager Mike Rizzo is going for it and the baseball world has taken notice.
What do you do for an encore when you win 96 games and claim the division title by 17 games? Winning a playoff series would help. Dating back to the days of the Montreal Expos, the Expos/Nationals franchise has won one postseason series in 46 seasons of existence. The Nationals won the NL East for the second time in three years and they were bounced in the NLDS by the San Francisco Giants in four games.
The Nationals were very good last season, but it may not be a surprise that they weren’t able to hold their own in the postseason. The Nats were 73-43 against teams with losing records last season. They were just 23-23 against teams .500 or better. Washington was 28-10 against the Mets and Marlins en route to a 45-31 record against NL East foes. They were 11-2 against Colorado and Arizona with a 24-9 mark overall against the NL West. Furthermore, against an NL East-heavy schedule in September, the Nats went 19-8 with a +25 run differential.
That’s not meant to take anything away from the Nationals. All you can do is beat the teams on your schedule, but the Nationals certainly caught the rest of the division at a terrible time in September to run away and hide in the East and pad their record and run differential statistics. Is the same going to be possible against improved Mets and Marlins clubs? Can the Nationals live up to the preseason hype?
Oddsmakers have certainly taken notice of the talent on the club. At BetOnline, the Nationals have to win 94 games to go over the total. At 5Dimes, Washington is tasked with winning 94 games, and Bovada is asking for the same thing. That’s a huge number.
Key additions: Max Scherzer, Dan Uggla, Heath Bell, Yunel Escobar, Casey Janssen
Key losses: Asdrubal Cabrera, Adam LaRoche, Tyler Clippard, Scott Hairston, Nate Schierholtz, Ross Detwiler, Ryan Mattheus
It’s a huge number because the Nationals added Max Scherzer to an already spectacular rotation. Scherzer signed a seven-year contract that will pay him over 14 years. Half of the contract is deferred, which was a surprising development, but Mike Rizzo has a great relationship with Scherzer’s agent, Scott Boras. The Nationals have several Boras clients including Stephen Strasburg, Jayson Werth, and Bryce Harper, so the working relationship is why the Nationals were able to win the Scherzer sweepstakes.
Dan Uggla could wind up being an interesting player for the Nationals. He was diagnosed with Oculomotor Dysfunction, a condition in which a past concussion affects eye sight when the head is moving. Uggla never made great contact, but he went from striking out around 22 percent of the time to striking out nearly 30 percent of the time. He hit 22 home runs as recently as 2013, so there could be some big bounce back value in him.
The same can be said for former closer Heath Bell, who has a track record of success. Yunel Escobar was the return for trading away Tyler Clippard, one of the game’s best relievers over the last several seasons. Casey Janssen was a late, low-risk signing to add some bullpen depth. Janssen was the former closer for Toronto.
The Nationals lost some starting pitching depth with the Detwiler trade with Texas, but they have plenty of that to go around. Schierholtz and Hairston were platoon players. Asdrubal Cabrera played well at second base after he was acquired from the Indians near the trade deadline, but he left for Tampa Bay in free agency.
LaRoche is the biggest loss for the Nationals. He hit 26 home runs with a .362 on-base percentage and a .356 wOBA. He signed with the Chicago White Sox in free agency.
Why bet the over?
This starting rotation is the best in baseball. There are no weaknesses and Tanner Roark is waiting in the wings if somebody gets hurt. Roark was a three-win pitcher last season. You know a rotation is ridiculously good when either Gio Gonzalez or Doug Fister is the fifth starter.
Let’s start with Max Scherzer, the prized free agent pickup from the Detroit Tigers. Scherzer returns to the NL after posting some incredible numbers with the Tigers. In five seasons, Scherzer was 82-35 with a 3.52 ERA and has thrown at least 214 innings in each of the last two seasons. He has 1,081 strikeouts in 1,013 innings pitched over the last five seasons and a Cy Young Award. The control problems that Scherzer fought with early in his career seem to be gone and he put up those excellent stats with some terrible defenses behind him.
I’ve often said that Jordan Zimmermann is the best pitcher on the Nationals staff and that was the case last season. The impending free agent was 14-5 with a 2.66 ERA and a 2.68 FIP. He was a five-win pitcher and he walked 3.6 percent of the batters that he faced. He has been a guy that has outpitched his peripherals in each of the last three seasons and it’s safe to say that he might be one of the lucky few that wind up being exempt. He elevated his strikeout rate last season to a career best of 22.8 percent and lowered his home run rate to a career low. Zimmermann showcased impeccable command with his fastball and he should be penciled in for another great season with free agency and a huge payday on the horizon.
Stephen Strasburg doesn’t get the respect that he deserves because he came to the Majors with impossible expectations to live up to. He was supposed to be the next coming of Bob Feller or a right-handed Clayton Kershaw. He’s a reliable four-win pitcher with a tiny bit of a home run problem, but he posted the best walk rate of his career last season and his strikeout rate went up. Strasburg proved his durability last season with 34 starts and 215 innings three years removed from Tommy John surgery and the sky is the limit for him if he can miss a few more barrels. If his HR/FB% regresses to league average, he is projected to post an ERA between 2.50 and 2.75.
Gio Gonzalez has been a three-win pitcher in each of the last six seasons, including one spike up to 5.1 fWAR in 2012. With Zimmermann, Strasburg, and now Scherzer, Gonzalez will probably be an afterthought. He dealt with some shoulder soreness last season, but he has made at least 32 starts in the previous four seasons. His walk rate is under control now, but not at the expense of his strikeout rate. Gonzalez is the league’s best #4 starter and there’s no question about that.
Mike Rizzo committed larceny when he pulled Doug Fister away from the Detroit Tigers. Fister’s due for some regression off of last season’s 2.41 ERA, but Fister’s season got off to a late start due to an elbow problem in Spring Training that limited his velocity. Regardless, he let hitters put the ball in play and they put it on the ground at a 49 percent clip. He had a 3.93 FIP and a 3.85 xFIP and dropped severely in wins above replacement player, but better health in Spring Training should allow him to prepare for the season in the manner that he’s used to and another three-win season isn’t out of the question if the strikeouts return and the walk rate stays low.
The Nationals rotation has the potential to be worth somewhere around 20 wins. Not many teams are going to come close to that level of projection and, as mentioned above, Tanner Roark is no slouch as a sixth starter in this rotation. This is, hands down, the best rotation in baseball.
As mentioned, the lineup is pretty good, too. Four different players accumulated at least 3.8 wins for the Nationals, led by Anthony Rendon’s breakout season. Rendon slashed .287/.351/.473 with 21 homers, 17 steals, and 111 RBI. The offensive breakout was great, but his tremendous performance at third base allowed the Nationals to move Ryan Zimmerman to first base. The power production may not return, but Rendon is a very valuable player, both at the hot corner and in the batter’s box.
Jayson Werth reached base 39.4 percent of the time thanks to a 13.2 percent walk rate and a .292 batting average, slightly inflated by a .343 BABIP. Werth was the Nationals offensive MVP with 16 home runs and that spectacular on-base percentage. He wasn’t a killer defensively and wound up being worth nearly five wins.
The Nationals probably won’t be able to keep Ian Desmond after the season, but the shortstop is in a contract year and that could mean a bump from his .255/.313/.430 slash. Desmond hit 24 home runs and stole 24 bases, which made him a tremendously valuable offensive player in the real world and the fantasy baseball world. He should be able to replicate that performance this season and could even spike upward with the promise of a huge payday next winter.
Bryce Harper is ready to put it all together. Injuries have limited him to 218 games and less than 900 plate appearances over the last two seasons, but the talent is there and clearly visible. Harper struck out too much last season and saw a drop in power while he butted heads with manager Matt Williams. Harper still has 30 homer potential and a return to his plate discipline marks from 2013 would represent a huge upgrade in his overall production. Watch out for Harper to really bust out this season.
Dependable players like Denard Span and Wilson Ramos leave the Nationals will very few, if any, weaknesses in the everyday lineup. Yunel Escobar is probably the biggest question mark on the offensive side of things, but there’s not a lot of pressure on him while hitting eighth in this lineup. This is a really good lineup with some guys capable of improving.
The bullpen no longer has Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano, but there’s still a fair amount of talent back there. Drew Storen should open the season as the closer, with dependable arms like Craig Stammen and Jerry Blevins in middle relief. Casey Janssen and Heath Bell are former closers that could find success in setup roles for the Nationals to help bridge the gap to talented strikeout artist Aaron Barrett and Storen. Blake Treinen may be stretched out as a starter, but he can hit triple digits and keep the ball on the ground, so there’s promise in him as a starter.
Why bet the under?
It’s a stretch to find practical flaws with the Nationals, but this is a really high amount of games to ask a team to win for a win total. Anything can go wrong and an injury situation like what happened to the Texas Rangers isn’t all that out of the ordinary.
With that hypothetical out of the way, let’s try to find ways to pick this team apart. For starters, the Mets and Marlins project to be better and they are “lite” versions of the Nationals starting rotation. The Nationals are expected to do so well and run away with the division so easily that complacency could be an issue, especially against teams that the Nationals dominated last season.
Gio Gonzalez has dealt with some shoulder trouble in the past and Doug Fister had the elbow problem last season. Stephen Strasburg is a former Tommy John recipient. There are some injury risks, as there are with all pitchers, but the vaunted Nationals rotation would look a lot different with Tanner Roark and Blake Treinen or Taylor Jordan in it. When teams have a win total in the mid-90s, there’s not a lot of margin for error because it requires about a 58 percent winning percentage.
There are some regression candidates on the offensive side of things. As mentioned above, Anthony Rendon’s power output is a bit of a question mark. Some Nationals definitely benefitted from good batted ball luck. Jayson Werth’s .343 BABIP will come down some and Ryan Zimmerman’s .313 could also be a candidate for regression. Ian Desmond’s .326 is a bit above the usual range, as is Rendon’s .314.
Speaking of Zimmerman, he was limited to 61 games and 240 plate appearances last season, so injuries are definitely a factor with him once again. They might be mitigated by playing first, but that also limits the value of Zimmerman’s slash line because first base tends to be a better offensive position than third base. League-wide, first basemen posted a .328 wOBA. Third basemen checked in at .316.
The Nationals bullpen worries me in a big way. Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano were proven commodities. Drew Storen pitches to more contact than both of them did and trying to find value in former closers in middle relief doesn’t work out very well historically. Their middle relief is shaky and the bridges to Storen are really shaky. It should be mitigated a bit by the length that the Nationals rotation can provide, but it’s clearly the weak link of the team.
Pick: Over 93.5
You knew this was coming. This team is a World Series favorite with good reason. The starting rotation is completely stacked with talent. The lineup is a great mix of veteran players and talented youngsters with development left. The Nationals have a terrific team and they’re going to run over the NL East again this season. The nice part is that the Nationals will probably be fighting for home field advantage in the playoffs once they clinch the division title, so it should keep them playing hard throughout the season.
There are no weaknesses in the lineup or the starting rotation. The bullpen has to cobble together enough decent innings to be league average, but it’s hard to see very many close games if everything goes according to plan with the starting pitchers.
This is the year that the Nationals get over the hump and win a playoff series. I don’t know what happens when they square off against the Dodgers in the NLCS, but I can’t wait to find out.
-END OF 2015 PREDICTION-
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.
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.