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July 11, 2011 / Nat Anacostia

Envisioning the 2013 Nationals (Part one – the pitchers)

We’ve reached the point where the dimensions of a championship contending Nationals team are starting to take shape. If a few essential steps are taken over the next year and a half, the 2013 Nats could be a strong contender for a divisional title and post-season success.

Why 2013? While we see the team improving from 2011 to 2012, several key pieces won’t yet be fully in place next season. It will be Stephen Strasburg’s first season back and he’ll be on an innings limit. Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon will spend at least part of 2012 in the minors. It will be Brad Peacock’s first season in the majors, and he may need to make adjustments. While we may hope for a title run next season if we’re lucky, 2013 looks like the more reasonable target.

To construct a championship-quality team, our goal should be to have above-average regulars at each position and at least four above-average starters. Now, it’s true that most actual World Series champions wind up having below-average regulars at one or two positions. But if we set our goal to be above average at every position, we’ll be better able to handle injuries and slumps that can derail the best laid plans.

Let’s start our tour of positions with the starting pitchers. We often talk about starters as numbers one through five, but those categories can mean different things to different people. For this discussion, I’m going to give these categories concrete definitions.

Imagine ranking the roughly 150 major league starting pitchers. An “average” pitcher would be ranked between number 60 and 90. I want my top four pitchers to be better than average, so I’ll set my target for our number one starter as a pitcher ranked in the top 15. My goal for a number two pitcher would be one ranked from # 16 to 30; for number three, ranked 31 to 45, and for number four, ranked 46 to 60.

To make this even more concrete, I’ll take the 2011 records (through July 9) of all starting pitchers with at least 50 IP and rank them by xFIP (an ERA-like statistic that is fielding independent and is based on strikeouts, walks, and fly balls), a measure that for short periods, like half a season, tends to be a more accurate measure of pitching ability than ERA. With this measure, my target categories break out as follows:

Number one: xFIP < 3.10

Number two: 3.10 < xFIP < 3.43

Number three: 3.43 < xFIP < 3.54

Number four: 3.54 < xFIP < 3.70

Number five: 3.70 < xFIP < 4.05

For 2013, I’ll write in Strasburg as our number one starter. Certainly, if he returns anywhere close to his 2010 form (an xFIP of 2.04 in 68 IP), he’s an easy number one. There obviously are no guarantees (there never are), but the record of pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery is pretty good.

Jordan Zimmermann’s 2011 xFIP (3.70 before Sunday’s start) suggest that he’s the type of pitcher I’m calling a number four starter,* so I’m going to project him in that role for 2013.

*The number four ranking probably seems low after seeing him ranked among this season’s league leaders in ERA. But it’s important to note that he’s had an unusually low rate of home runs per fly ball (2.9%–that is, only four home runs in 140 fly balls). An average pitcher should expect about 10% of fly balls to be homers. It’s true that some pitchers, such as Matt Cain, are able to maintain lower HR/FB rates, and their xFIP statistics will tend to be higher than their actual ERAs. On the other hand: (1) Zimmermann’s HR/FB rate for 2011 is unusually low even compared to pitchers with low HR/FB rates—for example, Cain’s career HR/FB rate is 6.8%, compared to Zim’s 2011 rate of 2.9%, and (2) nothing in Zimmermann’s record before 2011 suggests that he has any special talent for avoiding home runs. Therefore, the most likely interpretation is that Zimmermann’s just been lucky so far this season in his home run rate and will eventually revert to giving up more home runs.

For our number three starter, I’m going to be bold and project Peacock in that role. It’s true that we don’t know yet how he’ll make the adjustment to the majors—maybe the pitches that have tricked Eastern League hitters won’t fool anyone in the majors. Still, when an AA pitcher leads all of the minor leagues in strikeouts and does it with good control, I think there’s a good chance that he has the stuff to be an above-average major league pitcher.

For our number five starter (the league average innings eater) we have several candidates. Interestingly, most of them are lefties. Tom Gorzelanny, John Lannon, and Ross Detwiler will still be under team control. Tom Milone is currently pitching very well in Syracuse, and 2010 draft pick Sammy Solis (currently with Potomac) could advance quickly. My hunch is that Milone will prove to be the best of this group, but really it could be any of them, another prospect, or, if necessary, a one- or two-year rental.

That leaves the number two slot, which is one I think we’ll probably need to fill through a trade or with a free agent. Some examples of pitchers who might fit our criteria for number two starters and who are not committed to their current team beyond 2012 include Erik Bedard, Chris Carpenter, Ryan Dempster, Edwin Jackson, and CJ Wilson. During the 2010–11 off-season, Mike Rizzo’s top priority was obtaining an excellent starting pitcher, and it should continue to be one of his top priorities until the need is filled.

As relief pitchers, we have several live arms under team control through at least 2013—Tyler Clippard, Cole Kimball, Ryan Mattheus, Henry Rodríguez, and Drew Storen. Relief pitchers, of course, are difficult to project, and not all of these young pitchers will be good two years from now. It’s important for the Nats to maintain a continued supply, which can be met through player development, converting less successful starters to the relief role, and making trades and short-term free agent signings. As we learned from the Matt CappsWilson Ramos trade, relief pitchers can also serve as great trading chips in filling our other roster needs.

In my next post, I’ll look at the position players.

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