There are many glum faces along the National League East corridor this morning.
The best starting rotation in the league just became the best in all of baseball, perhaps the best in the last half-decade or so.
Suddenly, moves made by the other four teams—the Braves, Marlins, Mets and Nationals—seem to have gone for naught. Instead of being just a few games better than the other contenders, the Philadelphia Phillies are in a division all their own.
And the cackling can be heard straight down I-95.
Many are suggesting that the Nationals immediately stop their pursuit of pitching upgrades, that adding Carl Pavano through free agency or trading for Zach Greinke or Matt Garza is fruitless.
Cliff Lee could beat John Lannan 5-2 and Zach Greinke 3-2. A loss is a loss, regardless of its beauty.
Moreover, the cost for those other pitchers just increased, as Lee’s suitors now turn to those four or five available top pitchers, driving up their cost.
What’s a moribund franchise to do?
The first problem is that the Jayson Werth signing will make little sense if it ends up being the only major change the Nationals make over the winter. Those $18 million dollars just can’t be justified as a stand-alone contract.
But I agree with the pundits that it doesn’t make much sense to bring in those hotshot starters if they give you only a minimally better chance to win the game.
If the Nationals open the 2011 season with just the pitchers they now have, this is how the rotation might look with projected statistics based on how they’ve performed the past two or three seasons and based on a 162-game season:
1. John Lannan: 10-14, 4.10, 9.4/3.3/4.6
Lannan’s 2010 season hurt his career numbers, but a sore elbow certainly hurt his performance last season. He was one of just a handful of pitchers to have an ERA below 4.00 in 2008 and 2009.
On a good team, Lannan could be counted on for: 12-10, 3.75 ERA
2. Jordan Zimmermann: 6-10, 4.71, 9.3/2.9/8.8
Zimmermann’s numbers are deceiving.
He’s had many great starts over his two seasons but a few rookie-roughed-up debacles skewed his stats. He’s a borderline number one starter or a top number two.
Zimmerman’s good team stats with a little experience: 15-11, 3.44 ERA
3. Jason Marquis: 14-12, 4.37, 9.1/3.5/4.9
The above numbers are Marquis’ actual statistics from 2007-2009.
After elbow surgery and time on the disabled list last season, there is no reason to believe that Marquis cannot return to his solid—though not stellar—performances of the last five or six seasons.
4. Livan Hernandez: 10-12, 3.66, 9.2/2.7/4.8
After a few difficult seasons, Hernandez returned to form last season (see above).
He is nothing more than a number four or five starter, but he does his job effectively, pitching 200 innings, shortening the game and giving his team a chance to win.
There are a few players who might secure the final spot in the rotation:
Ross Detwiler: 3-14, 4.74, 10.3/4.2/5.2
Those numbers are ugly, but good rookie pitchers sometimes pitch ugly.
Last season, heading into his final start against the Phillies, Detwiler—the Nationals' first-round pick in 2007—had a fine record of 1-2, 2.52.
He has shown he can be a starter in the National League. It’s just the matter of if he will.
Projected record for good team with some experience: 10-10, 4.10
Yunesky Maya: 0-3, 5.88, 10.4/3.8/4.2
Signed last summer as a free agent, Maya was one of Cuba’s best pitchers on their international traveling team.
He started five games in the minors and did well, winning a game and crafting a 3.38 ERA. He allowed just 7.6 hits per nine innings while striking out nearly eight.
This winter, he was even better.
Pitching in the Dominican Winter League, Maya went 4-1 with a 0.56 ERA, striking out a batter an inning while allowing less than four runners per game.
With the Nationals last fall, he looked nervous during his first four starts but settled down in his last game against the Mets, allowing two earned runs while striking out four in six innings.
Maya could be the key for the Nationals rotation.
He dominated during the World Baseball Classic in 2009, finishing with a 1.23 ERA. He has the talent to be a true number three starter, and that will happen once he gains experience. The question is whether he gains that experience in the minors or with the Nationals in 2011.
And if Stephen Strasburg follows fellow teammate Jordan Zimmermann, he will return from Tommy John surgery sometime in August, further solidifying the rotation.
To be clear, the Phillies will win a lot games against a lot of different teams next season, the Nationals included. Nothing is going to change that.
Adding pitchers like Carl Pavano or Matt Garza will make the Nationals better, but not better enough to succeed within the division.
The only way the Nationals can improve now is to spend their available contract dollars—dollars that would have been spent on Cliff Lee or Matt Garza—on productive hitters.
Adam LaRoche has to be the club’s new first baseman. He can be counted on to provide 25 home runs and 100 RBI. His defense is good.
Here are my offensive projections for the team:
1B—Adam LaRoche (assuming): .265-25-90
2B—Danny Espinosa: .250-20-70, 25 steals
SS—Ian Desmond: .270-15-65, 20 steals
3B—Ryan Zimmerman: .300-30-110
LF—Josh Willingham: .265-24-75
CF—Nyjer Morgan: .270-2-40, 40 steals
RF—Jayson Werth: .290-30-100
C—Pudge and Ramos: .265-8-50
That’s a very good offense, again assuming the Nationals can sign LaRoche. But there are some power-hitting center fielders out there.
What if the Nationals were able to trade three or four prospects—like they would have for Zach Greinke—and replace Nyjer Morgan with a .280-25-75 kind of hitter?
Better yet, Jayson Werth has shown he can play center field. Move him over and let Mike Morse (15 home runs in 266 at-bats last year) play right field every day with Roger Bernandina as his backup.
That could be a formidable offense.
I believe in this team. It is one or two more good players from crossing that elusive .500 finish line.
But the Cliff Lee to Philadelphia move just increased the cost of those remaining top pitchers by 20 or 30 percent.
Forget the pitching and go with the offense, Nationals, and let all those arms culled during “The Plan” help lead you through the beginning of “Phase Two.”