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April 2, 2016 / Nat Anacostia

It’s time to play some baseball

This winter it’s been tough for me to get excited about the Nats and baseball. Several long-time favorite players left via free agency. The team pursued several big-name players, but failed to land them. The main moves they did make—trading away Yunel Escobar and signing Daniel Murphy, trading away Drew Storen and signing Shawn Kelley, picking up Ben Revere—probably improved the team only slightly. The player I earnestly hoped they would trade, Jonathan Papelbon, is back. Meh.

Only in the last couple of weeks have I started warming up to this year’s Nats. It helps that they have the best player, and probably the second-best pitcher in the National League. And even though we all know spring training statistics are meaningless (or are they?), it still helped me feel better about the team to see them go 18–4 in the Grapefruit League. And even though this is probably the least impressive team the Nats have fielded in the last five years, playing in a weak division they still look to be quite competitive. Finally, a week ago I relented and bought opening day tickets.

With Bryce Harper (9.5 fWAR last year) and Max Scherzer (6.4 fWAR & RA9WAR) returning, the Nats have a solid foundation, even assuming some regression. (FanGraphs projects Harper at 7.3 fWAR for 2016 and Scherzer at 5.8.) Some of that regression should be offset by regression in the other direction from some of last year’s poor performers. For example, Jayson Werth‘s –0.3 fWAR from last season is projected to increase to +1.0 this season, and Wilson Ramos is projected to increase from 0.4 to 1.6.

But even in the NL East, the Nats will need more than Harper and Scherzer to secure a title. The key players in my view are Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg. We need Rendon to play more like the 6.5 WAR, .186 ISO player we saw in 2014, rather than the injured 0.9 WAR, .100 ISO player we saw last season. And we need Strasburg to pitch like he did in the last two months last season, 92 strikeouts and only 8 walks in 66-1/3 innings, good for a 1.90 ERA and an 8–2 record. This spring he’s looked like he’s ready to return to that form.

This Nats team certainly also has its flaws. In particular, Ryan Zimmerman at first base, Revere and Michael A. Taylor platooning in center field, Ramos at catcher, and Werth in left field all project to be below average players. Tanner Roark as the fifth starter is a bit of a mystery—I wouldn’t be surprised to see him pitch terribly or to see him pitch very well. We’ve certainly seen both over the last two seasons, and the Nats need to find out which pitcher he is.

The good thing about a team with holes is that they can fill some of them with mid-season deals. One of Mike Rizzo‘s problems last season was that he didn’t think he had any holes and expected everything to be alright once everyone was back and healthy. So the only trade-deadline deal he made was the infamous Papelbon trade. The Mets, in contrast, recognized last July that they had several holes and set about making themselves better. Their second-half improvement wasn’t mainly due to their mid-season acquisitions—several of their players also started playing better—but they do show how it’s not always a bad thing for a team to have a few holes. Nevertheless, I think it’s generally better for a team to fill their holes during the off-season rather than waiting until the middle of the season to do so, and I wish the Nats had been more aggressive this winter.

My biggest question from this offseason, though, is why are the Nationals’ billionaire owners insisting that in order for any free-agent player to sign with them, the player needs to lend them money? Yes, deferred compensation is exactly that—the player receives part of his compensation as an IOU, meaning that the player is lending money to the owner. If the Lerners are that hard up for cash, why don’t they just go to a bank for a loan, rather than hitting up the players? I mean, it’s fine if a player (such as Scherzer) wants to lend them money, and there are even tax advantages to the player. But as far as I’m aware there aren’t any tax advantages to the employer. So why are the Lerners insisting that any player who wants to play for the team has to make them a loan? This odd insistence seems to have cost the Nats several excellent  potential players this winter.

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