The Washington Nationals had a shopping list entering the offseason: a 4th/5th starter, a lefty reliever, a back-up catcher, a stronger bench player, possibly a second baseman.
The 4th starter for the Nationals in 2013 was Dan Haren, a name which has been much reviled in Natstown. For the season, Haren had okay numbers; his 4.09 FIP was good for a 109 FIP- (100 being average and above 100 being below average). So, he was only 9 percent below average by that measure, which is probably much better than many would believe. Perhaps that is because they only remember his first half numbers, a 5.62 ERA and a 4.67 FIP, accentuated by a 4 start, 18 and 1/3 inning June where he had a 9.82 ERA and FIP of 7.08(!). Added to the fact that he was a $13 million free agent signing off of an injury plagued season and a very poor April, it is fairly easy to understand the bitter taste in the mouth of Nats fans when it comes to Haren.
To find a replacement, this offseason GM Mike Rizzo did not look to the free agent market, which was incredibly “meh” anyway, as he had the past two years with Haren and Edwin Jackson and instead turned to the trade market. By sending lefty reliever Ian Krol, minor leaguer Robbie Ray, and super utility player Steve Lombardozzi to the Detroit Tigers, Rizzo was able to acquire right-handed starter Doug Fister in what can be considered the steal of the offseason. Over the last three seasons, Fister has a FIP of 3.21, which is on par with Gio Gonzalez (3.29) and Jordan Zimmermann (3.35) over the same time frame. Fister should be a major upgrade over what Haren did last season, and all it took to land him was a prospect, a reliever, and a bench player.
The Nationals bullpen in 2013 had a bit of a regression from the 2012 season. Looking at ERA and FIP, the bullpen had a slight uptick in ERA, but a slight downtick in FIP; overall they produced just .4 fWAR less than they did in 2012. Personally, I felt like the bullpen was much worse than that in 2013, and if we look at RE24, which was pointed out as a better measure of bullpen pitchers elsewhere on this blog, that feeling is born out. In 2012, the bullpen had a RE24 of 36.27, meaning for the entire season the bullpen reduced the other team’s run expectancy by 36 runs. In 2013, the number was -2.54, implying that the bullpen added 2.5 runs to the other team’s run expectancy; that is not a lot, but having the total on the negative side backs up the lack of confidence.
One particular weakness was in left-handed relief. The 2013 Nationals started the season with Zach Duke as the only left-handed pitcher in their bullpen. Eventually, Fernando Abad was added, Xavier Cedeno was plucked off of waivers from the Astros, and Ian Krol was called up to the big league roster. None of those four players added much value to the team, with Cedeno having the highest RE24 at 1.12 and the others with much less; coincidentally, Cedeno was the only one of those players to stick with the team until spring.
To strengthen the bullpen as a whole, and address the left-handed reliever situation in particular, Mike Rizzo made a trade with the Oakland A’s to get Jerry Blevins, sending away a speedy prospect in return. Blevins had an average season last year, not stellar but not horrible, and the not horrible part means that he will be an upgrade of some sort. If he can return to his 2012 form, Blevins should be a major asset to the team.
The next two items on the wish list were in regards to the bench on the offensive side of the ball. Wilson Ramos is a great catcher when he’s healthy. Unfortunately, over the last two seasons he has barely played over 100 games. The two guys that filled in for him last season were Kurt Suzuki and Jhonatan Solano, who combined for a -0.8 fWAR and had wRC+ numbers of 58 and -4 (small sample size). As for the rest of the bench, here is the list of bench players that had over 100 plate appearances last season with their wRC+ and fWAR: Tyler Moore, 64 and -1.2; Steve Lombardozzi, 67 and -0.7; Chad Tracy, 55 and -0.6; Roger Bernadina, 42 and -0.2. So, according to FanGraphs, if all of those plate appearances were given to a replacement level producing player, the Nationals would have gained 3.5 wins. They finished 4 games behind the Reds for the second Wild Card spot.
Part of giving that playing time back to replacement level or better players will be to have fuller seasons from Ramos and Bryce Harper, but the rest will have to fall to someone. To shore up the catching position, the Nationals traded pitching prospect Nathan Karns for backup catcher Jose Lobaton. Lobaton is an average, or near average, offensive player, which is miles ahead of in-house candidates Solano and Sandy Leon. And, as Matt pointed out in his “Get to Know a Nat” piece, Lobaton offers much more value on the defensive side of the ball.
The other major move with regards to the bench was former Oriole Nate McLouth. From a wRC standpoint, McLouth is also a near average to average offensive player. In 2013, he put up a wRC+ of 100 and a 2.5 fWAR, but he also played a majority of the games last year in Baltimore. His 2011 and 2012 seasons might be a better comparison for his projected playing time, where produced at wRC+ levels of 92 and 90, respectively. That is slightly below average, but it is still 30 to 50 percent better than what the Nationals got from Tyler Moore and Roger Bernadina last season; slightly above 0 WAR is better than negative WAR.
Expectations for Lobaton and McLouth should be tempered; they are not going to be world beaters, but the Nationals don’t need them to be. They simply need them to not be as terrible as the players they are replacing were in 2013.
The other item I had on the shopping list was second basemen, which aside from the 5th starter spot was the main question mark heading into spring training. The man who started 2013 as the starting second baseman, Danny Espinosa, managed to put up a wRC+ of 23 in the majors and only a 59 in the minors. After giving the job briefly to Lombo, Anthony Rendon then filled in admirably at second, learning the position on the fly while putting up a wRC+ of 100. Rendon ended up with a middle of the road season last year, which lead me to believe that the Nats might look to try and upgrade at the position. But, the Nationals are poised to roll with Rendon as the starter out of the gate this season, and he should be in line to improve on both sides of the ball this year.
The 2014 Nationals are returning much of their 2013 starting lineup intact; making this year a “let it ride” season that assumes that last season was just a down year. They made minor improvements over the offseason, and those improvements should lead to a minor bump in wins. The other major drag on the team last year were the injuries to Wilson Ramos and Bryce Harper; unfortunately, there isn’t much the team can do to counteract that. But, even assuming the returning Nats reproduce last year’s numbers, the offseason additions should put them at least into the playoffs, if not at the top of the NL East.
Prognosis: Legit Division Title Contenders