December 11, 2018

Our official predictions and projections for the 2012 Washington Nationals

Everyone’s got ‘em.

What self-respecting blogger or independent journalist isn’t going to do a predictions post? We certainly aren’t going to let the opportunity to make fools of ourselves pass without jumping right in. So, with no further ado, here are District Sports Page’s official predictions and projections for the 2012 season.  Feel free to rip us in the comments, but please refrain from vulgarity.

General projections and 2012 Record:

It’s a lot easier to go from sub-70 wins to 80 than it is to go from 80 to 90-plus. It helps if you field average Major League players at every position, something the Washington Nationals had trouble with the first few years after moving from Montreal. The Nats have made remarkable progress though in this regard, going from 59 to 69 to 80 wins in the last three seasons. Many pundits and national publications expect the Nats to make another leap this season, making them a darling wild-card pick. I don’t think they’re quite ready for that yet, but they are getting closer. And if most thing breaks right for them (and they get/stay healthy), it’s not entirely out of the question.

If the Nats are going to make gains in the win column this season, especially enough to contend, it will have to come from the offensive side of the ball. They scored 624 runs last season and allowed 643, so the Nats’ real-life results of 80 wins outperformed their Pythagorean expectation by a couple of games. The Nats were 11th in the league in runs per game and 13th in the league in total baserunners, while finishing seventh in runs allowed. So the pitching, while not elite, was still pretty good.

(***For comparison, the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals were first in the league in runs scored, with 762 and ninth in runs allowed, with 692, and finished the regular season with a 90-72 record and the N.L. Wild Card.)

The Nats big off-season moves were all to the pitching staff, though. I don’t think the pitching gains will be quite as dramatic as some do, so the incremental gains this year’s staff will make over last year’s will need to be coupled by a dramatic increase in scoring if the Nationals are to pick up another 8-10 wins and truly contend for a playoff spot. The Nats did not make any significant additions to the offense over the winter, so any increase will have to come from within.

With the rash of injuries the Nats have already sustained, making solid projections for playing time is very difficult, especially for the players we know will miss the beginning of the season. Michael Morse (lat), Rick Ankiel (quad), Drew Storen (biceps/triceps) and Chien-Ming Wang (ankle/hamstring) all begin 2012 on the D.L.

The player the Nats can least afford to lose for an extended period of time in Morse, the team’s clean-up hitter. Most people will not be surprised to learn that I’m not particularly bullish on Morse repeating his stellar numbers from last season even if he was perfectly healthy. The power is real, but his OBP has been fueled by his hit rate and as that normalizes, his OBP and average will as well. I don’t expect a collapse, but something along the lines of .280/.325/.475. Of course, if the lat issue lingers deeper into the season than the reported expectation, all bets are off.

If Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche can stay healthy for a full season and put up numbers that resemble their career averages, that will be a boost. We can be more confident projecting Zimmerman, as his injuries of the last few seasons have been of an acute nature, and not chronic. Plus, at age 27, he’s just entering the prime of his career. 

With LaRoche, we didn’t really get a chance to see during the spring if his shoulder is 100 percent, as he missed quite a bit of time nursing a foot injury. I’m skeptical his power will return fully with the surgically repaired shoulder, and I expect him to be better in the second half of the season as he gets stronger.

As for the rest, a return to career norms from Jayson Werth would be nice. He seems to think last season was a blip and we’ll see what he’s capable of this season. Last season, his contact rate, isolated power, and success against lefties all crashed, while his ground ball percentage spiked. That’s a recipe for disaster, and we saw that in his stats. Is this a case of skills eroding or “just a bad year”? We’ll all find out together. I’ve got him for a modest bounce back, along the lines of .265/.340/.415.

But the Nats won’t score more runs unless they get more baserunners, and that — for better or worse — will be the jobs of Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa. Neither Desmond nor Espinosa are classic top-of-the-order hitters. Desmond career walk rate of 5.5 percent is atrocious for a lead-off hitter and his contact rate fell in his second full big league season as pitchers took full advantage of his free-swinging ways. Espinosa is more of a slugger in the mold of a No. 6 or 7 hitter, a risk/reward guy who will homer or strike out. His walk rate is N.L. average, so if his contact rate rebounds he could still become a very valuable hitter.

Even if Bryce Harper debuts earlier this season than later, the best we can hope for out of a 19-year old isn’t going to make enough of a difference to sway projections all that much. But he will be exciting once he gets here.

As for the pitching, 160 innings of Stephen Strasburg will be very enjoyable, but he’ll have some rocky times, just as Jordan Zimmermann did last season. Tommy John recovery is a 12-18 month-long process, so the first half of the season Strasburg will (hopefully) be regaining his pinpoint command and control. Just like Zimmermann last year, as soon as Strasburg feels like he’s fully “back”, the Nats will shut him down around Sept. 1.

Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson both walk too many hitters, and their adjustments in that regard will be the difference between being splashy off-season moves and real difference-makers in the rotation. It’s critical for Gonzalez, whom the Nats traded four of their top 15 prospects for in the off-season, then gave him a multi-year contract extension.

The bullpen should be a strength, even accounting for Drew Storen missing time. If Storen’s injury turns out to be more severe than is being advertised, the Nats are actually fairly well prepared to mitigate the damage it would do to their plans in the pen. There’s no shortage of candidates to take the ball in the ninth inning.

Where does that leave us, numbers-wise, at the end of the season? I’m of the opinion this team will be closer to true playoff contention than any time in their history since the move, but I don’t think they’re there just yet. I can’t confidently project enough offense to get the runs scored high enough to elevate the Nats much higher than .500.

I’ve got them at 83 wins. Morse missing more than two weeks would be bad.

Biggest pleasant surprise? Jesus Flores. I think the strength has fully returned to his surgically repaired shoulder and Zeus will put up enough offense for the Nats to play him twice a week and keep Wilson Ramos fresh all season long, perhaps earning enough recognition to be an enticing piece on the trade market later in the season for a full-time job of his own. The Nats catching tandem is the least of their worries this season.

Biggest disappointment? I got ripped here last year for saying Michael Morse, but he performed about as I predicted, albeit in much more playing time than I projected, which accounted for better counting numbers. Please remember, this is relative to expectations.

This year I’ll go with Stephen Strasburg. I know, BLASPHEMY!!! But hear me out. Most casual fans are going to expect the 14-strikeout, no walk dominance of his debut, and I just think that pitcher doesn’t exist right now. He’s throwing hard and getting his Ks during spring training, but he also missed his spots a lot and the frustration showed, at least in the two games I saw him pitch in person. He’ll need most of his alloted 160 innings this season to regain his command and control, and I expect it to be bumpy sometimes. I’m not projecting bust — far from it — but he’ll be much better next season than this one. Once the restrictions are lifted, look out.

Best off-season move?  I wasn’t a fan of it at the beginning, but I’ve come around. Brad Lidge looks healthy, is being feisty taunting the Philly media, and could be a critical component of the bullpen if Storen misses significant time. Plus, he came cheap so if the injury bug rears its ugly head again, nothing lost, really.

Worst off-season move? It’s hard to argue with anything GM Mike Rizzo did this off-season, so we’ll take him to task for something he didn’t do: Acquire a lead-off hitter. This team is poor generating base-runners, especially at the top of the order, and Rizzo was unable to address that during the off-season. There’s no real lead-off candidate in the organization, though I think Anthony Rendon will be a perfect fit in the two-hole eventually. Can Rizzo pull something off at the deadline? Will he wait until the off-season to bite on Michael Bourn? Unless Ian Desmond does something dramatic this season, the Nats will continue to be OBP challenged at the top.

When will we see Bryce Harper debut? Tuesday, June 19 against the Tampa Bay Rays. The urge will be there two weeks earlier for a three-game set against the Mets, then have him for the interleague road trip before facing the Yankees at Nats Park. And you know Harper would love to be on the roster for that. But I’ll say he’s activated for the mid-week series against the Rays, then goes out on the long 10-game road trip to end the month of June.

What’s the most important development for 2012? Watching the draft class of 2011. Anthony Rendon, Alex Meyer, Brian Goodwin and Matt Purke all have the talent to be game-changers for this franchise. Their development, especially Rendon and Goodwin, will be critical for this franchise in the coming years because they — and not Michael Morse, Adam LaRoche or maybe even Jayson Werth — should be Bryce Harper’s teammates when this team should be competing for the playoffs and perhaps even World Series glory.

So there you have it. I’d love to hear your feeback in the comments. Either way, it’s great to have the game back with a young team still on the rise.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press and is a copy editor for the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, WA. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

Comments

  1. I think you’re actually underselling the pitching a bit. The Nats have by far the most stability they have ever had in the rotation…three potential 200+ innings guys plus Strasburg. The bullpen is also deeper than it ever has been at a time when it should have a lower workload, keeping everyone fresh.

    I was goofing around on Baseball Reference the other day, trying to project the WAR for this year’s rotation versus last year and came up with around a plus 9.0 (Gio’s average season WAR of 4.6 the past two years is actually higher than any Nats pitcher has ever had in a single season, BTW, topping Patterson’s 4.5 in 2005). Even if they fall back a couple of WAR points on offense, that still gives them about 87 wins.

    • Dave Nichols says:

      Thanks for the feedback. I may very well be too conservative on the pitching, but that’s part of the fun of doing projections.

  2. The Nationals do have a pretty stable rotation, have to agree with you on that one bdrube.

  3. I think you’ve got the pitching just about right. Last season, so many of the wins went to the bullpen that if the starters get into the 6th or 7th, they’ll get the wins but the bullpen will not. As a fan, I’d sure like to see more than 83 wins though. Depends on the hitting.

    • Dave Nichols says:

      Thanks for the comment. You’re right that the Nats starters didn’t really go deep in a lot of games, taxing the bullpen often. I think with Gio and EJax coming aboard we should see the starters going deeper, tho Strasburg will be watched very carefully.

  4. I thought the artical was pretty on. Specially what you said the Rizzo did not get which was a lead off hitter. Though the Giants did win a World Series two years ago with no offense.

Trackbacks

  1. […] 83, third place; Cheryl: 87 wins, second place; Tyler: 87 wins, second place.   As I mentioned in my projections post yesterday, I think the Nats are closer to playoff-quality baseball than they ever have been, but aren’t […]

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