Division in Review: 2014 Washington Nationals

 

NL EAST W L Win %
Washington Nationals 96 66 .593
Atlanta Braves 79 83 .488
New York Mets 79 83 .488
Miami Marlins 77 85 .475
Philadelphia Phillies 73 89 .451

Washington Nationals 2014 Preview

Nationals 2014 Overview:

The 2014 Nationals picked up 10 more wins over their 2013 season en route to their third consecutive winning season and their second NL East Division title. They accomplished this without any significant changes or upgrades to their 2013 lineup. The offense did improve slightly, scoring 686 runs (30 more than 2013) and increasing their wOBA from .311 to .317 (wRC+ 95 to 99), which was still slightly behind 2012’s .324 (wRC+ 101); but that increase was only from slightly below average to average on offense. Considering the injuries that were suffered by several key cogs in the lineup, this is somewhat of a victory.

The real gains were from the pitching staff, who gave up 555 runs, only 1 behind the Mariners for the MLB lead and 71 and 39 runs fewer than 2013 and 2012 respectively. The staff as a whole dropped their ERA by over half a run from 3.59 in 2013 to 3.03 (3.30 in 2012) and their FIP from 3.55 to 3.18 (3.54 in 2012); both were league bests by a significant margin, especially FIP. The starting rotation pitched slightly better, 3.58 to 3.24 FIP, but for significantly more innings at 1002 1/3 (5th in MLB), 35 more than 2013 and nearly 50 more innings than 2012. The bullpen made significant improvements in terms of FIP (3.50 to 3.05) and ERA (3.56 to 3.00), with a jump from 7.88 K/9 to 8.24 K/9. The bullpen also had an extremely low HR/9 rate at 0.50 (5.5% HR/FB), so it seems unlikely that those numbers will be able to stay that way consistently.

The Offense:

The biggest revelation in 2014, or course, was Anthony Rendon. He increased his batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentages during his first full season with the Nationals. His ISO jumped from a slightly below average .131 to a slightly above average .186, taking his wOBA from .318 (wRC+ 100) in 2013 to .361 (wRC+ 130) this season. In a little over half a season, Rendon was a 1.5 fWAR player in 2013. With the increase in playing time, the strides he made at the plate, and his increased effectiveness in the field (more time at second and being moved to his natural third base position), Rendon turned in a fantastic 6.6 fWAR season in 2014. That puts him on the same level as Andrew McCutchen, Michael Brantley, Alex Gordon, Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Jonathan Lucroy. (P.S. Only one of those seven players failed to make an All-Star team.)

Two players that made strides at the plate in 2014, as compared to 2013, were also two players that were generally thought of as an either or with regards to them being with the team in 2015: Denard Span and Adam LaRoche. Span had his best offensive season in the majors since his first full season in 2009, slashing .302/.355/.416 (gaining .030 on each over 2013) and posting a wOBA of .341 (wRC+ 117) over his below average .313 (wRC+ 97) in 2013. But Span only picked up an extra .4 in fWAR in 2014 (3.8), as his defensive metrics fell precipitously. LaRoche saw a similar jump in wOBA, from an average .321 (wRC+ 102) to .356 in 2014 (wRC+ 127), mostly due to a jump in power (ISO .166 to .196). Even with the increase in offensive production, LaRoche was still only a 1.6 fWAR player, putting him squarely in the middle of the pack of first baseman in MLB. With Ryan Zimmerman needing a place to play, and the relative values of the two players, the logical conclusion was for Span’s option to be picked up at the expense of LaRoche’s.

Most of the rest of the team saw a regression at the plate in 2014. Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman missed significant portions of the season with injuries resulting from base running. Harper saw a drop in power and increase in K%, clipping his offensive output and, with the time missed limited, him to just a 1.3 fWAR player. Zimmerman posted numbers similar to what he has done since 2011 with a wOBA of .346 (wRC+ 120), but he played in just 61 games this season. His offensive output is slightly below LaRoche’s, and at first base won’t be as valuable as it would be at third anyway, but hopefully a full season with less wear and tear will help him at least recoup LaRoche’s value. Jayson Werth saw a big dip in power (ISO .214 to .163) from his stellar 2013. Werth had an outstanding 2013 at the plate, so regression was to be expected and his 2014 was still very good from a value perspective. Ian Desmond saw almost an entire win drop from his fWAR from 2013 to 2014 (5.0 to 4.1), and his offensive output has continued to decline from his breakout 2012 season. His slugging and on-base percentages have not dropped significantly year over year, but his batting average dropped from .280 to .255 while his K% went up 6% to 28.2%. Desmond’s value is still solid, but he needs to start making more contact to get things going back in the right direction.

Wilson Ramos also had a tough offensive 2014, going from an above average hitter in 2013 to below average. He posted a wOBA of only .307 (wRC+ 93), and while his batting average and on-base percentage only dipped slightly, he had a significant drop in power (ISO .199 to .132). That drop in power correlates well with what is expected to happen after the hamate bone injury Ramos suffered on Opening Day, so 2015 should see him regain some of those numbers. The catching position overall saw improvement, mostly due to the off season acquisition of Jose Lobaton. Ramos missed significant stretches of time with the aforementioned hamate injury and with hamstring issues once again this season, leaving that playing time to the backup catcher. While Lobaton did not hit very well, posting a wOBA of .266 (wRC+ 66), it was still better than what Kurt Suzuki produced in 2013. Combine that with the pitch framing and defensive skills Lobaton offers, and the position itself saw a 1.1 fWAR gain over 2013.

In the spring, I wrote about improving the Nats’ bench hitters as a need for the team to address last off-season, and it looks like it will be one to address again this year. Scott Hairston, Nate McLouth, and Kevin Frandsen all produced negative fWAR this season. Frandsen was the only player that had a semblance of offensive success, and his wRC+ was 72 as compared to the others that were in the 50s. Nationals pinch hitters posted a wOBA of .225 (wRC+ 38) this season, worse than the .265 (wRC+ 64) of 2013 that we all thought was horrible, and slashing a .144/.245/.236 line that put them in the bottom three of the league. There will be spots to fill with the departures of Hairston and Frandsen, and hopefully whoever fills them will be able to produce.

Second base will once again be a position that the Nats will need to look long and hard at for an upgrade. When Anthony Rendon was moved to third base due to the Zimmerman injury, Danny Espinosa was once again given the starting second baseman job. While he did hit better than he did in 2013 (not hard since his wRC+ was 22!), he was still well below average with a wOBA of .280 (wRC+ 75) and a K% of 33.5%. This lead to the deadline acquisition of Asdrubal Cabrera, who over the last 50 games of the season, produced the same 0.6 fWAR that Espinosa did the first 100. Cabrera himself was still a below average hitter, with a wOBA of .310 (wRC+ 96), and only produced 1.8 fWAR over the course of the entire season. Even if he is brought back, Cabrera can only be expected to produce at that same minimal level for a major league regular. That may be all the Nats need, but this is the position best suited for an upgrade this off-season.

The Pitching:

Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg were an outstanding 1-2 punch at the top of the Nationals rotation this season. ZNN had the best season of his career, posting a 2.66 ERA, 2.68 FIP, and a career high in K/9 at 8.20. Strasburg’s improvement was not nearly as drastic as Zimmermann’s, but he lowered his FIP from 3.21 to 2.94 while pushing his K/9 back above 10 from 9.39 to 10.13. He also made 34 starts and pitched 215 innings, completing his first “full” season in the majors, while still pitching at a dominant level. Zimmermann may be set for some regression, but he will also be in the second year of a 2 year, $24 million, arbitration-avoiding, audition for upcoming free agency deal, so he may have that contract year motivation to drive him. It is hard to see how his performance this year hurt his upcoming payday/made it any easier for the Nationals to work out an extension.

As for the other rotation members, the third member of the Nationals’ current three-headed monster, Gio Gonzalez, had another solid season in 2014. He lowered his FIP from 3.41 to 3.03 by increasing his strikeouts and cutting his walks over his rates from 2013. But, he only pitched 158 2/3 innings this season, cutting his overall value to that of 2013 when he arguably pitched worse. Tanner Roark pitched another stellar season with a 2.85 ERA and 3.47 FIP over 198 2/3 innings, the most he’s pitched as a professional. Roark only started 5 games in 2013, so it is hard to definitively say his numbers are trending upwards, but based on his minor league track record, a step back in 2015 should be expected. Doug Fister’s season, by the numbers, was arguably one of his lesser years in the majors. While his ERA was a fantastic 2.41, his FIP was only 3.93, second highest of his career to only his rookie season. Fister lowered his BB/9 rate, but also his K/9 rate, so he relied mainly on an incredibly low BABIP of .262 this season to get outs. With those numbers, the time missed to injury, and an increased HR/9 in a new park, Fister posted only 1.3 fWAR, which was actually less that 2013 Dan Haren’s 1.4 fWAR.

Much of the Nationals’ bullpen had bounce-back seasons in 2014. Tyler Clippard lowered his FIP from 3.82 to 2.75, the best of his career, and performed much like he did in 2011 and 2012. Drew Storen dropped his FIP from 3.62 to 2.71 and his ERA dropped from 4.52 to 1.12, both of which also looked more like his 2012 numbers. Rafael Soriano’s season, as a whole, also looked a lot more like his 2012 year (his last with the Yankees), with a 3.08 FIP compared to last year’s 3.65. Soriano’s performance tailed off dramatically in August and September, costing his overall value and his chance at having his 2015 option guaranteed. Off-season acquisition Jerry Blevins had enigmatic year much like Doug Fister; Blevins posted career bests in K/9 (10.36), HR/9 (0.47), and FIP (2.77) with career worst ERA (4.87) and a higher BB/9 (3.61 over 2.55 in 2013). Aaron Barrett had a solid rookie season, posting a 2.66 ERA and a 2.59 FIP with a 10.84 K/9. He had a rather high 4.43 BB/9, and, as with any breakout rookie season, should be expected to regress a little in his second year. Finally, Ross Detwiler’s first complete year out of the bullpen put him in the same class as 2013 Zach Duke, 2013 Henry Rodriguez, and 2013 Ian Krol in terms of value. His numbers were not far off from his 2012 season (his best year): 5.57 to 5.75 K/9, 3.00 to 2.85 BB/9, 4.16 to 4.04 FIP; but he only pitched in 2/5 the innings he did in 2012, and was far less effective as a bullpen arm.

Off-Season Outlook:

The 2014-2015 off-season will be an interesting one for the Nationals. The big decision has already been made: Span was kept, LaRoche was not, Ryan Zimmerman will presumably move to first base to replace him. The biggest need remains second base, which at the moment is occupied by Danny Espinosa, and regardless of if he is going to stop switch hitting, it is unlikely someone else is not brought in to compete/platoon with him. The other “needs” are the same needs as every other team: bullpen and bench help; second base is the only major piece missing.

The real issues for the off-season have more to do with the long-term goals of the team itself. Zimmermann, Detwiler, Blevins, Fister, Clippard, and Ian Desmond are all in the last year’s of their contracts. Strasburg, Storen, Stammen, and Ramos will all be in the last year of their contracts in 2016. Extending Desmond, Zimmermann, and/or Fister are going to be the top priorities before they hit the free agent market next off-season. It is hard to see both Clippard and Storen staying with the team long term as both will want to close. Strasburg, too, will be looking for the same big payday that Zimmermann is, so the signings this year may have a large impact on how much they can offer him as well.

When it comes down to it, 2015 may be the last season that the gang is all together for the Nationals. After that, without a significant change in payroll spending habits, the team may be moving on to the next crop of players.

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