Spring Training Question #1: Can the Washington Nationals Win the NL East? (Subtitle: On Human Behavior)

Yes.

 

 

Okay, I was tempted to make that the whole post, but that’d be cheating. I know how uncomfortable that makes many of you. I watched Wisconsin beat Kentucky last night. I also watched the 30 for 30 about the Russian Hockey Team that lost in Lake Placid. I watched the 7 point favorite Buffalo Bills lose to the Giants in Super Bowl 25. The list of underdogs winning the day is long and full of great stories we all remember. So, trust me, I know exactly how I am putting myself out there (and how I’m tickling your nervous button) when I say the Washington Nationals are a juggernaut that is going to steamroll the NL East.

Its time to get over that.

It’s not as if the Nats are immune from surprise. Spring training has certainly offered its share of surprises for the Washington Nationals. We asked in our first post if the 25 man roster was already set, and while we probably got 23 of the 25 right  in that post, I’d have to say Clint Robinson making the club (a 30 year old non-roster invitee with 13 games under his belt) qualifies as a surprise.

But that’s about it. Tanner Roark isn’t going to be a starter, The old faces will look good in new places, and Matt Williams (as of Saturday morning even) seems like he’s just going to be Matt Williams.  We’ve perhaps saved the least controversial question for last.

I’m not asking if the Nats can win the World Series at the end of spring training. The reason being (and we all know this) the playoffs are a crapshoot. More importantly, while we finally have an idea of what the team will look like in April we have no real idea of what the team will look like October.

Heck, the Opening Day line up will not look much like what we thought it would a month ago. Span, Werth, and Rendon likely won’t play. Now, they eventually probably will play, and sooner rather than later in most cases: but who knows what will happen over the course of the season.

What we can ask is which team is best suited to the win the division, and the answer to that is undoubtedly Washington. Don’t take my word for it. Fangraphs projects them to win the division by 13 games. GrantlandBaseball Prospectus, ESPN even @Ouij has them as a 95 win team: everyone can see the Nats are huge favorite to win the division. Jayson Stark wrote about trying to pick anyone other than the Nationals to win the World Series, part of which included the leaps and bounds by which they should win the East. You’d have to be a regular Jon Morosi to pick anyone except the Nationals, and even then everyone would know you’re basically just hoping to be right when everyone else was wrong.

The Nationals rotation is absurd. Forget about how the Nats have the best rotation in baseball and think about it this way: Tanner Roark would instantly make any rotation in the National League East noticeably better. Tanner Roark, the guy not good enough to start on this roster, would be no worse than the third starter on any other team in the division.

That rotation plus an OK bullpen and just some regular old Nats “league average to slightly  better” offense would be good enough to win the NL East. The Nats gave up 3.43 runs per game last year, and ought to do that well if not better this year. The team averaged 4.23 runs per game last year with basically no Ryan Zimmerman and no Bryce Harper and very limited Wilson Ramos. It’s an old song we sing here in Washington, but staying healthy, Harper’s gotta break out sometime, etc. But even last year’s slightly above average offense is going to bring home the bacon with the arms on the mound.

The other reason is that the other teams haven’t really made themselves better, or at least better enough. Philly is, amazingly, stunningly, both old and bad. It’d almost be gross and sad if they weren’t Philly. Truly, they deserve it. They’re completely inept, awful, and likely still in denial as to how bad it is.

The Braves sort of did the half implosion. They have a few players, but traded many away and signed some curious veterans in the offseason. The rumor is they are trying to get ready to field a good team when the move stadiums in a few years, and maybe they are. But they didn’t fully commit to a rebuild, and they didn’t really address any of their problems from last year. They traded away one of the best hitters on a terrible offense and replaced him with nobody.

The Mets and Marlins are young and pretty good, they aren’t young and great. They aren’t particularly deep either. Don’t kid yourself, these are good teams that will play many good games and likely beat the Nats throughout the season. But the Mets are working with on star pitcher on an innings limit, no Zach Wheeler and hoping Dillion Gee and Bartolo Colon pitch well. The Marlins are a little further ahead, and frankly are the scariest of the bunch-but they aren’t ready yet. To be sure, they are the team that, like the 2012 Nats, could accidentally go on a tear and win a bunch of games- but just like that wasn’t likely for the Nats, it’s not likely for the Marlins either. Morse, Stanton, Yellich…and 5 other guys. A few good pitchers, hoping Jose Fernandez to come back in the middle of the season ready to dominate? I don’t know, I don’t see it.

I think the problem is that we focus on the singular event that is the exception expecting it proves the rule. We remember the upsets, and we are wary of them. But they are upsets because they usually don’t happen.

Kentucky lost to a team that was no slouch, and if we started the whole tournament over again tomorrow, almost everyone would pick Kentucky again. The Russian Red Army Hockey team won basically every major International prize for 25 years from the late 60’s to the 90’s, including 6 gold medals (7 if you count the 1992 Unified Team). And when Buffalo wasn’t the favorite in the next three Super Bowls, well, let’s just say the underdog didn’t win.

The Empire did a lot of winning before the rebels finally took them down.

We’re a weird species. We ask each other to make predictions regarding an artificial situation with a particular set of rules that we can’t know the outcome of. Then, when the likeliest of scenarios presents itself we reject that notion if it isn’t “sexy” enough, or fun enough. Our goal in these roles seems to be in part to get it right, but really to get it right when everyone else got it wrong.

Well, “I told you so” never pushed the species forward, and if the worst thing is I was dead wrong about who wins the NL East, oh well.

Oh right. Side note: my (and your) hubris about the team is different than the team being overconfident. If you, me, or the tree think the Nats are easily the best team in NL East, and probably baseball, it doesn’t make a lick of difference. If the Nats think that, that could go one of two ways depending on what they do with that thought.

So yes, this year more than any other year, the Nationals are set up to win the division. They’re a world class team in a division that is, at best, still trying to figure itself out. There is simply no (NojinxNojinxNojinx) reason the Nationals won’t win the NL East in 2015.

All the good questions come later.

One thought on “Spring Training Question #1: Can the Washington Nationals Win the NL East? (Subtitle: On Human Behavior)

  1. For the record, my 95-win projection assumes at least league average defensive performance from Ryan Zimmerman at first base. Also, as far as the Marlins are concerned: they could end up looking a lot like the 2011 Nationals–not there yet, but good enough to be competitive on any given night.

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