Predicting the Nats Win Total
Here is a fun little thing I used to do. I'd look at the previous season's win total, predict where I thought there'd be improvement or drop-off, and spit out a win total for the upcoming season. Even though the vast majority of my predictions were wrong on how that win total would be achieved I was oddly accurate on the actual final win total. I remember before the 2011 season I wrote how the Nats could be a .500 team and a lot of people told me I was a lunatic and then the Nats finished 80-81. The following season I wrote the piece and then in disbelief at a near 100 win prediction ignored it and predicted 87 wins. The following years were lost to the Citizens of Natstown Annual but now it's time to bring back my yearly misuse of stats to come out to a prediction that will turn out to be right on the nose.
The first thing to understand is how bad the Nats were in 2015. Bryce Harper was the MVP and Max Scherzer threw two no-hitters but other than those two nothing else went right. The Nats second best position player was Danny Espinosa with 2.3 fWAR. In fact of the Nats 19.3 position player fWAR Bryce Harper was 49% of it. If this was another sport we'd say the Nationals lacked secondary scoring options. Bryce Harper was the Nats offense in 2015 and as historic as his 2015 season was that isn't enough to make up for anything.
Notice how I said Danny Espinosa was the second best Nats position player in 2015. That is one of the keys to 2016. Trea Turner has to for the majority of the season be the starting shortstop and Danny Espinosa a super utility sub playing three to five games a week. The ben players have to stay on the bench for the Nats to have a successful 2016. If we look at games played for the 2015 Nationals bench players Michael Taylor, Clint Robinson, Danny Espinosa, and Tyler Moore are all in the top ten ahead of Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, and Anthony Rendon. It's hard to expect much out of Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth given their injury history and just how bad last season went but seeing how Jayson Werth was worth -0.3 fWAR nothing would be an improvement.
And that is how easy it is for the 2016 Nats to improve on 83 wins. I would say the first thing I'm going to do is knock off three wins because Bryce Harper can't possibly repeat his historic season, but then I counter that with Matt Williams is no longer the manager and as much of a bad rap as Dusty Baker has from certain baseball fans I've never truly believed he's a bad manager, and if he can just be an average manager that gives the Nationals those three wins back. The Nats also lost several players in Drew Storen, Yunel Escobar, Denard Span, Ian Desmond, and Jordan Zimmermann, but the only one they don't have a straight replacement for (at least when it comes to 2015 production) is Jordan Zimmermann. Even then Zimmermann was the fourth best starting pitcher for the Nationals by fWAR and the Nats have the best starting pitcher in all of baseball set to make his debut in 2016.
So far I look at all the Nats additions and subtractions as a zero sum game. They lost Yunel Escobar but signed Daniel Murphy, they lost Ian Desmond but only need Trea Turner to produce 1.7 fWAR to replace him, Denard Span is gone but a healthy Michael Taylor or Ben Revere make up for his 2015 production, Drew Storen is gone but so is most of the 2015 people and they've been replaced by somewhat reliable vets or at least a reliable as relief pitcher vets can be. Really the only question that remains is can Joe Ross, Tanner Roark, Bronson Arroyo, and Lucas Giolito replace the 3.0 fWAR Jordan Zimmermann provided in 2015 and I believe they can if not even improve on it if Lucas Giolito is as advertised.
With all the additions and the subtractions I still have the Nats stuck on 83 wins, but I do think they're going to be better than that. As I said before it's important to understand just how poorly things went in 2015. The big name to circle for improvement is Anthony Rendon. Rendon was an MVP candidate and 6.0 fWAR player in 2014 and there is no reason he can't do that again. I'm a big believer in Anthony Rendon. I love his short compact swing, batting eye, and plate coverage. There is a bat title in his future and with his plus defense at third he should average somewhere between 4.0-6.0 fWAR a season for his career. Rendon is a great player and his struggles with injury more than anything damaged the Nats in 2015 and because I'm such a big believer in Rendon I'm adding an entire four wins with his return to health and production.
The other dark spots on the roster are a little trickier to deal with. Nats left fielders were worth 0.3 fWAR in 2015 and first base 0.2. That is basically nothing from two prime power positions where the league average was 2.7 and 2.5 fWAR respectively. Here's the funniest thing about Jayson Werth. The second he was signed to his seven year $126 million contract people wanted him to be overrated and terrible. He was league average in 2011, injured but essential in 2012, and great in 2013 and 2014. The problem with 2015 is it wasn't all Werth's age that led to his under performance. His longtime struggles with wrist injuries resurfaced when he was hit with a pitch and he never really recovered or adjusted in the way he did in 2012. Werth was terrible in 2015 and this can't be understated because the path to improvement is so simple. Werth could be simply bad in 2016 and still be at least a one win improvement or left field could improve by the back-ups being better or Michael Taylor having a breakout season and Revere taking over for a struggling Jayson Werth or Werth could have that one last glorious dead cat bounce season and put up around 3.0 fWAR. There are a lot of possibilities but because it was so bad in 2015 I'm going to give the Nats a one game improvement in left field.
Now on to first base. This is a tougher one, because Zimmerman wasn't bad when he was healthy it was just he wasn't healthy. The Nats made some changes to address this and Daniel Murphy can play first base if Zimmerman is hurt for an extended period of time. That might make things somewhat better, but a healthy Ryan Zimmerman would make things a lot better and by a lot I only mean about league average of 2.5 fWAR better. I'm not going to predict that and I'm going to say there is no improvement from first base. That is sadly what I see as the most logical outcome. I'd like to see Ryan Zimmerman show newer Nats fans the production we saw in 2009-2010 but it's just not a probable outcome.
So far we have the Nats five wins better than 2015 at a nice 88 win total, but that isn't going to be enough to make the playoffs unless the Mets fall back to the pack and I'm not going to predict that to happen. The Nats need someone else to surprise much as Ian Desmond and Michael Morse did in 2012 and I'm going to tell you my number one breakout candidate and that is Michael A. Taylor. His profile of a plus-plus defensive center fielder with power is the profile of some of the best players in baseball. Think Andrew McCutchen, Adam Jones, and Carlos Gomez. Michael Taylor has all the tools to be that type of player. The real improvement from him, as it is with any high strikeout batter, isn't going to come from making more contact but from being more selective at the plate. The big thing is Michael Taylor should not have been in the majors last season. He needed the entire year at AAA, but he was forced onto the major league club due to injuries and it is my belief that that experience is going to help tremendously.
What is a Michael Taylor breakout worth though? In 2012 Ian Desmond went from a 1.0 fWAR shortstop to a 5.0 one, and that change came from him no longer trying to be an opposite field hitter. Michael Taylor needs to get more selective at the plate and swing at strikes. If he can have an over .300 OBP and jack 20 homers then he's about a 4.0 fWAR player and I think that is perfectly reasonable to expect from a Michael Taylor breakout. I'm going to back off of that a bit, but I do think that Trea Turner is going to provide more than people are counting on and maybe there's a Joe Ross level surprise waiting somewhere in the minors. So I will give a three win improvement total to prospects and young players developing. That brings the prediction to 91 wins and we're done.
That's my final prediction total for the Nationals. You may have noticed I never once mentioned catcher, and that won't improve without a trade. So without counting the trade deadline as anything the Nats current roster should win 91 games. The Mets in 2015 won 90 games and while Cespedes won't repeat his performance from the final two months of the 2015 season the Mets will have him for a full year and while all their young pitchers pitched career high in innings they can't be predicted to breakdown. So while 91 wins is a big improvement on 2015 it probably isn't enough to win the division and with the strength of the Cardinals, Cubs, Pirates and improved Diamondbacks and Giants teams it's hard to predict a return to the playoffs for the Nationals at 91 wins.