Thursday, April 23, 2015

Status Check

After a disappointing loss to the Cardinals last night, the Nationals sit one game below .500 on the year and 5 games behind the Mets. Given the sky high expectations coming into the season, this might seem like a disappointing and troubling start. But, in reality, the terrible start to the season still looks more like a mole hill than a mountain.

While the litany of errors in the first few games made it feel like the blind fielding for the blind and Matt Williams and Mike Rizzo are still working on building a reliable bullpen, the long term outlook on the season hasn’t changed much at all. At the start of the season, Fangraphs projected the Nationals as the best team in the NL East and gave them one of the highest odds of making the post season. After the slow start to the season and the red hot start for the Mets, the Nationals now project to win the NL East by 6 games and are getting just under 90% odds of making the playoffs. Or, you know, MAJOR changes…

Certainly the Nationals would love to be sitting in first place but right now, but take a step back to see the big picture and you will understand what the Fangraphs’ projections see. The Nationals team that has played the first 15 games of the season isn’t the Nationals team that will play the remainder of the season. Span and Werth have only recently returned to the starting lineup and Anthony Rendon is just now starting a rehab assignment. Ryan Zimmerman’s slow start to the year should come to an end at some point and Werth’s bat will come alive with enough at bats. Looking outside of the Nationals, the NL East is just so bad that even if Rendon doesn’t return, the Nationals are probably still favorites in the division. The Phillies are just as bad as everyone expected. The Braves had a hot start only to start falling back to earth in the last few games. The Marlins are really struggling and are already dealing with rumors floating about the future of their manager. There are even reasons to discount the red hot start of the Mets. They have won a big chunk of games against the dregs of the NL East (and the Nationals in the first series of the year with no Werth, Span, or Rendon) and haven’t faced any stiff competition. Additionally, the injury bug continues to attack in New York as David Wright, Travis d’Arnuad, and former Nat Jerry Blevins are all hitting the DL. Add all that up, and the talent gap from the Nationals to the rest of the NL East is big enough that the Nationals can afford to sputter.

That brings me to the next week and a half of games for the Nationals. After closing out the series with Cardinals this afternoon, the Nationals hit the road on an NL East road trip starting with the Marlins, followed by a pit stop in Atlanta, and concluding with a showdown in New York with the Mets. It’s a big week and a half that could vault the Nationals into first place. The Nationals need to beat up on the struggling Braves and Marlins and will catch the Mets at their weakest, before David Wright and his fellow DL mates return. If the Nats can take care of business, they will return to first place by the end of the road trip, all will be right with the world and Nationals fans can go back to worrying about Drew Storen and what song the team plays after homeruns.

A quick aside on the bullpen: the easiest thing for a good team to upgrade during the season is the bullpen. If, after a few more weeks, the young arms in the Nationals bullpen still can’t hack it in the majors, Rizzo will have plenty of options to go buy/trade for a veteran bullpen arm. That will require giving up some potentially useful pieces, so it really should be a last resort. I fully expect Rizzo and Matt Williams to keep throwing young arms at the wall to see what sticks until the all-star break and reassess at that point. Still, it would be nice if there were some proven options in the bullpen...

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