A couple of years ago, Sports Illustrated ran a preseason story hyping the Seattle Mariners on the strength of the defensive metric, Ultimate Zone Rating. I remember reading the article and wondering if I was behind the times, especially since I’d never heard of UZR (and truth be told, I still don’t really understand fielding stats.) The piece seemed a little odd since the Mariners didn’t look to have much offense or many big names, but I gave SI the benefit the doubt because, well, it’s SI. From there, the Mariners proceeded to go 61-101 and score 513 runs, the kind of numbers Gold Glove fielders and Cy Young hurlers curse silently. Heck, even the Hitless Wonder 1906 Chicago White Sox scored 570 runs.
This year’s version of the 2010 Mariners might be the Washington Nationals. All winter, I’ve heard writers saying this will be the year the Nationals break through. They point to Washington’s young talent, to splashy pickups like Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson. They say that Jayson Werth will bounce back after a disappointing first year in town, they hint at the possibilities if Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann can stay healthy, if super prospect Bryce Harper can get a full year in the majors. Manager Davey Johnson has called for his firing if Washington misses the playoffs, and on Monday, two SI.com writers predicted the Nationals would nab a wild card spot.
Suffice it to say, I’m not buying the hype. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Nationals finish below .500 and end the season with a different manager. As a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and a blogger, I try to embrace sabermetrics and new ideas in baseball, but this is one time I’m not ashamed to fall back on my traditionalist roots. And by various traditional measures, the coming season doesn’t bode well for the Nationals.
Where do I see Washington running into trouble? Let’s start with the Nationals’ division, one of the toughest in baseball. If Washington was in the National League Central rather than the NL East, I’d have no problem predicting good things for them. I’ve spent a lot of the winter doing as much for the Pittsburgh Pirates, with their division in a state of flux and looking to be a crap shoot. Like the Nationals, the Pirates are young and offensively-challenged. Put them in the NL East, and I’d count on them to lose 90 games. It’s simply too tough to contend, what with the Phillies’ window of opportunity still open, the Braves retooled, and Miami Marlins management suddenly doing its best to end the recession.
From there, I look down the Nationals roster and see mostly a collection of young ballplayers and second-rate veterans, no batter besides Ryan Zimmerman striking much fear and Zimmerman himself coming off an injury-shortened, 101-game season. I see several players that might shine if things go well, from Gonzalez to Strasburg to Werth, though it seems they could just as easily struggle mightily in 2012. Mostly, I see a club that looks hard-pressed to improve on the 624 runs it scored in 2011, and if there’s one thing I know, it’s that scoring a lot of runs and having a positive run differential are a one-two punch for success in baseball. The Nationals did neither of these things last year and have applied no sure remedy for this year.
Could I be wrong? Of course, and it’d be nice to see the Nationals thrive. They’re using a model similar to how the Braves became a force 20 years ago, assembling a slew of solid young pieces, and I believe it’s a matter of when, not if the Nationals become relevant again. I just doubt it will be this year. The 2010 Mariners taught me as much.