The Nationals would like to win 87/88 games this year. This would give them an excellent chance at getting into the playoffs. Obviously to do this they need to get better.
To break it down to it's most simplistic level, baseball is about scoring and preventing runs. To improve your record you can score more runs, prevent more runs, or preferably do both. Last year the Nats scored 624 runs and gave up 643. 624 runs was 44 runs below the National League average, good for 12th place in the league. In other words, it was at best a mediocre offense. 643 runs was 30 runs better than the NL average, good for 7th in the league. It was a good pitching staff. Logic would say the Nats it would probably be easiest for the Nats to improve by improving the offense. However they chose to improve the pitching. Can they improve it enough?
Let's say for the moment that the Nats offense remains the same. 624 runs, and below average. How many runs would the Nats have to give up to win 87/88 games? The method used by most interested in the fancy stats is the Pythagorean equation. It's not perfect, but it gives you a good general idea of where you need to be in terms of runs scored/allowed in order to get the wins you want. Using this the Nats would need to allow about 570 runs to expect 87/88 wins. Last year only the Phillies accomplished that. In 2010, no one did.
What does that tell us? Well it tells us that even with one of the best pitching staff in the majors the Nats may not prevent enough runs to carry that mediocre offense to the playoffs. Can it happen? Sure. But should you expect it? It's hard to say that. Plus, the dirty little secret about last year was how well that starting pitching staff actually performed. Take a look at these stats :
Jason Marquis - 20 starts - 120.2 IP - 3.95 ERA
Brad Peacock - 2 starts - 10.2 IP - 0.00 ERA
Tom Milone - 5 starts - 26 IP - 3.81 ERA
Ross Detwiler - 10 starts - 56 IP - 3.21 ERA
Put them together and you have a guy that pitched 213 innings and put up a 3.54 ERA. In other words - that's pretty much what they are hoping for from Edwin Jackson. You'll get more from ZNN, but only 5 starts more. You have Strasburg back, but the Nats aren't going from 0 Strasburg to 30+ starts of Strasburg. He was back last year, and he won't pitch all of this one. So you can only add about 20 new Strasburg starts in there. Is Gio much better than Livan? Certainly. Will Wang or whoever, be better than the mix of remaining Nats starts from 2010 (Wang, Gorzelanny, Maya)? Probably. But be realistic here. For the Nats to improve by 70 runs their starting pitching would have to see their ERA drop from a perfectly respectable 3.80 to a wow-inducing 3.12.
But that's ok right? Because the Nats are going to get better offensively too, right? Yes, I believe that is the case. I believe a full year of Zimmerman, a better year from Werth, a healthy year of LaRoche, minor improvements from Ramos and/or Espinosa, the eventual rise of Bryce, should all make the Nats offense better enough to score more runs even considering the potential negatives in the offense (poor hitting from Desmond and the Ankiel/Bernie platoon, possible minor regressions from Ramos and/or Espinosa, Morse's minor regression). If they can score just a handful more runs say 25, then the Nats can give up closer to 600 runs. That's needing a top 3-5 pitching staff rather than one of the best pitching staffs in recent memory. That seems much more reasonable.
And this is where we go back to yesterday's post - you NEED a healthy Morse and LaRoche to do this. The bench depth (right now) is simply not there to compensate from and major issues with these guys. Remember, even if you believe it was a little bit of a fluke, Morse hit .303 / .360 / .550 last year. In terms of pure offense that was one of the Top 10 seasons in the NL. You can't just shrug losing something like that.
The Nats improved in the offseason, but injuries to Morse and LaRoche can potentially wipe out those improvements. If you care most about the macro picture - about the Nats as a contender in 2013 and beyond, this is a bump in the road. LaRoche was never a factor for those years and Morse was not necessarily seen as a long term piece either. The Nats still look like they are going to be able to make that jump (assuming the last few right moves are made). But if you care most about the micro picture - about the Nats as a contender in 2012, these injuries could be a very big deal.