Every team in baseball strives for success (well, except for, you know...). Some teams — the Tigers, the Angels —sacrifice future prosperity for victories in the present; some teams — the Astros, the Cubs — do the opposite. The best teams, though, are the ones that are good now and that will be good for the foreseeable future. Many baseball analysts have labeled the Red Sox and the Cardinals as organizations that fit this billing, but the Nationals could also be classified as such.
Are the Nationals good now? PECOTA thinks they'll win the NL East comfortably in 2014; Steamer concurs. Will they be good in the future? While their farm system doesn't impress evaluators (Keith Law and Baseball America ranked it 18th and 22nd, respectively), Baseball Prospectus deemed their under-25 talent the second-best in baseball, so their long-term outlook is pretty positive. For now, we'll focus on the team's current status, which couldn't be much better.
2013 Season in Review: Disappointment, Retirement, and Development
After winning 98 games (the most in the majors) in 2012, Washington should have repeated in 2013. 59 of 63 pundits picked them as division winners, and FanGraphs projected them to finish ahead of the Braves. The Nationals themselves even adopted "World Series or bust" as their mantra for the season. Things didn't go quite as well as expected, however, as the Nationals stumbled their way to 86 wins and a distant second-place finish. In their manager's final year, the season couldn't have been much worse.
What caused this letdown? Injuries didn't really play a role — their total number of days on the DL was the fourth-lowest in the majors. It would appear that three free agent contracts given out prior to the season did them in. Dan Haren, signed as a reliable fourth starter, struggled en route to a 4.67 ERA and 1.5 WAR in 169.2 innings. Rafael Soriano, inked to be the new closer, only accrued 0.5 WAR in 66.2 innings (and he should have been even worse). Adam LaRoche, re-upped to play a solid first base, couldn't sustain his 2012 numbers, with a measly 0.6 WAR in 590 plate appearances. Combine these deals with regression from Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg, and Ryan Zimmerman, and it's not hard to see why the Nationals were at home come October.
This isn't to say that nothing good came out of 2013, though. Anthony Rendon, their second baseman of the future, came up and gave his team 1.5 wins above replacement in 394 trips to the dish. Bryce Harper (more on him later) had difficulty staying healthy, but he was still worth 3.8 WAR when he did play. Jordan Zimmermann continued disproving his skeptics, improving his WAR for the fourth straight year. While the team as a whole underachieved in 2013, the growth of the younger players provides optimism for 2014 and beyond.
Key Offseason Moves: A Steal, A Stealer, And Underzeal
Acquired Doug Fister from the Tigers in exchange for Ian Krol, Robbie Ray, and Steve Lombardozzi. You can't bring up Washington's offseason without discussing their swindling of Detroit. Fister's one of the best starters in the majors; Krol and Ray, who have yet to play in the majors, don't appear on Baseball America's top prospect list; and Lombardozzi's a 25-year-old with -0.4 WAR in the majors. Dave Cameron (correctly) deemed this deal the best of the offseason:
I’m going to guess that this move will show up at the top of every best-transactions-of-2014 list, as the Nationals basically stole Doug Fister from the Tigers in a trade that no one still understands very well.
Even if Fister is hurt to start the season, it's hard to dislike this deal from Washington's perspective.
Signed Nate McLouth to a two-year, $10.75 million contract. Other than the Fister trade, the Nationals didn't really do much, but the moves they did make were pretty solid. McLouth redeemed himself last year (2.5 WAR for the Orioles) after several awful seasons; Washington rewarded him accordingly, with a agreement that's essentially what FanGraphs predicted. With a win at $6 to $7 million this year, McLouth topping 2 WAR over the next two years combined would make this a good deal for the Nationals; as a fourth outfielder/pinch-runner, this looks like a perfectly cromulent signing.
Acquired Jerry Blevins from the Athletics in exchange for Billy Burns. After acquiring a speedy outfielder on the free-agent market, the Nationals traded a speedy outfielder of their own — Burns — to the Athletics; in return, they received Blevins, a left-handed reliever. Burns played fairly well last year (.425 OBP, 74 stolen bases between A+ and AA), but that was as a 24-year-old, so his ceiling is probably low. Meanwhile, the perpetually indifferent Blevins gives the Nationals a decent bullpen arm (81 ERA- in 2013, the same as his career) without much of a platoon split (.279 career wOBA vs. righties, .311 career wOBA vs. lefties).
Washington Nationals Consensus Top 39 Prospects
What is the consensus ranking for each of the Nationals' top prospects?
One To Watch: Bryce Harper, The Mountain Man
For as much attention as Mike Trout has gotten (from here and elsewhere), Harper has certainly played well for someone of his age. A 137 wRC+ and 3.8 WAR (in only 497 plate appearances) would be phenomenal on its own, but the fact that he accomplished this at age 20 renders one speechless. Although hip and knee ailments limited him last year, he now claims to be pain-free. Moreover, an uptick in the power department might be in order, as he even lifts, bro.
So what will happen this season for Harper? ZiPS and Steamer can't agree on him: The former projects a .382 wOBA, while the latter only forecasts a .363 figure — a .019 difference that's the second-highest in the majors. His platoon split (86 wRC+ vs. L, 161 wRC+ vs. R) inspires worry in some, and there's the ever-present threat of a re-injury. In 2014, it seems, the Nationals will go as Bryce goes.
Nationals By The Numbers: The Great Eight
The 2013 Nationals were, to some extent, a stars-and-scrubs team: They employed eight players — Ian Desmond, Jayson Werth, Harper, Strasburg, Denard Span, Gonzalez, and the Zimmerman(n)s — that accumulated 3 WAR last year, the highest total in the National League. Of this octet, ZiPS projects six as three-win players in the coming season (with Span and Werth receding). Nevertheless, a better performance from Wilson Ramos and the aforementioned addition of Fister should boost their stock.
2014 Team Outlook: Capitol (Re)punishment
With as many contributors as they have, the Nationals have no reason to come up short again. Atlanta's 2013 success (and subsequent contract bonanza), Mike Petriello's assertions, and the sage counsel of MASN Commenters notwithstanding, 2014 will be the year of the National.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
Ryan Romano writes for Beyond the Box Score, the FanGraphs Community blog, and Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports and live tweeting about Community, Thursdays at 8/7c on NBC. Cool. Coolcoolcool.