2016 Preview: Washington Nationals

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At this time last year, every expert – as well as yours truly – was predicting the Nationals to win the NL East in a landslide, approaching 100 wins. The Nationals have been a trendy World Series pick since 2012, which coincided with the arrivals of Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg. Plus, they added Max Scherzer on a big free agent deal. But once again, the Nationals fell well short of expectations last season, winning only 83 games and finishing second in the NL East.

The Nationals didn’t get appreciably better over the offseason, as their most notable acquisitions were second baseman Daniel Murphy, outfielder Ben Revere, and manager Dusty Baker. Jonathan Papelbon, who choked Harper in a dugout altercation near the end of the past regular season, is still the closer and Drew Storen was traded to the Blue Jays. It took a while, but shortstop Ian Desmond left the Nationals for free agency and eventually signed with the Rangers to play in the outfield, leaving Danny Espinosa and Trea Turner to man the position.

So the question is: can this very slightly altered Nationals team overtake the Mets, who rode a young, elite pitching staff to the World Series last season? And the answer is: probably not.

Bryce Harper won the NL MVP award unanimously last season, hitting .330/.460/.649 with 42 home runs, 99 RBI, and 118 runs scored, and even that wasn’t enough to push them on top. Harper should be expected to be elite once again in 2016, but not that elite. None of the projection systems listed on FanGraphs or Baseball Reference see him improving on last season’s numbers. With Harper expected to regress towards the mean, the club will need improved production from others and it’s tough to pinpoint an area where that’s likely to happen.

Jayson Werth turns 37 in May and is coming off a season in which he played in only 88 games and posted a meager .685 OPS. The projections see him improving, but only modestly, from a negative-WAR player to a player halfway between replacement level (zero) and average (two WAR). Though Werth managed to stay healthy with the Phillies, he has been injury-prone for as long as he has been playing baseball, so it’s not a shock he has averaged only 119 games in his five seasons with the Nationals.

To illustrate the position player side of things, here’s a table comparing the 2015 OPS the Nationals got from each position with the projected OPS of the starter at each position:

Pos. 2015 2016 proj. Diff.
C .609 .673 .064
1B .753 .759 .006
2B .718 .748 .030
3B .769 .773 .004
SS .663 .653 -.010
LF .701 .735 .034
CF .743 .692 -.051
RF 1.053 1.023 -.030
.047

Scherzer threw two no-hitters last season with a career-low 2.79 ERA and posted the best defense-independent numbers of his career, as indicated by a 219/46 K/BB ratio over 196 innings. His average of 8.12 strikeouts for every one walk was historically great, as there had only been eight pitchers who had averaged more strikeouts per walk. But the Nationals aren’t expected to gain any ground here either, as the projections see Scherzer being marginally better or marginally worse.

Top pitching prospect Lucas Giolito is expected to make his major league debut this season, but that likely won’t happen until September. If he debuts earlier, it will be because the Nationals’ starting rotation is suffering from performance- or health-related issues. Giolito is considered by many to be the top pitching prospect in the game and will likely open the season at Double-A Harrisburg.

A full season of Papelbon is nice, but Storen was arguably pitching better than Papelbon before the veteran came into town, holding a 1.73 ERA through July 22. He fell apart once Papelbon donned a Nats uniform, compiling a 6.75 ERA between July 29 and the end of his season on September 9. Even Papelbon, who posted a 2.13 ERA last season, doesn’t represent a bolstered position.

For the Nationals to win the division in 2016, a few things need to happen:

  • The Nationals need to hit way above average on a few projections (e.g. a return to form from Anthony Rendon)
  • Harper and Scherzer need to repeat as elite performers
  • Werth and Strasburg must stay healthy
  • The Mets need to fall short of expectations, particularly with their starting pitching
  • Papelbon can’t cause any more strife with his antics

Prediction: 85-77, second place in the NL East

Sports teams do not “heal” cities or nations

Associated Press
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Bob Nightengale of USA Today has a story today in which he talks to Cleon Jones, Ken Harrelson, Art Shamsky and others from the 1969 Mets about their Amazin’ World Series title run. The story is tied to the upcoming commemorations of the 50th anniversary of that phenomenally unexpected and improbable season.

And that’s fine as far as it goes, but as so often is the case with nostalgic remembrances, it goes too far:

They will gather together in New York later in June, rehashing stories from 50 years ago, reminiscing about the year they turned the baseball world upside down, becoming perhaps the most beloved team in history.

The 1969 Mets.

The team that helped revitalize a city in ruins and heal a nation in turmoil, showing the world you can turn the inconceivable to the improbable to the possible to the incredible, in a way only sports can possibly do.

Now would be a good time to remember that the city the Mets allegedly revitalized found itself on the brink of bankruptcy in the early-to-mid-70s and experienced urban decay and spiking crime rates for the next 20+ years. It would also be a good time to remember that the nation the Mets allegedly healed witnessed the Kent State shootings a few months later, among other bits of strife for the next, oh, 50 years and counting.

Yes, I am being flip and superficial here, but I do so simply to illustrate how flip and superficial “[Sports Team] healed [City/Nation]” narratives invariably are.

We see these sorts of things whenever a team from a down-on-its-luck place has a title run. Detroit. Cleveland. New Orleans. The idea is generally a broad-brush paint job in which the source of strife — poverty, crime, economic strife, natural disaster, terrorism, etc. —  is detailed with the local sports team’s subsequent title run cast as a spiritual balm. The words “heal” and “uplift” are pretty common in these stories. Back in 2002 I wrote about a classic of the genre, a documentary about the 1968 Detroit Tigers, who allegedly healed Detroit following he 1967 riots. Anyone familiar with Detroit from 1968-on may understand that the claims of healing asserted therein were . . . somewhat overstated.

Whatever the details, most of these narratives have the same sorts of flaws. At best they overstate the significance of sports in society, presuming that happiness among ticket-buying sports fans — who are usually better off than your average city resident who may be the one in need of healing — means broad-based happiness among the populace. More commonly they simply ignore the actual city or society beyond anything but its most superficial markers. The pattern:

  • Montage of the strife in whatever its form (bonus if it’s from the 1960s and you can re-use some existing “turbulent 60s” b-roll;
  • A chronicling of the sports team’s run; and
  • A declaration that everything was better after that.

It’s not even a matter of correlation and causation being confused. There’s very rarely ever any evidence presented that the sports made the underlying problems any better. All one usually gets from these things is a sense that, at least to the sports commentator/documentarian telling the story and to the people who closely followed the sports team, things were good. Unless, of course, I missed the part about how LeBron James solved Cleveland’s declining population problems and how the 2010 New Orleans Saints solved the ongoing mental, economic and medical trauma of those displaced by Katrina.

Which is not to say that sports mean nothing in this context. Sports success can certainly make a lot of people happy, even people hit hard by adversity, temporarily speaking. People only tangentially-connected to the strife in question may, also, decide that a sporting event “healed” a city. For example, if something bad happened in your city but didn’t affect you directly, you may believe that the trophy-hoisting put a nice bookend on the trauma that was more directly felt by others. And, of course, individuals directly connected with the sporting events in question, like Cleon Jones in the Mets piece, can experience a more lasting change in their lives as a result of this sort of success that they might see as general uplift.

That’s not the same thing as healing, though. Because while you or I can close that chapter on it all when the game is over, survivors of traumatic events and victims of systematic oppression or chronic strife cannot and do not do so that easily. There were people still hurting in Detroit after 1968, in New York (and the nation) after 1969, in New Orleans after the Saints won the Super Bowl, and in Cleveland after the Cavs won their title. The very best that can be said of sports triumph amid civic adversity is that it’s a pleasant, albeit temporary distraction. But not everyone had the luxury of enjoying that temporary distraction and a distraction is not the same thing as a cure.

Why do sports writers and commentators do this? I suppose it’s a function of people believing that the world in which they operate is, well, the world. The entertainment writer sees everything as a Hollywood story, the political writer sees everything as a Washington story and the sports writer sees everything as a sports story. It’s an understandable loss of perspective and we all fall prey to it sometimes.

It’d be better, though, if we spent more time appreciating that our perspective on the world is not the only one. I won’t speak for the entertainment or political people, and I won’t speak for the way in which any other person may prioritize the world as they observe it. But in my world — sports — I think it’d be better if we did not ascribe outsized significance to the beat we cover. Doing so asks far more of sports than sports is capable of delivering and erases the ongoing pain and suffering of people for whom sports is no sort of cure.