Critiquing the 2016 Projections for the Washington Nationals
We are more than six weeks from the first official games of the 2016 season. Then, the day to day performance of players in the long grind of the season will determine what of these hot stove fantasies has any meaning whatsoever. No disrespect intended, but FanGraph’s “ZiPS” and “Steamer” projections are very handy to have, but aptly named. Still, I could not help being swept up in the MLB projections for the Washington Nationals, that are appropriated called “Fantasy Projections,” like fantasy Valentine’s Day negligee.
Let’s work our way from the light fantastic at the top of the heap to the dismal bottom. Bryce Harper’s break out in season in 2015 was epic in proportions. But there is reason to temper expectations. After all, the New Hampshire Primary was held only days ago and as Marco Rubio can attest, expectations are sometimes more important that the real thing. Which is not to say that Harper is in the same league with the Rube, but a piece by a Harper skeptic, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Harper,” provides a fine reality check.
Harper’s new found patience at the plate is reminiscent of the all time best at judging the strike zone, Ted Williams. The most well-preserved feature of Teddy Ballgame is his .482 lifetime On-Base Percentage (OBP) that exceeds all others. Harper’s .460 OBP in 2015 led both leagues, which gives you some idea how selective Williams was over the course of his career. Is it a mark that can be bested? Cal Ripken must have asked himself the same question early on.
My own personal guess is that the MLB projection of Harper hitting 41 homers this season is optimistic and I would agree with Justin Mason that some fall to earth is in order. I like .312-37-105-5, where his OBP is .458. The league will adjust, but Harper will continue to mature as a player and chase his own records. The perplexing issue is how the entire Washington Nationals team playing with Bryce Harper faltered completely in 2015. Was it Matt Williams or the alignment of the stars? Either way, the chance that the team will experience another epic fail seems unlikely. Which makes the MLB fantasy projections a bit of credibility, but not much. Some recovery for players like Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, and even Jayson Werth seems fair. But among the threesome, Rendon’s health is the most important.
The addition of two offensive minded players in Ben Revere and Daniel Murphy will help Washington regardless. Revere will lead off and replace Denard Span who fueled the team when it won the NL East in 2012 and 2014. But where Daniel Murphy will bat in the lineup depends upon the health of Rendon. A full strength Rendon could just as easily hit third in the lineup and allow Dusty Baker to pencil in Revere-Murphy-Rendon-Harper and Zimmerman in the first five slots. The number of times that those five play together healthily in 2016 will be half of the equation. Again, Rendon is the key. He has recorded three very fine seasons: his freshman and sophomore years at Rice and his breakout MLB 2014 season. But he has been injured for the better part of three seasons as well. So the odds are about .500 that the “Good” Rendon will show up in 2016.
MLB projects a solid if unspectacular year for Zimmerman with .271-20-76-2, which seems reasonable for an aging slugger who suggested last September that he can still hit. The other veteran–turning 37 in May–is Jayson Werth. He folded like a card table in 2015, but had lots of company. Werth is not going to match the MLB projection of him hitting .272-17-68-5. Coming close would be a pleasant surprise. The Nationals front office must have similarly gloomy projections in mind for Werth or they would not have gone after Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Yeonis Cespdes. No disrespect to all the women fans who follow Werth religiously, but Washington will do better putting Michael A. Taylor’s glove out in center field, moving Revere to left, and keeping Jayson Werth on the bench as much as possible.
Taylor and Danny Espinosa are the flip side of Murphy and Revere. They are the glove men whose presence could off-set the twin liabilities of Revere’s arm and Murphy’s range. Taylor could grow in 2016 into a mid-level offensive player. Steamer projects some growth with a .240/.309/.379 slash line that would be a marked improvement over the .213/.269/.364 he posted in the second half of 2015. It is easy to imagine a scenario where Werth is injured at some point in 2016 and Taylor assumes his position in the lineup more or less permanently. How well he handles that assignment is also a key variable for the Nationals.
Danny Espinosa had a respectable season in 2015 filling in for Rendon. His slash line of .240/.311/.409 was better than Ian Desmond’s, which goes a long way to explaining why Desmond is still unsigned. Waiting for Espinosa to falter is Trea Turner who will likely start the season at Triple-A. Also wielding a better glove than bat is Wilson Ramos. He threw out 44% of runners last season and blocked the ball as well as anyone. He should be a better hitter than he demonstrated in 2015, but it is possible that injuries have taken a long term toll, or he bounces back like everyone else. Taken as a whole, the back end of the Nationals lineup has some punch and has more reason to be on the field than many other players who hold down these spots on other MLB teams.
A more resounding vote of confidence can be given to the Nationals pitching for 2016. Max Scherzer was the third best pitcher in the National League in 2015 with no-hitters in both June and October. Stephen Strasburg is in his walk year and most are betting that he is a money player who will have a career year this season. FanGraphs is projecting Strasburg as the fifth best pitcher in the NL with a 4.8 WAR, behind only Kershaw, Scherzer, Arrieta and Jose Fernandez. So Washington will be led by one of the best twosomes in the league. The question is what follows and new pitching coach Mike Maddux has his work cut out for him in fashioning a respectable threesome.
Gio Gonzalez has become more enigma than anything else. He won 20 games in 2012 and then the league adjusted after watching the Cardinals demolish him in the playoffs. Gonzalez has never fully recovered. He becomes the pitching equivalent of Anthony Rendon or Ryan Zimmerman. His success will do much to determine where the Nationals land at the end of the season. The team needs Maddux to help restore the affable Gonzo who is still only 30 years old. Behind him in the rotation is anyone’s guess. Joe Ross pitched extremely well in 2015 for a rookie. Can he repeat? Tanner Roark could not duplicate his 2014 numbers, but the Nationals will give him a chance to bounce back with everyone else. Still, the chances are that the back end of Washington’s rotation will see plenty of A.J. Cole and ultimately Austin Voth and Lucas Giolitto. There is more talent to chose from there than in the bullpen.
As un-fulfilling as the Nationals offense was in 2015, the bullpen may have been worse. There are few of the old faces. Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard are gone. Jonathan Papelbon was brought in to disastrous results overall in the second half last year, but he will be the closer to start the season. He will be set up by new face Shawn Kelley primarily, but by Felipe Rivero, Trevor Gott, Blake Treinin, Oliver Perez and Yusmeiro Petit as well. Rivero and Gott are hard throwers–96-97 mph consistently–sought out by GM Mike Rizzo. Rivero settled into the bullpen in the second half of last season earning two saves and maintaining a 2.97 ERA over 33 innings from July to October. Gott had success for the Angels and both will be battling Blake Treinin for the mantle, “closer of the future” in Washington. They will be better than their 2015 counterparts and hopefully will be part of an across the board improvement.
There is a lot to like about baseball in Washington. The baseball season offers far more promise than the political one, at least for results. I project a long drawn out summer of political misery and ineffectiveness that will rival anything the old Senators dished out in the late 1950’s. Hockey and baseball provide far more hope in DC and that is a projection that you can bank on.