Issues of National Concern

In the midst of the annual free agent frenzy, there are always a few teams that don’t get involved. This year is no different. As of press time, there are only three teams that haven’t signed a player to a major league contract or made a trade for a major league player: the Twins, the Pirates, and the Nationals. (The Devil Rays haven’t either, but it doesn’t seem appropriate to count them along with the other three, since they won the bidding to negotiate with Akinori Iwamura.)

The Pirates are no surprise: they seem to do this nearly every year, waiting around until only the bad free agents are left. The Twins shouldn’t surprise anyone either: they have little money to spare and a young core they can count on to keep them within shouting distance of the division lead. The Nationals: well, that’s what got me thinking along these lines. They were bad last year, they’ve lost several players (including Alfonso Soriano) who contributed to the 71 games they actually won, and there’s little help on the farm.

Just how bad could Washington’s squad be next year? Barring a Jim Bowden megatrade, the answer to that question begins and ends with the starting rotation. MLB.com provides a depth chart for all 30 major league teams, and for most teams, that means a list of six or more starters along with 10-12 relievers, the group from which the pitching staff will be selected come March. The Nats chart, however, doesn’t deserve the adjective “depth.” It lists only three starting pitchers: John Patterson, Michael O’Connor, and Shawn Hill.

Between them, those three made only 34 starts last year. Of the 21 pitchers currently on Washington’s 40-man roster, five of them started games for the Nats in 2006, combining for only 48. Of course, it really isn’t that bad: John Patterson could give them 30 above-average starts, and presumably Jim Bowden isn’t going to force Manny Acta to get nine innings out of his bullpen two or three times a week.

When Tim Redding is Your Savior…

If you assume the Nats aren’t about to get into the bidding for Barry Zito, Jeff Suppan, or Jeff Weaver, who is going to fill out the rotation? Tim Redding is an early candidate: Washington signed him to a minor-league contract earlier in the offseason and, if nothing else, he’s durable. He threw 187.1 innings in Triple-A last year, and his minor league equivalencies suggest that he would’ve put together a 4.80 FIP in the majors. Give him a little boost to adjust for pitcher-friendly RFK Stadium, and that number is better than the ERA of any National who started more than eight games in 2006.

When a FIP of 4.80 is great news, a near guarantee of a starting rotation spot out of spring training, that’s not a good sign. Bowden surely recognizes this, having made an offer to free agent Tomo Ohka, perhaps the best option left on the market after Zito, Suppan, and Weaver. Two of the more durable options who remain on the market pitched for the Nats last year but, of course, “durable” doesn’t mean “good”: Tony Armas and Ramon Ortiz each started at least 30 games last year, assembling ERA+s of 79 and 88, respectively.

Could last year’s starting crew have really been that bad? To isolate their performances from that of the defense behind them, let’s look at each pitcher’s ERA alongside their FIP, a stat set on the same scale as ERA, but designed to measure only those things (homers, walks, and strikeouts) that the pitcher can control.

Starter   IP      ERA     FIP
Ortiz     190.7   5.57    5.23
Armas     154.0   5.03    4.79
Hernandez 146.7   5.34    5.00
O'Connor  105.0   4.80    5.21
Astacio   90.3    5.98    5.31
Total     686.7   5.33    5.09

The starting rotation was bad, but it wasn’t quite as awful as their ERAs make them out to be. Only Michael O’Connor’s ERA was luck-, bullpen-, or defense-aided. While it appears unlikely that the Nats will break camp with more than one above-average starter (and perhaps another four in the vicinity of replacement level), some of the blame must be placed on the defense.

So, About That Defense…

Much about the Nats fielding looks decidedly average. Austin Kearns, Ryan Zimmerman, and Nick Johnson each scored above the mean in David Pinto’s PMR, and the team finished in the top half of the National League in defensive efficiency. However, at some of the more defensive positions, they have—how shall we put this?—offensive-minded players. Felipe Lopez was one of the worst shortstops in baseball last year, and Jose Vidro was among the worst second basemen. Vidro could bounce back; Lopez can only hope to hit enough to offset his deficiencies and keep Cristian Guzman on the bench.

Last year, Alfonso Soriano made a positive contribution with the glove, and it’s reasonable to assume that Ryan Church (if he starts, anyway) would do the same in left. However, that still leaves a gaping hole in the infield, along with several cases—Zimmerman and Johnson, above all—where the fielding might take a step back. It would seem that whatever benefits RFK confers upon Washington pitchers, the Nats defense gives back. And, most pertinent to our discussion, there’s no sign it’ll be any better in 2007.

If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say…

While the defense is shaky, the bullpen is questionable after Chad Cordero, and the starting rotation is a cipher, the offense is reasonably solid. With full seasons from Kearns, Lopez, and Church, the Nats could have five 20-home run hitters, each one of whom is a decent bet to put up a .350 OBP. There may be no MVP contender to take Soriano’s place, but aside from whoever ends up playing center field (Nook Logan?), each starter is an above-average hitter at his position. (That does require Brian Schneider to bounce back to something near his career SLG of .386; last year’s .329 might not even top Logan.)

It’s a good offense, probably a bit better than last year’s, but not enough to make up for the pitching. In fact, the Nationals will likely be a case study in the value of average: both positively and negatively. On the positive side, all those solid hitters will add up to an above-average offensive attack. On the negative side, the Nats will prove how valuable an average starter is by virtue of not having very many.

All of This Means What, Exactly?

To get an idea of where the Nats stand for the 2007 campaign, let’s look at the contributions we can expect of those players who we know should be above replacement level. In most cases, I’ll use their 2006 WSAB; I’ve given Ryan Church a larger number to reflect the hope of greater playing time, and for John Patterson, I’ve been generous and given him his 2005 total. For four starters, a few bullpen spots, center field, catcher, and the bench, I’ve ignored them: unless Bowden pulls another fast one on Wayne Krivsky, their WSAB shouldn’t be far above zero.

Pos     Player     WSAB
1B      Johnson    14
2B      Vidro      2
3B      Zimmerman  12
SS      Lopez      3
LF      Church     13
RF      Kearns     6
SP      Patterson  6
CL      Cordero    5
RP      Rauch      3
RP      Rivera     2
--      Total      66

66 WSAB is equivalent to 22 wins. A theoretical team made up entirely of bench players would win about 51 games, so this back-of-the-envelope approach projects the Nats to win 73 next year. To tweak the numbers a bit: WSAB doesn’t have the sophisticated approach to defense that, say, PMR does, so it’s likely that it overrates Lopez’s contribution. It may also be a bit of wishcasting to pencil Patterson in for 6 WSAB. On the flip side, it seems probable that at least one pitcher (Hill? Joel Hanrahan?) will emerge and establish himself as substantially better than a bench player.

It’s too early to judge Jim Bowden’s offseason, but it would appear that the last smart thing he’s done was the midseason trade for Lopez and Kearns. The biggest difference between the 2006 and 2007 editions of the Washington Nationals will likely be in the offense, due to having a full season of those two hitters. Unless Bowden proves himself adept at restocking the farm system and planning for the future of the organization, there could be many $60 million, 73-win seasons in Washington’s future.

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