2012 Season Forecast: Washington Nationals

2011 Season: 80 – 81 (3rd, NL East)
Runs Scored: 624 (12th, NL)
Runs Allowed: 643 (7th, NL)

A rain out prevented the team from having a chance at getting all the way back to .500.  Davey Johnson’s task is to find at least ten more wins, telling reporters at one point that if this team doesn’t make the playoffs he should be fired.  Let’s see if that can happen.

2011 Season Recap:

Without their ace, Stephen Strasburg, who was out following elbow surgery, the Nationals started adding even more pieces to the roster, building a team that remained competitive all season long – just in the wrong division.  What was odd was that the team played over .500 with Jim Riggleman, who then quit because he couldn’t get an extension to his contract.  Johnson took over – it took a month to figure things out, but he was 38 – 43 in his time with the team.

Just looking at the statistical breakdown, the team really just needed someone who could bat first or second.  Leadoff hitters batted  .226 with a .285 OBP and the number two hitters were worse – .222 with a .283 OBP, and the lowest slugging percentage other than the pitcher’s spot in the order.  Give them 70 extra runs out of those spots, and you have a team on the brink of a 90 win season.

Starting Pitching:

Last year, the Nationals opened with a rotation of John Lannan, Livan Hernandez, Jason Marquis, Tom Gorzelanny, and gave test drives to Ross Detwiler, Chien-Ming Wang and others before giving five starts to Strasburg when he came back in September.  The problem here is that Hernandez is really just eating innings but not that effective, costing his team some 24 runs against the league average.  Even Lannan, who has been their best pitcher prior to the arrival of Strasburg is below average now – -11 runs, and Wang, despite the winning record, cost the team almost nine runs.

Looking ahead, the Nationals now hope to get 30 starts from Strasburg, which could be worth 50 runs by replacing Hernandez – a huge change.  The Nationals also added Gio Gonzalez to the rotation – a solid starter for Oakland, who if he can take over for Lannan (who, surprisingly, found his way to AAA to start this season) and pitch close to what he did last year will save the team another 25 runs.  The rest of the rotation will include Edwin Jackson – and he has the potential to save another ten to fifteen runs over Marquis.  The last two spots go to Ross Detwiler and Jordan Zimmermann, both of whom showed promise last year.  Having Lannan as an alternate isn’t a bad thing – worst case he’s a bargaining chip for help later.  This could be a very tough rotation in 2012.

Relief Pitching:

At the back end, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard are solid – a net 30 runs better than average pitching, though Storen’s ERA (2.75) is a touch high for a closer.  Sean Burnett and Todd Coffey are tolerable long men, and being able to move Tom Gorzelanny to the pen will be a help.  Another addition that could prove to be valuable is former stopper Brad Lidge and fireballer Henry Rodriguez.  It’s a reasonably deep staff with at least three solid options.  I think this team will be a shade better than last year – but not much.  The bullpen was pretty good as it was.

Catching:

Wilson Ramos took over the job – defensively, he’s pretty good.  As a hitter, he wasn’t bad either…  He has a little power, batted .267, and would take a walk if offered.  Backed up by Ivan Rodriguez, who can’t hit but can still work the plate and threw out more runners than were successful stealing, it wasn’t a bad combination.  However, former starter Jesus Flores is back and healthy, so Pudge was sent packing for 2012.  This remains a solid duo.

Infield:

This is a group with a little pop and solid defensively all around.  Adam LaRoche didn’t hit well last year, but Michael Morse was solid when he played there.  The problem is that they need TWO Michael Morse types.  Morse also played left, and moved to first only because LaRoche didn’t hit at all (3 – 15 – .172).  Danny Espinosa has power (21 homers, 55 extra base hits), but only hit .236, and Ian Desmond has a bit better batting average but less power.  Neither guy gets on base and each were hitting too frequently at the top of the order.  At third, Ryan Zimmerman missed two months with injuries – he needs to play a full season.  If he did, he’d be an MVP candidate.

These guys have room to grow, but it would help if Adam LaRoche found his hitting stroke.  Steve Lombardozzi and Mark DeRosa are around for insurance, but Lombardozzi isn’t as good a hitter as these guys and DeRosa hasn’t been healthy in three years.  I think Washington is going to miss Laynce Nix, who played a variety of positions and put a few runs on the board.

Outfield:

Last year, Michael Morse was the dominant hitter in the outfield.  Jayson Werth had signed the big contract to come to Washington and struggled, finishing with a .232 batting average, but he still helped to put runs on the board.  He drew 74 walks, was 19/22 on the bases, and had 47 extra base hits.  Granted – he didn’t hit to his contract, so there is room for improvement.  Rick Ankiel and Roger Bernadina will battle for playing time in center – and neither are even league average hitters anymore.

The top prospect on the team, Bryce Harper, has to play here.  Yes – he’s still a teen, but Werth or Harper has enough gas to cover centerfield and having Harper could be a step up over either Ankiel or Bernadina.  Mark DeRosa and Xavier Nady are around and will get at bats.  Neither has been a productive enough hitter since about 2008.

Morse can hit – he’s done it everywhere he has played.  Werth should be better – it’s all about getting someone else in the outfield (or first base) who can contribute.  I think if the Nationals get off to a slow start, Harper will be here quickly.

Prospects:

Let’s start with the obvious – Bryce Harper hit .318 with power and patience at A level Hagerstown and earned a trip to Harrisburg in AA where he wasn’t overmatched.  He may need a full season at AA or AAA, but I don’t know if the Nationals can wait for that.

AAA Syracuse features outfielder Chris Marrero, who has a decent bat and eye, but I don’t think he’s got enough power to merit a job at first base.  He’d be better than Adam LaRoche was last year, but not a game changer.  Pitcher Tommy Milone has an interesting line – only 16 walks and 155 Ks in 148.1 innings.  He got a look in 2011; he might get some long relief innings in 2012.  Ross Detwiler made 16 starts here before joining the rotation with the major league team.

AA Harrisburg had Harper for a little while, but featured the 31 homers of Tyler Moore.  Unfortunately, Moore’s power comes with a lot of strikeouts and little patience at the plate.  Catcher Derek Norris hit for power, but his batting average doesn’t make you long for his arrival yet.  Brad Peacock had a great run in AA – 129 Ks and 23 walks in 14 starts.  Something clicked for him – it was, by far, the best season he’d had in the minors in five seasons.

David Freitas, a catcher at Hagerstown, might have a future – he hit .288, drew 82 walks, and had mid-range power.  He could make the Nationals roster in a couple of years.  Infielder Blake Kelso also had a nice season, stole some bases, and will get a shot at AA soon.  Pitcher A.J. Cole fanned 108 in 89 innings, showed good control and kept the ball in the park.  He may have a nice future here.

2012 Forecast:

With the upgrade to the rotation, the Nationals look to save at least 80 runs when compared to the 2011 model – which would be a huge step forward.  The issue remains with the offense, which isn’t really good enough.  The lineup can be better.  Desmond or Espinosa could move forward ten runs each.  Werth could improve by twenty runs.  Zimmerman could play a full season – another twenty run impact.  On the other hand, Ankiel and Morse could fall back a similar amount.  The Nationals really need a leadoff hitter – and they don’t have one.

I see them scoring about twenty runs more than last year, and saving 80 more runs.  That puts them around 640 runs scored and 560 runs allowed – or 92 wins.  You might temper that total based on the competition in the division – the Phillies, Marlins, and Braves are all very good teams.  Realistically, the Nationals could win 90 games – I just don’t know if 90 will be enough to win the division.  It could be enough to get that second wild card slot.

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2010 Season Forecast: Milwaukee Brewers

Last Five Seasons:

2009: 80 – 82 (3rd, NL Central)
2008: 90 – 72
2007: 83 – 79
2006: 75 – 87
2005: 81 – 81

Runs Scored: 785  (3rd, NL)
Runs Allowed: 818  (15th, NL)

Season Recap:

Generally a .500 team as their hitting kept pace with their poor pitching…  The Brewers got a hot run in May, winning 14 of 17 to make a run to the top of the division, but gradually fell back to .500 by mid August and a bit below it in September.  They lost Rickie Weeks to a wrist injury in May, but found ways to work around it.  J.J. Hardy’s bat got lost in the summer, but the Brewers had a way around that in Alcides Escobar.  The Brewers battered opposing pitchers with above average performers in at least six spots in the lineup on a daily basis.

What they couldn’t get around was their pitching – four starters with ERAs between 5.22 and 6.38.  They tried Mike Burns (a prospect four years ago) and his ERA (5.75) fit right in there.  Carlos Villanueva had a few spot starts and his ERA was 5.34, too.  The bullpen was tolerable – Trevor Hoffman was remarkably solid and Todd Coffey did a great job, but the rest were rather middling.

Defensively, the Brewers had two holes – first base and right field.  That both were REALLY poor suggests that there might be a statistical bias, however Milwaukee had only one lefty starter and he worked just 140 innings.  Granted – the righties on the staff don’t blow you away with fastballs either.  The Brewers third basemen, as a group, were above average – but not MORE above average than Prince Fielder was below average.  And the Brewers left fielder, Ryan Braun, was merely league average while Corey Hart was well below average.  As a team, the Brewers turned fewer balls in play into outs than the average NL team and the middle infielders didn’t help out by turning two often enough either.

2010 Goals:

As I read it, the Brewers need to shore up the starting rotation, see if Alcides Escobar is the real deal, and hope that Corey Hart is more mobile in 2010 than he was last year.  If Prince Fielder could lose 20 pounds, it might help, too.  I’d worry about the long term viability of Trevor Hoffman as a closer – but he was so good last year it’s hard to think that this is the year he falls off the map.  However, Hoffman is 42 now and the end could come at any time.

Pitchers:

In 2009, the Brewers had one pretty good starter in Yovani Gallardo, who went 13 – 12 with a 3.73 ERA.  By my count, he was about ten and half runs better than the average starter in his 185.2 innings.  That makes him a solid #2 guy in any rotation.  And so ends the good news.  Braden Looper cost the team 33 runs (14 – 7, 5.22 ERA), Jeff Suppan cost them 31 more, David Bush 32 in just 114.1 innings, and Manny Parra cost the Brewers 44 runs in his 140 innings.  The four guys (other than Gallardo) were 140 runs worse than the average pitcher – and that has to be fixed.

In the off season, the Brewers added Randy Wolf from LA – he had his best season in 2009, but has been around league average (up and down) since 2006.  He doesn’t have to blow the league away, but if he could give the Brewers 200 innings of league average pitching, he’d immediately save the team 50 runs.  Another signing was Doug Davis – a former Brewer – who has been an above average starter for the last three years.  Again – 180 innings at league average would be worth 35 runs in savings.  If Claudio Vargas can return to the rotation, or if Manny Parra can stop walking guys and getting in unnecessary trouble, there are two other chances (a little less dependable chances) that the team could save 30 more runs.

The bullpen may need help.  I like moving Bush to the bullpen.  If Vargas stays in the pen, that would help.  Trevor Hoffman is getting old, and Todd Coffey exceeded expectations.  I see this group actually taking a step back in 2010 – maybe 20 runs worse than last year.

Catchers:

Out is Jason Kendall, who last year was a tolerable catcher though a bit easy to run on, and a miserable offensive player.  In his place for 2010 is Gregg Zaun, who is nearing 40, George Kotteras, and rookie Angel Colome, who battered pitching at Huntsville in 2008 and was decent, though not great, at Nashville last year.  Baseball America named Colome as the Brewers’ #5 prospect last year.  At best this is a wash.

Infield:

This is a pretty good group.  Prince Fielder is an offensive machine and a defensive liability.  The net, though, is one of the better players in baseball.  Around the horn, Weeks, Escobar, and Casey McGehee were solid and all will contribute with the bat some.  If Escobar lives up to the hype (and he was solid in 2009’s call up), he might add a few runs offensively and remove a few defensively compared to J.J. Hardy.  At worst, he’s a wash.  Waiting in the wings is #2 prospect Mat Gamel, who was drafted five years ago and if he’s going to make a splash, better get on the diving board soon.  Gamel plays third or first – but with Fielder there, would likely push McGehee for his job.

Outfield:

Ryan Braun remains a triple crown threat, and Corey Hart needs to bounce back.  Hart’s season was marred by injuries which may have contributed to his range falling off the map.  He’s got some power, but his batting average has fallen each year since breaking out in 2007.  Mike Cameron, still a productive outfielder and rangy centerfielder, is gone having landed in Boston.  In his place is former Twins and Mets prospect Carlos Gomez.  Gomez can run down flies like Cameron, but has yet to prove himself as an offensive producer.  If Gomez shows improvement and Hart bounces back, this won’t necessarily be an improvement but it won’t be a loss either.  My gut tells me that Gomez won’t ever produce like Cameron did last year, and that the Crew will be looking for a new centerfielder in 2011.

Bench:

Remains strong – Jody Gerut is a dependable fourth or fifth outfielder.  Hernan Iribarren and Craig Counsell are still here and producing.  Prospect Lorenzo Cain will get a look in the outfield.  Heck, if the Brewers get really stuck, they could play Weeks in the outfield if necessary.  Zaun and Kotteras will be good backup catchers.

Prospects:

I like Chris Cody, a pitcher in Huntsville last year, who showed some promise and was promoted to AAA Nashville mid-season.  He’s not ready, but he might have a shot in 2011.  Mike Burns was the best AAA pitcher last year, but didn’t look overly impressive in 2009 with the Brewers and he’s not a prospect…  Chris Smith (2 – 0, 17 saves, 1.27 ERA) could be the closer in waiting.  He fanned 49 and walked just 6, in 42.2 innings.  Brett Lawrie moved up quickly to AA after showing power, discipline, a little speed – and just turned 20.  In a couple of years, check back on the progress of Amaury Rivas and Evan Anundsen, who pitched well for Brevard County (A+) in the Florida State League.  Rivas, at 23, has been working his way up slowly through the minors.  Anundsen was drafted out of high school in 2006 and looks to be turning the corner.  Another interesting guy is Eric Farris, a BURNER out of Loyola Marymount, who is a bit of a slap hitter, but stole 70 bases in 76 tries at Brevard County.  His teammate Caleb Gindl is a decent outfielder with some power and speed and is making his mark.  We’ll see him in 2012 or 2013.

Outlook:

On the whole, I think the Brewers will contend for the NL Central.  I’m guessing they score about 760 runs or thereabouts, but more importantly, cut the runs allowed number to a more respectable 700.  That would work out to 88 wins – and a potential playoff berth.  If the bullpen holds solid and three starting rotation positions show real improvement (and not just two), it could easily be 90 wins or more.

NL’s Best and Worst Pitchers in 2009 – Hot Stove News…

Quick news hits first before we take a quick look back at pitchers in 2009…

Tim Lincecum asked for $13 million when filing for arbitration – if he wins, it would be the highest amount paid to an arbitration eligible pitcher.  Of course, Lincecum is a bit of a party animal off the field, but between the lines he’s one of the five best pitchers in the National League.  He’s certainly one of the most valuable commodities – a pretty durable arm (so far) who gets a lot of batters out and wins games.  [ESPN/SI]

There’s a rather long list of players and teams avoiding arbitration or signing deals – you can get the list on SI or MLB – but the ones that caught my attention were (a) Jonathon Papelbon getting $9.35 million from Boston – about two million more than the going rate and (b) Bengie Molina likely returning to the Giants.  The Mets pursued Molina but apparently not hard enough, and are now stuck with playing backup catchers every day for another year (unless you consider Omir Santos a budding starter).  [FoxSports/ESPN]

FUN WITH DATA!

Having purchased my copy of the Lahman database, which is invaluable for doing quick queries so that I can plug data into my spreadsheets very easily, I can finally start doing the type of statistical analysis that I like…  I’ve already assembled the NL data and will be doing the AL data later this week.  And, after having knocked out the NL sheets, we get to have some fun with the lists it generates.  Today, we’ll start with the pitchers.

Top NL Starting Pitchers

The first rating system I have looks at how many runs a pitcher cost or saved his team over the course of the year above or below what the average pitcher allowed.  ERA is a pretty simple way to note this, mind you.  Someone with an ERA of 2.00 is two runs per nine innings better than someone with an ERA of 4.00.  However, it’s easier to have a low ERA when you pitch in San Diego, so I modify the runs allowed (not earned runs, but runs allowed) by removing the park effect.  Then, I also try to isolate the advantage a pitcher has in being on a team with a good defense vs. one with a bad defense.  For example, a pitcher on the Giants gets help from having a very solid defense – Randy Winn and Fred Lewis in the outfield are plus defenders at their position, the infielders were rather good as well.  Meanwhile, the Cardinals staff had behind them an injured Rick Ankiel or Chris Duncan or Ryan Ludwick in the outfield not catching as many flies as most teams and were playing an injured (and less mobile) Mark DeRosa at third and, perhaps more importantly, an outfielder at second base all year in Skip Schumaker.  Once I figure out how many runs the seven guys in the field affected the team’s ability to prevent runs, you can make a second modification to a pitcher’s runs allowed numbers and compare it with the league average.

The league average pitcher allowed about 4.53 runs per nine innings.  The total number of runs saved is not just dependent on runs allowed per nine, but the number of innings pitched.  The best pitchers in saving runs will usually be starters.  Sometimes, a reliever can sneak in there, but not very often.  Let’s get to the list.

Best Starters:

In terms of runs saved, the best starting pitchers in the National League were…

48.57 – Chris Carpenter (STL)
43.19 – Adam Wainwright (STL)
40.25 – Danny Haren (ARZ)
38.80 – Tim Lincecum (SF)
38.30 – Ubaldo Jimenez (COL)
38.16 – Jair Jurrjens (ATL)
36.39 – Javier Vasquez (ATL)
33.68 – Josh Johnson (FLA)
30.62 – Matt Cain (SF)
28.51 – Wandy Rodriguez (HOU)
28.09 – J.A. Happ (PHI)
26.14 – Ted Lilly (CHC)
23.33 – Jason Marquis (COL)
22.81 – Tommy Hanson (ATL)
21.32 – Clayton Kershaw (LA)

No other starters saved at least 20 runs more than an average pitcher would have allowed given the number of innings pitched by that player.  The top two guys were Cardinals – two pitchers who were wonderful despite having several players not necessarily having good years with the glove.  Those pitchers DO benefit from having the best catching in baseball (Yadier Molina) – but Carpenter’s 48+ runs saved over the average pitcher might be the largest number I have seen in the five years I have done this.  Based on this criteria, Carpenter deserved his Cy Young consideration.  Among the surprises on this list was Clayton Kershaw who couldn’t get any support from his team but really did pitch very, very well and I think could be a sleeper ace for 2010.  And, seeing how well Jason Marquis pitched for the first four months of the season, one assumes that Colorado will miss that kind of production.

Top Relievers:

18.13 – Kiko Calero (FLA)
17.86 – Ryan Franklin (STL)
16.29 – LaTroy Hawkins (HOU)
16.23 – Jeremy Affeldt (SF)
15.49 – Trevor Hoffman (MIL)
13.89 – Nick Massett (CIN)
13.42 – Rafael Soriano (ATL)
12.98 – Huston Street (COL)
12.57 – Jose Valverde (HOU)
12.36 – Todd Coffey (MIL)
12.15 – Tyler Clippard (WAS)

As has been the case for many years, the top relievers are frequently NOT closers but middle relievers who have really good seasons in less demanding roles.  Kiko Calero, who has never had a season anywhere NEAR what he did in 2009 is the surprise winner here.  That being said, the top closer was Ryan Franklin, followed closely by Trevor Hoffman.  More than any other list, this group will change a lot from year to year.  Any number close to 10 is a great year for a reliever.

Worst NL Pitchers…

-44.28 – Manny Parra (MIL)
-33.36 – Josh Geer (SD)
-32.70 – Braden Looper (MIL)
-31.70 – David Bush (MIL)
-31.25 – Jeff Suppan (MIL)
-27.36 – Chad Gaudin (SD)
-25.35 – Todd Wellemeyer (STL)
-22.83 – Micah Owings (CIN)
-21.95 – Felipe Paulino (HOU)
-21.90 – Brad Lidge (PHI)
-20.53 – Brian Moehler (HOU)
-20.20 – Walter Silva (SD)

-21.31 – Kevin Hart (PIT) – but positive 6.30 in CHC

These are the starters for teams who felt like they had no other option than to give 150 innings to someone with a 5+ ERA.  Or, in the case of Brad Lidge, a manager who kept feeding his closer the ball despite the fact that he was getting hammered all too often.  Rarely does a reliever make this list.

One thing that is immediately noticeable is the fact that four of the five worst pitchers in terms of their relation to the average pitcher were Brewers.  Look – they aren’t the worst pitchers.  There were guys with 8+ ERAs who got just 20 innings and were sent packing to AAA, too.  Or were hurt or something.  But the Brewers were hanging in there with four guys who are no better than long relievers.  Three of them had seen better days (Looper, Suppan, Bush), but wow.  One sees immediately where the Brewers should spend their money.  Go find three guys who can pitch.  If that means giving Ben Sheets a deal, do it.  Finding three guys who can give you a 4.20 ERA in 180 innings would move the Brewers up 10 games in the standings.  Is it that hard to find three of those guys?  I can’t wait to do my team overview for the Brewers…