Washington Nationals Poised for Big Surge to the Top of the NL

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Washington Nationals Poised for Big Surge to the Top of the NL
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This will be your latest warning that the Washington Nationals are armed, dangerous and ready to take the National League by storm.

Yeah, yeah. I know. There's been a lot of bold talk about the Nationals in the wake of their 98-win season in 2012. Rather than live up to it, they've kept finding ways to not live up to it.

But things are going to be different this time.

To start, the Nats are already heating up. Their 3-0 win over the Atlanta Braves on Saturday pushed their record in their last 21 games to 13-8 after a 25-27 start, as well as nudged them into first place in the NL East. They're playing the best ball they've played all season.

And the computers don't expect things to let up. The projections at FanGraphs have the Nationals slated for a 49-40 record the rest of the way. No other NL team was projected for more wins the rest of the way.

And 49-40 may be a conservative projection. After all, one thing we know is...

 

Washington's Excellent Starting Pitching Isn't Going Anywhere

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Coming into 2014, it was easy to look at the Nationals' starting pitching and conclude it would be a strength.

It indeed has been. Per FanGraphs, Nationals starters own a 3.33 ERA that ranks fifth in MLB. If they can get more of the same from their starters, they'll take it.

And more of the same isn't too much to ask.

Now that Gio Gonzalez is back healthy, the Nationals have a rotation of him, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Tanner Roark. The average ERA of that fivesome is 3.31, and Dan Szymborski's rest-of-season ZiPS projections (via FanGraphs) expect it to stay that way:

Rest-of-Season Projections for Nationals Starters
Player ERA So Far Projected ERA
Stephen Strasburg 3.24 2.73
Jordan Zimmermann 2.95 3.21
Tanner Roark 2.85 3.97
Gio Gonzalez 4.85 3.25
Doug Fister 2.65 3.45
Average 3.31 3.32

FanGraphs

ZiPS doesn't see each guy continuing to be what he's been the rest of the way. But with only Roark projected for a big drop-off, and Strasburg and Gonzalez projected to get better, it makes sense that the group as a whole will continue to be about as reliable as it's been.

Again, the Nationals will take that. It's what they've gotten so far, and what they've gotten so far has been good enough for the most part.

But we should also recognize that the potential of Washington's starting five is better than a 3.30-something ERA. A lot better, at that.

This is sort of already self-evident. While Gonzalez is just now returning from a monthlong stint on the disabled list, the other four starters in Washington's rotation have been hot as blazes:

Personal Streaks of Nationals Starters
Player Streak IP K/9 BB/9 Opp. OPS ERA
Stephen Strasburg Last 12 GS 79.0 10.0 1.3 .658 2.51
Tanner Roark Last 11 GS 71.1 7.1 1.8 .583 2.27
Jordan Zimmermann Last 10 GS 65.0 6.8 1.2 .614 2.49
Doug Fister Last 8 GS 53.1 5.8 1.0 .621 2.03

Baseball-Reference.com

That Roark has pitched as well as he has is surprising. But the same can't be said of Strasburg, Zimmermann and Fister, nor will it be surprising if Gonzalez follows suit and gets on a roll of his own. These are four guys with track records of dominance, and they're all still in their respective primes. They absolutely have it in them to be the best foursome of starters in either league.

As they've proven in the last month, the Nationals could do enough damage the rest of the way if they only get great starting pitching. What promises to make them even more dangerous is how...

 

More Offense and Defense Is on the Way

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

While Washington's starting pitching has lived up to expectations this season, the club's offense and defense haven't.

Washington's offense has been inconsistent from day one and presently ranks eighth in the NL in runs and OPS. The club's defense has been even worse off, as Baseball Prospectus has its defensive efficiencyall that does is measure the rate at which teams turn batted balls into outsranking at No. 22.

Then again, this is what happens when injuries strike.

On Opening Day, manager Matt Williams used this lineup:

Washington Nationals Opening Day Lineup
Spot Player Bats Position
1 Denard Span L CF
2 Ryan Zimmerman R 3B
3 Jayson Werth R RF
4 Wilson Ramos R C
5 Bryce Harper L LF
6 Ian Desmond R SS
7 Adam LaRoche L 1B
8 Anthony Rendon R 2B

Baseball-Reference.com

That's a solid collection of names. The order Williams chose was a bit odd, sure, but he could have gone any number of other ways and still had a well-balanced lineup.

But one member of Washington's Opening Day lineup was lost to the disabled list immediately, and that kicked off a steady trend of key players hitting the DL. The Nats lost Wilson Ramos, Denard Span, Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper to the DL in April, Adam LaRoche in May and Ramos again earlier in June.

Point being: Opening Day remains the only day this year in which Williams had a full array of options to choose from. Ever since then, he's had to make do.

But that's going to change soon.

The Nationals are presently missing only Ramos and Harper, and both are due back soon. Ramos, sidelined with a hamstring injury since June 11, has already begun a rehab assignment. Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com reported Saturday that Harper, sidelined with a thumb sprain since April 27, is up next:

Don't underestimate the potential impact of Ramos' return. He hasn't been able to get on track in 2014, but he had a .779 OPS in 2011 and a .777 OPS in 2013. He'll be a much-needed offensive upgrade at catcher if he regains that form. As a bonus, he's pretty good on defense too.

Underestimate the potential impact of Harper's return even less. He was an easy target while he slumped through early April, but he was just heating up with a .345 batting average and a .950 OPS over 16 games when he hit the DL. And before 2014, you'll recall he was one of the NL's 20 best hitters between 2012 and 2013.

Add Ramos and Harper to a lineup that already features at least four above-average hitters in LaRoche, Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon, and the Nationals offense is bound to transform into one of the top units in the National League.

Which, for the record, is something we've seen before from this offense when it's had all or most of its core pieces in one place:

National League Ranks of Nationals Offense
Split R HR AVG OBP SLUG OPS
2nd Half, 2012 2 1 4 5 2 2
2nd Half, 2013 2 1 3 T-2 1 1
April, 2014 T-2 T-4 3 3 2 T-2

FanGraphs

As noted by Barry Svrluga of The Washington Post, the one negative of the band getting back together is that the Nats don't have open spots for everyone—especially now that the club's defense has improved with Rendon at third base and Zimmerman in left field, territory formerly roamed by Harper.

But the dilemma has an easy solution that would strengthen both Washington's defense and its bench: Bump Span from center so Harper can play there every day.

Harper told Adam Kilgore of the Post earlier this month that center is where he wants to play, and he rightfully noted, "My numbers are a lot better in center field." Per FanGraphs, the advanced metrics rated Harper as one of MLB's best defensive center fielders when he played there regularly in 2012.

By comparison, the metrics have Span down as an average-to-below-average defender in 2014. Factor in his modest .713 OPS, and making him more of a part-time player is in Washington's best interest.

That the Nationals shouldn't lose their starting pitching advantage the rest of the way is good. That they stand to get more offense and better defense the rest of the way is even better.

As for the cherry on top, that would be how...

 

Their Remaining Schedule Isn't So Tough

Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

At the least, the good news is that the Nationals will only have nine games remaining with the Braves after Sunday. Given that they're 36-28 against teams not named the Braves, that means their schedule looks easier even without a closer inspection.

But that's where there's more good news: Upon closer inspection, the Nationals actually are going to have it fairly easy the rest of the way.

Their final 88 games will be played against the following opponents:

Washington Nationals Remaining Schedule
Opponent Opp. Record Games
Arizona Diamondbacks 32-46 4
Atlanta Braves 38-36 9
Baltimore Orioles 38-35 4
Chicago Cubs 31-41 7
Cincinnati Reds 36-37 3
Colorado Rockies 34-40 6
Los Angeles Dodgers 41-35 3
Miami Marlins 37-37 11
Milwaukee Brewers 46-30 6
New York Mets 34-41 13
Philadelphia Phillies 34-39 13
Pittsburgh Pirates 36-38 3
Seattle Mariners 39-36 3
San Francisco Giants 44-30 3

Baseball-Reference.com

While only half of their 14 upcoming opponents are sub-.500 clubs, it's the 49 games against those clubs that make for the bulk of the Nationals' remaining games. And even if you remove the increasingly respectable Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates, you're still left with 43 games against opponents the Nats should be able to beat up on.

Such is how the Nationals are going to get to the top of the National League. They'll soon have more than just great starting pitching to carry them, and the path ahead is a smooth one.

Besides, they're bound to live up to the hype eventually, right?

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked. 

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