What Should the Goal Be
Yesterday on this site James O'Hara wrote a brilliant post satirizing the thoughts of internet commentators. Now if you will bear with me for half a second I am going to offer why I think these people think the Nats need to make such drastic moves. They view 86 wins and missing the playoffs the same as 69 wins and missing respectability. In a season that was ‘World Series or bust’ that ended up bust it is easy to get lost in the waves of disappointment and figure that the team has to make big moves to get back to the promised land, but that isn't the case. In 2012 the Nationals won 98 games and if that is your barometer for a playoff team then the Nationals have to make up 12 wins. But if you are more reasoned and realize that 90 wins most often makes the playoffs, and once a team is in the playoffs anything can happen, then you view the Nats as needing to add four wins.
The latter is much easier than the former and won't damage long term goals. As demonstrated by teams like the Cardinals and Red Sox, two teams that have won multiple World Series over the last ten years with two very different philosophies, the best way to win a World Series is to make the playoffs as often as possible. Building a 90 win team is a lot easier than attempting to build a 100 win team and in reality a 90 win team has as much chance of winning the World Series as a 100 win team. Records are reset in the playoffs and it is most of the time the hottest team and not the best team that ends up winning it all. The goal each season should be to make it to the playoffs and then let the chips fall where they may. This is a much more reasoned and thought out goal than trading away prospects for number one starters, when you have three already, or giving away number one draft picks to upgrade positions were you're already above average.
The reasoned view of how to get the Nats to 90 wins is to look at where the flaws were in 2013. Where the team lost wins, what needs to be repaired, and where they may lose wins in the future. Out of all aspects of the club, the bench sapped the most wins in 2013. In 2012 the Nats had a 4.0 fWAR bench and in 2013 Tyler Moore, Steve Lombardozzi, Chad Tracy, Roger Bernadina, and Kurt Suzuki were worth -3.1 fWAR. Add in the fWAR's of the rest of the cast of characters who appeared as bench players for the Nats in 2013 and a 4.0 fWAR bench went to a -4.0 fWAR bench. That is a swing of eight wins and it should certainly be an easy task to fill a bench with replacement level players to make up those four wins, but that isn't the only place where wins can be made up quite easily. Danny Espinosa in 167 plate appearances was worth -0.6 fWAR. By simply having Rendon at second to start the season the Nats will be making up additional wins right there.
By simply improving the bench to replacement level and by not having an injured Danny Espinosa at second 4.6 wins can be added to the Nats record. The next place to look for bad production was a bullpen that was not good from the start in 2013. A lot of people blame that on the lack of left handed relievers in the bullpen, but the under performance of the bullpen to start the season had more to do with Mike Rizzo trying to fill Davey Johnson's vision of a bullpen and his own at the same time. Davey Johnson wanted a left handed and right handed long reliever and so he got Zach Duke and Craig Stammen. It worked in 2012 with Tom Gorzelanny and Craig Stammen, but Gorzelanny was a much better pitcher than Duke and Duke was awful from the start. The other flaw was that instead of having a seventh, eighth and ninth inning reliever Johnson was going to split Storen and Clippard up as dual set-up men. With Storen being ineffective to start the season the Nats bullpen was suddenly down to two reliable relievers as Rizzo insisted on holding onto his pet project in Henry Rodriguez and advanced stats were finally catching up to Ryan Mattheus. Unlike the bench, the composition of the bullpen changed shortly into the season and Fernando Abad and Ian Krol became the lefties everyone wanted in the first place. The problem there was the fact that Davey Johnson was not a match-up manager, even stating publicly that he wanted the lefties both Krol and Abad to face an equal number of right handed hitters as left handers.
Looking at runs allowed for the under performers in the Nats bullpen gives us 90 of the total of 202 runs allowed by the Nats bullpen. Lower that by just 30 and the Nats have one of the top three bullpens in the majors in runs allowed. That can be accomplished by never having Zach Duke on the roster or a pitcher who was out of baseball the year before, not having a non-control specialist project, Drew Storen bouncing back, and upgrading from Ryan Mattheus. None of these moves are that hard to accomplish. Storen should get better on his own and there are always a lot of relievers to be had on minor league deals who can be thrown into the bullpen until one sticks. The four that should currently be guaranteed roster spots are Soriano, Clippard, Stammen, and Storen. That leaves three spots to fill and one or two of them can be those precious left handed relievers that will calm the masses, and as far as roster construction goes a left handed reliever would be a lot better than a LOOGY. Of the three left handed relievers the Nats have talked to both Boone Logan and Javier Lopez have OPS against versus right handed hitters in the .800s while Oliver Perez is still serviceable against righties. A left handed reliever can still draw match-up duty in innings with more than one lefty and be trusted to get the right handed batter between them out as well or at least limit the damage.
Fixing the bench and the bullpen is really all the Nats need to do to get to 90 wins. There are going to be a slight decrease in wins from Clippard, Zimmermann, and Werth regressing to the mean, but that should be balanced out by Strasburg, LaRoche, Storen, and Span doing the same, and who knows maybe the Nats actually get healthy seasons and a breakout from a couple of players and end up exceeding the projected 90 win mark. The core of the Nationals is in place and it is strong. This is still a team filled with good young talent. The issues they had in 2013 were with health and under performance around the margins. One is easy to fix and the other is something you hope doesn't repeat, but fixing the bench makes you better prepared if it should.
The path to winning a World Series is to be as good as possible for as long as possible and while it might look like hedging the bet to trade Giolito, Cole, and Goodwin for a top starting pitcher it is actually weakening the future and shortening the time the window stays open. Those players are needed to replace current players on the roster and if they are gone to fix a problem that never existed then more problems will arise in the future where they shouldn't. The approach for the Nationals this off-season should be a calm and steady one. Build a team that can win 90 games, and then hope to be hot when the playoffs start.