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January 15, 2012 / Nat Anacostia

On the cusp

There’s a perception that in 2012 the Nats are finally going to field a competitive team and that if they can sign Prince Fielder, they’ll be real contenders. How do these perceptions square with the numbers?

Some interesting calculations are available from “SG” of Replacement Level Yankees Weblog.  He runs a projection system called “CAIRO.” What I found particularly interesting is that he then takes the projections and runs them through a simulator, simulating something like 10,000 baseball seasons with each team’s projected lineups. This allows him to do calculations like the odds of each team making the playoffs.

As of January 4, SG projects 82 (actually 82.4) wins for the Nationals. This result roughly confirms what I’d already guessed my back-of-the-envelope intuition. Starting from the Nats’ 2011  Pythagorean record of 78 wins, I added a couple of wins for Stephen Strasburg increasing his workload from 24 innings to about 160 innings, 1.5 to 2.0 wins for adding Gio Gonzalez, and another 0.5 to 1.0 wins because I anticipate more incremental wins from the guys whose performance is likely to pick up next season (Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche) than losses from the guys whose performance is likely to drop off (Michael Morse, Tyler Clippard, John Lannan).

So where does that put the Nats relative to their playoff aspirations? Better than they’ve ever been at the start of a season in Washington, but still a ways to go before they can be considered likely to reach the playoffs. SG projects the Nats to finish third in the NL East, behind the Phillies with 93 wins and the Braves with 87. Furthermore, the Marlins are projected to be neck-and-neck with the Nats with 81.6 wins, and the Mets are not entirely out of it with a projected 76 wins. Assuming that MLB switches to a format of two wild-card teams, the Nats are projected to have a 25% probability of reaching the postseason. (If baseball retains the current format of a single wild card, the Nat’s postseason probability would drop to 17%.)

A 25% chance really isn’t that good—it places the Nats 8th in the NL, behind the Phillies, Cards, Giants, D-backs, Braves, Reds, and Brewers. But the Nats are at the bottom of the “sweet spot” that runs from about 82 to 92 wins, where each additional win would increase their odds of making the playoffs by roughly 5 percentage points. So if the Nats sign Prince Fielder and he adds 3.5 wins to their projected total, their postseason odds would go up to about 45%. (In contrast, the Phillies postseason odds are shown as 84%, but an incremental win wouldn’t raise their postseason probability as much.)

This helps explain one of the reasons that the Nats are considered favorites to land Fielder—his incremental value in terms of postseason probability is larger for the Nats than it is for the other teams that are mentioned as suitors, because the Nats are the only one with a projected number of wins in the range of 82 to 92. (The Rangers are projected at 94 wins, the Mariners at 77, the Cubs at 71, and the Orioles at 65.)

If the Nats don’t sign Fielder, I’ll consider this off-season to have been a disappointment. The only significant deal so far, the trade for Gonzalez, decimated the farm system and is really only explainable as a move to win now, rather than later. Yet a 25% chance to reach the postseason can’t be considered a win-now position.

If the Nats do sign Fielder, is there anything else they could still do that would also significantly boost their postseason chances? I’ll suggest one possibility—sign Roy Oswalt, who is said to be available for a one-year, $8 million asking price. He would probably push John Lannan out of the rotation, but Oswalt’s projection (3.47 ERA, 3.52 FIP, 171 IP according to Bill James) is substantially better than Lannan’s (4.40 ERA, 4.49 FIP, 180 IP). With only a one-year commitment and a reasonable asking price, this seems like one of the best ways to boost the Nats’ postseason prospects.

The Nats’ other need is for a center fielder, and unfortunately I don’t have a good suggestion there. While I think the Cuban defector Yoennis Cespedes could prove to be a good deal for the team that signs him, he’ll probably need a year to adjust to major league pitching, so I don’t see him as an option for immediately improving the team. With a scarcity of free agent or trade prospects, it looks like the Nats will be playing Werth in center field this season.

By the way, Harper of Nationals Baseball has a nice post on the frustrations facing teams that are in the same position as the Nats, where deals potentially can have a big impact on the playoff probabilities, but also could go massively wrong.

Another comment – the Yankees acquisition of Michael Pineda in exchange for Jesús Montero illustrates a point I made earlier—the Nats overpaid for Gonzalez. While none of the prospects that the Nats sent to the A’s individually were as valuable as Montero, collectively they represented a much more valuable bundle. Furthermore, Gonzalez isn’t the pitcher that Pineda is (Bill James projections of 3.07/3.19 for Pineda’s ERA/FIP, compared to 3.83/3.94 for Gonzalez). Finally, the Yankees will get five cost-controlled seasons from Pineda, compared to four for Gonzalez. In comparison to what the Yankees paid for Pineda, the Nats deal for Gonzalez was a massive overpay.

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2 Comments

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  1. Todd Boss / Jan 15 2012 8:56 am

    on Pineda … gotta disagree. Either that or you need to change the wording of your post, because the Nats trade was not the “massive overpay” in comparison.

    You don’t think Gonzalez is the pitcher that Pineda is?? In what world? Gonzalez had a lower era, significantly higher ERA+, and was double the WAR of Pineda. In fact, Pineda’s ERA+ of 103 basically lists him as league average (John Lannan’s ERA+ last year was 104). Gonzalez is entering his 5th pro season, having piched > 200 innings the last two. PIneda has ONE MLB season and we’ll have to wait another 3 healthy seasons to see if he’s the pitcher that Gonzalez is.

    The Yankees gave up their #1 prospect to get Pineda, and a guy that is on everyone’s top 10 board and who most scouts think could be a 30-hr hitter, right now. That’d probably be equivalent perhaps of the Nats trading a healthier Anthony Rendon after he had ascended to AAA and seemed ready to get promoted to the majors straight up to get Pineda. What the Nats traded was no sure thing; I can just as easily see Peacock as a middle reliever as a 3rd starter, I can see Milone as a 4-A soft tosser as I can see him being a back-of-the-rotation innings eater, I can see AJ Cole burning out in the low minors versus becoming the #1 ace some thing he can be, and I can see Norris continue to bat .220 and never be anything more than a backup catcher.

    The nats traded the promise of 4 years from now for the known next 4 years of Gonzalez. You can’t possibly say we “massively” overpaid until we know how this all shakes out. Until then, you’re making the “homer” mistake of overvaluing your own prospects and just assuming they’re all going to reach their theoretical potential.

  2. Nat Anacostia / Jan 15 2012 10:12 pm

    Todd – On Pineda versus Gonzalez, while it’s true that Gonzalez had a better ERA last season than Pineda, it’s the projected future performance that matters for evaluating trades. The best statistics for projecting future performance are strikeout and walk rates, and Pineda is ahead of Gonzalez in both measures – a little bit ahead in K/9 (9.1 versus 8.8) and way ahead in BB/9 (2.9 versus 4.1). Gonzalez is also ahead in WHIP, FIP, and xFIP.

    Why did PIneda have a worse ERA? Looking at their splits, it appears the big difference was in the timing of opponents’ hits. Pineda allowed more hits with runners on base, whereas Gonzalez allowed fewer hits in those situations. But situation-specific splits don’t tend to persist from one season to the next, so there’s no reason to expect Gonzalez to maintain this advantage.

    Furthermore, the fact that Pineda has less experience and more cost-controlled years is a strong factor in his favor in calculations of trade value. When Fangraphs listed the top 50 players in terms of trade value last summer, Pineda was ranked #32, whereas Gonzalez didn’t make the list.

    Turning to Montero+Noesi–Campos versus Peacock+Cole+Norris+Milone, I said that Montero is certainly more valuable than any of them individually; I just don’t agree that the net package sent by the Yankees was worth as much as the package sent by the Nats. Montero has received a lot of attention, partly because he was the Yankees top prospect and partly because if he works out at catcher, he has the potential to be a great player. But most people think he won’t work out at catcher, and as a DH, he projects as a good, but not necessarily great player. So while there’s certainty that he can hit, there’s still a lot of uncertainty about how valuable he’ll ultimately be.

    Here’s how Dave Cameron of Fangraphs compared the Pineda trade with the Gonzalez and Latos trades: “Given his strong Major League performance and the lingering hope among some folks that he might stick at catcher, he [Montero]’s more valuable than any single piece surrendered in either the Latos or Gonzalez deals. But, in both of those trades, the acquiring team not only had to part with a top 50 prospect, but they also had to include several other pieces of value as well… For the Yankees, however, not only did they not have to surrender multiple prospects along with Montero, the value of the secondary players in the trade might actually lean in favor of New York.”

    Finally, if the Nats are trading more valuable prospects to get a less valuable pitcher than the Yankees just traded for, then I don’t need to wait 4 years to see how everything turns out to say that they overpaid.

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