When Expectations End

It has become a yearly tradition for me to write a post just before Opening Day on how reality is waiting to make us all look like idiots, and I will freely admit that this post was more enjoyable when the Phillies, Red Sox, and Yankees were picked to be the best teams in baseball. Now it is the Nationals. The team I root for is the team everyone is expecting to be the best team in baseball just like the Tigers last season and the Red Sox the year before that (I don't remember who was predicted to be the best team in 2010 but it certainly wasn't the Giants or the Rangers). While the Tigers did ultimately make it to the World Series they didn't make it look easy. The Tigers, predicted to have the best record in baseball, finished ten games back of the Washington Nationals.  

Now the Nationals are in the Tigers shoes and lots and lots of very smart people are picking them to win it all, but keep in mind these are the same smart people that picked the A's and Orioles to finish last in their divisions in 2012. Every season something unexpected happens, and it is going to happen again this season. Even with the best odds in Vegas at 7 to 1 the Nationals have only a 14% chance to win it all. The fact that teams defy the odds and make us all look foolish is what makes baseball great, but now as Washington Nationals fans we're no longer rooting for Luke Skywalker to blow up the Death Star. We are instead hoping that the Death Star turns its icy gaze upon Tatooine before Luke Skywalker even meets Obi Wan.  

In any pre-season prediction post the writer will ultimately acknowledge that there are many variables in a baseball season and then come up with a single number to define each team. That is not how things should work. For every team there is a spectrum with the worst case lying in wait on the far left end and the best case on the far right. If the season were to be played a million times a team's record would end up close to the middle, but in the real world the season is only played once and the entire spectrum is open for business. So what are the Nationals extremes? For the worst case a few scenarios will be ignored. There is the one that no one wants to talk about, and we won't here, but has been reality on at least a couple occasions. Then there is the other not as bad but still horrific thought of every single player suffering from some type of season ending injury. While injuries will happen they are hard to predict so our worst case scenario is if everyone plays at their worst.   

The Worst Case Scenario: 85 Wins

85 wins doesn't sound that bad, but this team is deep. Up and down the line-up there is a lot of power, and now with Span there is also speed at the top, but in this scenario things go wrong. The main thing that goes wrong is the Gio Gonzalez, Ian Desmond, and Adam LaRoche all fall back below their career averages and to the marks of their worst seasons. LaRoche and Desmond are both around 1.5 WAR players and Gonzalez loses the improved walk rate he has found, can't control his pitches, and becomes the next Jonathon Sanchez story putting up 2.5 WAR on his way down the ladder. Ryan Zimmerman and Danny Espinosa's shoulders aren't better and Jayson Werth is more of 2011 Jayson Werth than anything else. Bryce Harper falls deep into a sophomore slump and struggles to OPS .750.

Strasburg is still an Ace but more of the 3.50 ERA Ace than the transcendent monster we're use to witnessing on the mound. Dan Haren's 2012 was only a warning of what to expect in 2013 and he is closer to Livan Hernandez than the Dan Haren of old. Both Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler find out that they can't outrun their FIPs forever and the bullpen continues the downhill slide started in the 2012 post-season. Put all of this together and you end up with the record the Nats were expected to have before the 2012 season as all their key players under perform expectations but are collectively still better than most of baseball. Both the Braves and Phillies end up finishing ahead of the Nats for the division and the Wild Card, and Nats fans have to watch as Michael Morse hits the game winning grand slam against the Phillies to give the Mariners their first World Series championship.   

The Best Case Scenario: 117 Wins

We're talking about everything going right, right? So ask yourself this simple question, which rotation would you rather have: Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Detwiler, Haren or Freddie Garcia, Aaron Sele, Jamie Moyer, Paul Abbott, John Halama? How about a line-up of Ichiro Suzuki, Mark McLemore, Edgar Martinez, John Olerud, Bret Boone, Mike Cameron, Carlos Guillen, David Bell, Dan Wilson or Span, Werth, Harper, Zimmerman, LaRoche, Desmond, Espinosa, Ramos, Pitcher? If you aren't familiar with where those other names come from that is the rotation and line-up of the 116 win 2001 Seattle Mariners. At least on paper the Washington Nationals have a better rotations and a line-up with a chance to be just as good if not better. It is more than a little insane if you let yourself think about it too much. The best case scenario for the Washington Nationals is them being the best team of all time. I feel like I should be locked in a straitjacket for having just typed that.  

Let's put some numbers to it though. The Nationals won 98 games last season and lost the 0.0 WAR of Michael Morse, 2.2 of Edwin Jackson, 0.9 of Sean Burnett, 0.6 of Michael Gonzalez, 0.4 of John Lannan, and 0.1 of Tom Gorzelanny. They also lost a combined -1.4 by no longer having Xavier Nady and Chein-Ming Wang around, but losing a negative is not a loss. To replace what was lost the Nationals brought in Dan Haren average career WAR of 4.6, Denard Span average of 3.0, and Rafael Soriano average of 1.1. So just through free agency the Nats lost 4.2 WAR and added 8.7 for a net gain of around 4.5 wins. So if nothing else changes at all from 2012 to 2013 and the three players the Nats brought in perform to career averages the Nats are suddenly a 103 win team.  

That accounts nothing for Strasburg not being shut down and getting to finish out his season. In 2012 Strasburg averaged 0.258 WAR per inning pitched. If he had pitched around 195 innings he would have finished with nearly an entire extra point of WAR. That is an easy way to pick up one win, but what if Strasburg pitches even better? What if Strasburg has a Pedro Martinez or a Roger Clemens level season? A 6.0 or 7.0 WAR season isn't out of the question for Strasburg. Let's leave it at 5.0 and not go nuts. This is the best case, but let's not get too jazzed up here. The same can be done for Harper. He played in 139 games in 2012 missing most of the month of April. Expand him out to 160 and he is suddenly worth 5.2 WAR instead of 4.5. Give him slightly better performance and call that an even win.  

Now for the big gainers that get us to the 117 mark as we have the Nats at a mere 105 right now. Ryan Zimmerman performs like the 7.0 WAR Ryan Zimmerman of 2009/2010 and Jayson Werth adds an entire 5 wins by performing like the player the Nats acquired in the winter of 2010. That brings us up to 113 wins and now we predict a 2 WAR breakout for Danny Espinosa, the return of Drew Storen is worth something, and Wilson Ramos was a 3.0 WAR player in 2011. That right there is enough to take us to and even slightly over 117 wins. That is a lot going right, but that is kind of what best case scenario means, and none of this was stuff that couldn't happen. Not once did we stray from reality in either the positive or the negative expectations. This is your range for the Washington Nationals. Reality lies somewhere between 85 and 117 wins.  

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