The reality is that the Washington Nationals will have to pay Max Scherzer until he is 44-years-old, and history says most long-term contracts for pitchers stink towards the end.
But the Nats are only getting whiffs of the sweetest scent in the baseball world at the moment, and rightfully so: their Scherzer swoop just made them the justified World Series favorites for 2015.
Before Scherzer even came to Washington, the Nationals’ starting rotation was downright scary. From an old schooler’s eyes to a sabermetrician’s, it was clear that the Nats’ rotation was one of—if not the best—in Major League Baseball last season. Despite playing in a more hitter-friendly ballpark, the Nationals’ pitching staff led the majors with a 3.03 ERA.
The starters—Doug Fister, Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Tanner Roark, and Gio Gonzalez—were magnificent to behold. Well, Gonzalez not so much, as he put up a 105 ERA+, but most teams would take him as their fifth starter. Every other Washington starting pitcher had ERA’s under 3.14, and Fister (4.08 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 18 home runs allowed, 155 ERA+), Zimmermann (6.28 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 13 homers, 141 ERA+), and Roark (3.54 ratio, 16 homers surrendered, 131 ERA+) particularly handled the National League almost every five days.
Add Scherzer to the mix, a guy who in 220.1 innings last year in the American League struck out 252 batters, walked only 63, allowed 18 home runs, and put up a 127 ERA+, and NL hitters might as well calculate how their batting averages will fall before they even face the Nats.
Stack it up against Felix-Iwakuma-Paxton in Seattle, Smyly-Cobb-Archer-Moore in Tampa Bay, Kershaw-Greinke-Ryu for the Los Angeles Dodgers—Washington’s starting rotation is still the deepest and best in all of baseball. It’s a staff of five aces, and its Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) projects the arms to be just as excellent in 2015 as it was last year.
The offense figures to be one of the best out there too, though. The Nationals may have lost one of their best hitters in Adam LaRoche, but the lineup will be plenty deep to be close to the top in the NL in runs scored. Anthony Rendon had a breakout 2014 and posted an .824 OPS; Bryce Harper was still productive (111 OPS+ and a .344 on-base percentage); Ian Desmond (24 home runs) is one of the best hitting shortstops in the game; Denard Span got on base at a great clip of .355; and if Jayson Werth continues to defy his age and Ryan Zimmerman stays healthy, the Nationals’ lineup might score more often than any of its contemporaries in the league. Elite rotation and offense? Check.
The Nationals’ arsenal of strikeout pitchers can limit the effect of the iffy defense behind them that had a -6.3 Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) last year, so Washington’s relief core is obviously its only major hole. After the Nats traded Tyler Clippard to the Oakland Athletics, Washington suddenly looked too lean in the bullpen. Drew Storen was absolutely filthy in 2014, posting a 1.12 ERA, giving up two home runs in 56.1 innings pitched, and commanding a dazzling ERA+ of 336. But aside from him, and maybe Aaron Barrett and Blake Treinen, who both posted ERA+ north of 140, the Nationals don’t have much to rely on late in games, unless they trade a starting pitcher for a star reliever.
But that’s not enough of a hole to bring Washington down from the number one pedestal. If they get to the postseason, they can ride their offense and rotation to take it all; I’m not buying the argument that a great bullpen is necessary once a team reaches the playoffs. The hottest team in October wins it all, regardless of what are their strengths.
Especially if that team, even with its major flaw, is still the best team in MLB overall.
Every team out there has some major flaw, even if it is one of the best teams in baseball; the difference between such teams and the Nationals is that Nats are better in total. Let’s look at Washington’s NL competition. The Dodgers have a great rotation, even if it is not as good as the Nats’. They’ll also sport a defense that will be much improved from its 2014 UZR of -8.3. Thanks to Matt Kemp’s trade to the San Diego Padres that will allow Joc Pederson to man centerfield, and Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick coming to shore up the infield defense, the Dodgers’ defense might turn out to be one of the best in the majors this year.
But L.A.’s bullpen is even more flawed than the Nationals’. Kenley Jansen is a good closer, but the big differences between Brandon League’s and J.P. Howell’s FIP’s and their ERA’s suggest that they are due for down years. And the L.A. offense will dip and will be inferior to Washington’s, as Juan Uribe is heading into his age-36 season and Kemp’s 25 home runs lost will hamper the Dodgers’ lineup. Overall better team: Washington.
On the American League side, there aren’t any better clubs. There’s no clear dominant team in the league, and the teams that look like they will be the best in their divisions—the Boston Red Sox, the Kansas City Royals, and the Seattle Mariners—are worse overall than the Nationals.
Despite all the fuss over the Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval signings, Boston’s lineup lacks depth. Shane Victorino and Allen Craig haven’t been good the last few seasons, it’s still not evident how good Rusney Castillo will be in the majors, and Ramirez likely will continue to be an injury risk and make the lineup lose value as a result. And like the Dodgers, the Red Sox lack middle relief; Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa posted sub-3 ERA’s last year, but with Andrew Miller gone, the road to them is a boon for hitters. The Boston rotation simply isn’t nearly as good as the Nats’ to overcome such disadvantages.
The Mariners’ and the Nationals’ pitching staffs compare well. What Seattle falls short of Washington in its starting rotation, it makes up for in its bullpen that is more than four-deep with relievers with ERA+ above 128. That bullpen is better than the Nationals’ any day of the week.
But that’s where the similarities end. The Nats are simply much more balanced than Seattle because of their offense. While Washington boasts one of the better lineups in MLB, the Mariners…well, they can’t even lie about their hitters. They only have two good returning hitters, Robinson Cano (142 OPS+) and Kyle Seager (127), compared to at least four for the Nats. Nelson Cruz won’t hit even 30 home runs with half his games at Safeco Field, and the bottom half of the Seattle lineup will drag down a pitching staff that posted a 3.17 ERA last year. Advantage: Nats.
And the Royals? Well, they blow the Nationals out of the park when you compare their number one-ranked defense (61.1. UZR in 2014) and bullpen (three relievers with ERA’s under 1.45), but they lag far behind everywhere else. Their offense that scored 651 runs is unquestionably underwhelming, and their starting rotation is far shallower than Washington’s. Danny Duffy (157 ERA+ in 2014) and Yordano Ventura (125) figure to be good atop the rotation, but beyond them is how Kansas City will struggle to get close games to their dynamic bullpen. Edinson Volquez was a bad pickup, as he has never posted ERA’s under 3.30 in back-to-back years, and Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie did not have good 2014 seasons, posting high FIP’s (3.84 for Vargas and 4.32 for Guthrie) and low ERA+ (107 and 96, respectively).
So the buck all comes back to the Nationals. As evident by their 98- and 96-win seasons in 2012 and 2014, respectively, that resulted in zero postseason series victories, a stellar regular season doesn’t mean Washington will soar to the World Series. There’s no guarantee Scherzer will bring out the best team in baseball in October.
But there’s no guarantee any other team in MLB is better on paper than Washington, is there? The Nationals are flawed, but they’re less flawed than every other club. And Scherzer just might make the Nats’ pretty parts shine so much that at the end of the season even they can’t get in their own way.