NL East Preview: Washington Nationals

WASHINGTON NATIONALS

2009 Record: 59-103, 5th in NL East
2009 Pythagorean Record: 64-98 (+5 differential)
Current PECOTA 2010 Projection: 76-86 (5th in NL East)
BDD Preview of the Nationals by Jeff Lubbers

The Washington Nationals will kick off the NL East previews this week here at Crashburn Alley. I was able to flag down my favorite Nationals blogger Steven Biel of Fire Jim Bowden to answer some questions about his team. No, the Nationals aren’t expected to compete for a playoff spot nor are they even expected to sniff .500, but it’s not all doom and gloom in Washington. Phenom Stephen Strasburg is on the horizon and ready to take the Majors by storm and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman has emerged as one of baseball’s most productive players, finishing 2009 as one of eight position players with 7 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) or more.

Are Strasburg and Zimmerman enough to bring hope to the nation’s capital? Let’s see what Steven thinks of the Nats going into 2010.

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1. When should fans plan to buy tickets to watch Stephen Strasburg’s MLB debut?

Mike Rizzo really emphasizes not rushing prospects, and he seems to have decided (correctly in my view) that regardless of how wicked Strasburg is on the mound, it would be rushing to ask him throw his first professional pitch in a big league game. Also, you have the risk of funky weather in April and the financial incentives to delay the start of the arbitration clock… all that I think points to a mid-June call-up at the earliest. Jim Riggleman spoke this week about a 158 inning limit for Strasburg this year, so I would imagine that you’ll see him pitching for the Nationals from shortly after Memorial Day until maybe Labor Day, and then they’ll shut him down, again, assuming all goes well.

2. Ryan Zimmerman was one of eight position players in the Majors worth 7 WAR last year. CHONE projects 5 WAR for him in 2010. Where do you see him finishing?

A 5-win player is still a perennial all-star, and with his glove, he’d have to really regress at the plate to fall below that level. I would say 5 WAR could be pretty close to his floor, assuming he’s healthy. I would expect some regression though from last season at the plate. He just took a huge leap from 2008 to 2009, and usually there’s some fall-back after a breakthrough year like that. So I’ll put the over-under at 6.0.

3. Adam Dunn drew some ire from the likes of Marty Brennaman and J.P. Ricciardi prior to coming to Washington. Is he well-received in Washington?

Getting criticized by J.P. Ricciardi is kind of a sign that you’re on the right track, no? Dunn has a dry sense of humor and mellow, country boy personality, so you can see how that might have been misread as complacency when he was younger. But all you hear from the team is that he’s a great presence in the clubhouse and a great competitor. He’s close with Zimmerman and Josh Willingham. Rizzo loves Dunn, and he cares a ton about clubhouse chemistry–more than he should, in my opinion, though that could be a function of just trying to clean up some of the worst excesses of the Jim Bowden home for misguided youth. Bottom line, Dunn is well-liked by fans and in fact probably quite a bit overrated as a player, given his enormous defensive deficiencies.

4. Besides Strasburg, give the readers a hint at another young pitcher who could contribute a lot to the Nationals this year.

Drew Storen was drafted as a signable, low-ceiling, major-league ready college reliever with the #10 pick last year. If he’s not pitching in at least medium-leverage innings by July 4, something’s gone wrong.

After that, there isn’t anything close to an impact arm anywhere in the organization–just a lot of guys who project as 5th starters at best, like Craig Stammen, Ross Detwiler, Collin Balester, Garrett Mock, Matt Chico, etc.

I’ll give you one guy who your readers probably haven’t heard about–Aaron Thompson, the lefty who came over from Florida in the Nick Johnson trade last summer. He’s a former #1 pick (2005) who has progressed slowly but steadily and really turned a corner last year in AA. His fastball sits at 90-91, and he has the strong groundball tendencies Rizzo loves. I would be surprised if you don’t see him at some point in 2010.

5. The Nats are expected to take Bryce Harper with the first pick in the draft this year, but he won’t help out the 2010 squad. Jesus Flores has had shoulder issues and won’t be ready for Opening Day, making Ivan Rodriguez the everyday catcher. Do you think he still has enough left in the tank?

Derek Norris is actually their top catching talent in the organization and one of the best catching prospects in baseball. The job will be his by hopefully next year. It’s awfully hard to say what position Bryce Harper will play eventually. I don’t think they’ll draft for positional need with that pick anyway.

As you said, Flores hasn’t been able to stay healthy, but he also hasn’t actually been that good. He had great luck on balls in play in a small sample size last year, so this line looks better than it was. In 2008 he was really pretty awful and should have been in the minors. His strikeout rate just keeps going up. He’s actually not a particularly strong defensive catcher. In a better organization, a guy like this wouldn’t get nearly so much ink.

Predictions

MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie/Manager of the Year winners

For the Nationals, MVP will be Zimmerman, Cy Young will be I guess Jason Marquis by default, and their rookie of the year will be Strasburg of course.

In the NL, I’ll go with Albert Pujols for MVP and Roy Halladay for Cy Young. Hard to pick against those two. For rookie of the year I’ll go out on a limb and say Jason Castro. For manager of the year, I’ll guess Bobby Cox wins in a sympathy vote for his last season.

Nationals regular season win total

I’m not ready to make the official prediction that I’ll be held to, but it won’t be far from 70 in either direction.

Place in NL East

Last place.

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Keep up with the Nationals this season by checking out Fire Jim Bowden, one of my favorite blogs on the Internets.  Aside from being a great blogger, Steven Biel was among many responsible for helping send Mark Zuckerman to Viera, Florida to cover the Nationals during spring training. The team had no independent beat writers, and Zuckerman was asking for a meager $5,000 to take the case himself. With the help of Biel and other kind souls throughout the baseball blogosphere (including Brian Oliver of Nationals Farm Authority and Dave Cameron of U.S.S. Mariner and FanGraphs), Zuckerman was able to afford the trip and provide Nationals fans with the independent news that fans of other the 29 teams enjoy and often take for granted.

Tomorrow, we will preview the New York Mess Mets with Steve Keane of Kranepool Society.

Begrudgingly Addressing the Howard-Pujols Rumor

If you were away from the Internet today, you missed the big rumor. Per ESPN’s Buster Olney:

[…] according to sources, an idea has been kicked around the Phillies’ organization internally, with discussions about proposing a swap of slugger Ryan Howard for St. Louis superstar Albert Pujols.

Hold on to your hats, folks.

It’s not fully clear whether the Phillies actually have approached the Cardinals with the idea, and even if St. Louis were to seriously consider such an offer[…]

In other words, don’t expect this trade to actually happen.

The last time we bloggers called B.S. on a trade rumor, we got burned big time by Ken Rosenthal. However, as The Yankee Universe noted on Twitter, the difference is that “we knew Roy was getting traded, just not for what”. There has been no real momentum in Ryan Howard trade talks (except by yours truly) and this is really the first legitimate mention of an Albert Pujols trade.

Overall, the pieces don’t add up to make this rumor realistic. The Cardinals recently signed outfielder Matt Holliday to a seven-year, $120 million contract. That was a good will gesture on the part of the Cardinals organization to show Pujols that they are committed to putting a competitive team on the field year after year. Pujols, of course, will be a free agent after 2011 and the Cardinals want to do as much as they can to convince him to stay in St. Louis and perhaps even take a hometown discount.

The Cardinals payroll currently sits at about $90 million going into 2010. Holliday and Pujols, at $17 million and $16 million respectively, represent about 37% of the Cardinals’ total payroll. That percentage only figures to increase when Pujols does eventually re-sign. That may sound like bad economics but the Cardinals wouldn’t have signed Holliday to that contract if they didn’t feel like they could make a legitimate pitch to Pujols to keep him in St. Louis.

As for the Phillies, it doesn’t make sense from their end either. Both Pujols and Howard are free agents after 2011 and both are expected to strike big in free agency if they aren’t re-signed. Both will net their teams a first round draft pick and a sandwich pick if they sign elsewhere. Pujols, clearly the better player, will make $2 million less than Howard this year and $3 million less in 2011. While it appears that the Phillies would save money, they likely would have to send money along with Howard to offset the difference.

Presumably the Phillies would want to sign their first baseman to a long-term contract. They are much more likely to accomplish this with Ryan Howard than with Albert Pujols, who may join Alex Rodriguez in the annual $30 million salary club.

This is all without mentioning the obvious chasm in value between the two players. Last year, Howard was worth 4.8 Wins Above Replacement according to FanGraphs. He has accrued about 19.5 WAR since 2006, an average of about 5 WAR per season. Pujols was worth 8.5 WAR and has been worth 33 WAR since 2006, an average of 8.25 per season. Whether the Cardinals and Phillies value their first basemen in this fashion is unknown, but it seems ludicrous to think that anyone would put Howard anywhere near the pedestal upon which Pujols rests.

Adding to the lack of realism of this rumor is the Jayson Werth situation. Werth is a free agent after this season and the team will decide if they can afford to re-sign him and if they will choose to offer him a contract. If Werth doesn’t re-sign, then the Phillies will have to re-sign Ryan Howard or they will face the prospect of having two significant holes to fill in two consecutive years (and only one can be filled with Domonic Brown, an unproven quantity). GM Ruben Amaro has been very stingy with the length of contracts he offers to players, adhering to a limit of three guaranteed years.

Losing Werth (avg. 4.5 WAR) + trading Howard (avg. 5 WAR) + trading prospects + sending cash for 3-4 years of Albert Pujols (avg. 8.25 WAR) simply isn’t worth it. For the amount of money that the Phillies would have to pay Pujols, they could re-sign Werth and Howard while clearing salary by trading Shane Victorino, for example (which has the added effect of losing a lesser player in creating a job for Domonic Brown).

What the Cliff Lee/Roy Halladay mega-deal showed us was that Amaro is very cognizant of his Minor League system and isn’t willing to mortgage the long-term goal for short-term gains. Simply put, if Amaro was the type to trade Howard, cash, and two top prospects to St. Louis for Pujols, Lee would still be wearing Phillies pinstripes in 2010.

Besides, what kind of a season do you think Brad Lidge would have with Pujols in the clubhouse?