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.