At 5-15, Nationals Are Right Where They Want to Be

Farid RushdiAnalyst IApril 30, 2009

ATLANTA - APRIL 12: Pitcher Scott Olsen #19 of the Washington Nationals starts against the Atlanta Braves April 12, 2009 at Turner Field in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Last season, the Washington Nationals lost 102 games, and their accompanying statistics bore that out. They were 13th in runs per game, 15th in home runs, and dead last in slugging percentage.

This year, the Nationals are on track to lose 108 games, but this time, their statistics seem to make their bad start an aberration.

After 20 games, the team is scoring a league-average 4.5 runs per game, is sixth in the league with 22 home runs and a .270 team batting average, and tied for second with 87 walks.

This is how the starting eight's statistics project for a full season:

1B Nick Johnson: .333-16-50

2B Anderson Hernandez: .304-0-32

SS Cristian Guzman: .474-0-32

3B Ryan Zimmerman: .291-32-112

LF Adam Dunn: .324-48-120

CF Elijah Dukes: .292-24-104

RF Austin Kearns: .240-24-88

C Jesus Flores: .267-16-80

Other than the batting averages of Nick Johnson (.280 is more likely), Anderson Hernandez (he doesn't have a large enough major league sample to suggest he is that good a hitter), Cristian Guzman (he has only played in eight games), and Adam Dunn (he's a .250 hitter), every other projection looks spot-on.

This is why I still have high hopes for the Nationals this year. In 2008, the team didn't hit for average, didn't hit for power, didn't walk enough, and led the league in grounding into double plays.

In other words, they earned their 59-102 record.

Bill James' Pythagorean win-loss record, which takes into account bad luck and unusual circumstances, was an almost identical 62-99.

If projections hold, the 2009 Nationals are on pace to bat .270, hit 178 home runs, and score 750 runs. Using 2008 for comparison purposes, this team would have finished third in the NL in batting average, sixth in home runs, and seventh in runs scored.

Those numbers are most similar to the New York Mets (89 wins), the Houston Astros (86 wins), and the NL Wild Card-winning Milwaukee Brewers (90 wins.)

James says the Nationals' 5-15 start is really more like 8-12, a difference of three games (and, if you remember, Washington had three blown saves against the Marlins).

There is little doubt, then, that the Nationals' offense is well above average, at least to this point in the season. Whether or not the team gets hot and can close in on a .500 record by season's end depends on the pitching staff.

Though the bullpen has been atrocious thus far, the fault lies with management as much as it does the players themselves. Several of spring training's best relievers were sent to Syracuse because they had options remaining, meaning general manager Mike Rizzo didn't put forth the best team possible. 

And oh, how it showed.

But things are looking up. The Nationals now have at least five relievers who are pitching very well: Julian Tavarez (3.12 ERA), Mike Hinckley (1.93), Joe Beimel (1.23), Jason Bergman (3.60), and Kip Wells (2.08).

Yes, Bergman was sent down again, but he'll be back up soon. And Beimel, without question the best reliever on the staff, is due to return from a non-throwing injury next week.

Also, the team made a minor trade on Wednesday, acquiring reliever Logan Kensing from the Marlins.

The remaining question mark is the starting rotation.

All five starters—John Lannan, Scott Olsen, Daniel Cabrera, Jordan Zimmermann, and Shairon Martis—have pitched well recently after getting pummeled early in the season.

Things should get even better with the arrival of future No. 1 draft pick Stephen Strasburg of San Diego State.

The current rotation will be okay-to-good this year, looking great one day and bad the next. But in the end, it will be an overall plus for the Nationals.

Will the Nationals make it back to .500 in 2009? It's doubtful to be sure.

But it's also doubtful—maybe even impossible—that they will lose 100 or more games for the second season in a row.

The bullpen (hopefully) is fixed, and the starting pitching has vastly improved in the last two weeks, with the rotation throwing six quality starts in its last nine games.

If nothing untoward happens between now and the end of the season, the Nationals could very well win 73-75 games and be in a good position to contend in 2010, assuming they can sign one or two more quality free agents.

Sometimes, being 5-15 just isn't that bad. Just ask Bill James.