Nationals Baseball: Needing Morse and LaRoche

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Needing Morse and LaRoche

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.


Hoo said...

A full season of Zim will more than offset a slight Morse regression. The offense is on a knife's edge with the potential to fall into the perfectly adequate and really bad. Nats should also get a small upgrade from Flores over Pudge. And hopefully the bench is much better. Last year, Nats would have been better hitting Livo instead of Stairs and the rest of that crew.

Nattydread said...

Yup, yup and yup.

Agree with your previous post too.

The only logical explanation is that Rizzo is looking beyond 2012. Get Zimmerman long term like you've already got Werth. Tweak the pitching staff as necessary. Season Harper for CF. Get Rendon ready. Espinosa and Ramos are nice pieces of a future winner. Morse, LaRoche and, the way he's playing, Desmond, get packaged for a mid year trade.

It is forward progress...

Anonymous said...

C Ramos
1B Morse
2B Rendon
3B Zimmerman
SS Espinosa
LF Werth
RF Harper

Harper said...

Hoo - I agree that Zim would offset the expected slight Morse regression, but if Morse missing 40 games and regresses a bit? Nah. Bench will be interesting. In the comments yesterday we noted that they were actually pretty good filling in for starters but really bad at pinch hitting.

ND - Totally, though I don't think Rizzo is looking past 2012, more it's not his true goal. He'll make the Nats as good as he can this year without disrupting anything going forward. Really it's the fans that are whipping up expectations a few games higher than they might should be. It'll be interesting to see how/if fans expectations change how the Nats react at the trade deadline.

Anon - I think that's what we all expect in say... 2014, with the maybe exception of Morse if the next 2 years don't work out quite right. But he'd presumably be replaced by someone just as good or better. It's a pretty strong lineup in projection.

Hoo said...

Harper: I followed yesterday's discussion and I think you're right.

On my bench/Livo comparison, I looked at the Nats 200+PH. They had a sub .200 average and Livo hit .219. the Nats PHers did outslug Livo .241 to .239 I believe. Not good.

blovy8 said...

I'm slightly hopeful that the infield and catching backups will be good hitters, but the outfield will likely get more atbats than they should unless Lombardozzi or DeRosa get real looks out there and Werth is in center more than managerial quotes would indicate. Maybe Zimmerman and LaRoche are healthier but if Morse isn't, that's probably not the tradeoff you want. They have better options on the corners than in the outfield by design because of Harper screwing up the FO's mindset on roster construction. Then you could start to look at Desmond making more outs at the top of the order and some sophomore adjustments from Espinosa and Ramos on the way, and suddenly this is still a weak hitting club unless Werth is OPSing over 850 again. I would guess we'll see some AAA guys making a dent in this lineup for good and ill, this franchise isn't particularly lucky with injuries at first, for example.

It's difficult to pinch hit, but the bigger problem is Ankiel hits like a pinch hitter even when he starts games. I have a feeling Corey Brown would make just as much sense at this point, it's not like he's going to play center in AAA anymore, right? If you're blowing off that position for a month or more, you may as well see what the younger guy you traded for has. You don't owe Ankiel anything, he was on a minor league deal.

blovy8 said...

Arizona's presumed fifth starter Collimenter is having a lousy spring, I wonder if they would now consider trading Parra for Lannan or Detwiler.

Wally said...

I don't believe that baseball lends itself to this incremental improvement approach. Too many variables can go right or wrong to bet all your eggs that way. The Nats pitching is good enough this year to make a real attempt at playoffs, even with SS limited to 160 innings. So that is why I am disappointed they didn't develop better fallback plans for the offense.

Given Morse's flexibility between OF and LF, it comes down to two better OFs and perhaps a MI, all of which could have been accomplished (still accomplished) without ever blocking Harper or even Rendon, in a year or two. They cannot realistically hope to score enough if the sum total of Ankiel, Bernie, Carroll and/or Michael gets more than 300 ABs. At this point, Marlon Byrd is probably the best realistic option and should be available cheap. I'd think hard about Damon, as bad a fielder as he is these days.

And Maicer Izturis ought to be available for a decent cost. He has no PT left in LAA, and their payroll is so bloated they might be inclined to dump him for Burnett or someone. He'd be a perfect hedge on Desi, and Lombo can play every day in SYR.

Anonymous said...

Great analysis. Do you have any thoughts on what the Nats could do as far as personnel moves to improve before the start of the season? Is there anyone out there that can help?

blovy8 said...

If Abreu wasn't such a bad OF, he'd be an option too, I bet the Angels would love to dump his contract for essentially nothing. Even though he can't hit more than .250, he still walks a lot and runs well enough to steal a few bags.

Sec 204 Row H Seat 7 said...

I believe it will take 90 to do the trick this year. You are right the NATS need LaRoche and Morse. One can only hope their absence (if any) in April is short.

Hoo, you obviously did not see Flores back in the day before he got hurt. Flores should be a big upgrade.

The problem with objectively calling this season is that the NATS have never had a rotation such as the one that will start this season. How many games is it worth. In picking 90 wins, I am assumeing the rotation is worth 7 more wins and the improved bats 3.

My kool-aid formula does not include Rizzo trading anybody good, to "make it" this seaason. 2013 (full year of Strasburg and Harper with a little Rendon thrown in) was always the target season.

Donald said...

I'd also note that injuries are a drought that lowers all ships. The Braves and Phillies are also suffering and could easily be weaker than last year.

Hoo said...

Sec 204:

Flores is a huge upgrade in terms of batting over Pudge. But Pudge had less ABs than LaRoche last year! If Flores gets a little over 200 AB, then he's basically replacing himself for 90 ABs and Pudge for 125. More than that and Flores is replacing Ramos at bats. It's a small upgrade b/c Pudge really didn't play that much as Flores was essentially the #2 catcher for the last 3rd of the year.

Where I think Flores can make a difference is if he gets to PH.

Harper said...

Hoo - Livan was better but maybe he just raked the 2nd or 3rd time around? Honestly this isn't a huge sticking point. The average PH hit .214 / .291 / .312 in the NL last year certainly better than the Nats, but there is a reason these guys are only getting one bat every couple of days.

blovy8 - I'm assuming they want Corey Brown to get his at bats, even if it's not in center. SO I guess what you're saying is start him up here? Sure why not. Don't think it'll work but he seems like a guy you don't care about.

As for Collimenter, it's Spring, they'll assume it's nothing (and 50/50 chance it is nothing)

Wally - It was certainly doable. If you made me guess I'd say Rizzo assumes Bryce will be up at some point and didn't want to shell out for a guy that would end up a PH (Bernie probably has more "4th OF" value), and in the IF would like to see if Ian/Lombo are any good with no distractions from players who Davey might be tempted to play. Davey does seem like a "best 9" type of guy.

Anon - at this point it's tough, not only because you don't know what's left but because the injury scnearios aren't clear. if LaRoche is going to be away for a while Derrek Lee is an obvious signing, or really Damon at first may be worth a try. OF is tougher - no FAs left really, probably would take a trade. IF also has no one left but Lombo and DeRosa aren't a terrible fit there. For a pure bat off the bench, might be worth taking a flier on Magglio or Vlad, but they likely won't accept that role.

blovy8 - lots of decent back up DHs out there. Maybe the Nats can petition to switch leagues

Sec 204 - I'm not calling the season... yet. No reason to unless we see Morse is going to be out for a long time and the Nats don't replace him.

Donald - true, but personally I don't know those squads and minor league enough to know how well they can compensate for injury so right now I'm assuming they'll still be pretty good.

Ben said...

Appropos of yesterday's post, what is the downside to signing Damon? Yes, he would be a liability in Left for the 20-30 games he'd play there, but: 1)is still more productive offensively than Ankiel/Bernardina; 2)can pinch hit just about everyday in the NL and DH for the nine games in AL parks; and 3)would be a good clubhouse presence for the younger guys. I mean, if we could carry Matt Stairs in this role for years, why not give Damon a shot? This wouldn't offset a prolonged Morse absence, to be sure, but is the kind of saavy marginal player addition that contenders make all the time.

Pig.Pen said...

Something else to consider is that the pitching within the NL East may have declined. Consider that Roy Oswalt is gone, the Mets suck, Miami will open a new ballpark that is rumored to play much smaller than their old park and Atlanta, well, let's just hope some of their pitching winds up to be more about promise than production. Still, my point is that pythag records, as you admit, are somewhat of a generalization you can use to get an idea of the big picture, however runs scored--like runs allowed--will vary from year to year even if the players and their ability remain static (which they don't) so taking a somewhat crude stat like pythag record and then using last year's RS as a baseline makes for very crude predictions.

mike said...

here is what i think the nats offence will be like this year.
Desmond: does ok in leadoff, BA increases
Espinosa: Contact hitting improves, power slightly regresses
Zimm: overall great year with high BA and power numbers
Morse: Slight regress, maybe more injuries
Werth: Slight improvement
LaRoche: comes close to old form
Ramos: Some regress
Berny/Ankiel: no real difference

Harper said...

The downside would be Damon would cost a lot more money than some of the other options (Stairs was a minor league deal I think) and really it's unlikely he's gonna take a job where he has no security to start. If Morse and LaRoche heal up - he won't want to PH only and you don't want a CF/LF combo of Damon/Morse.

P.P - Not sure about that. Sure Oswalt is gone but in part because how much they like Worley. The Mets may suck but they sucked last year and one of the few potential bright spots for them this year is a decent, healthly Johan. Josh Johnson could be back for the Marlins, that's a killer.

I don't disagree with your second point - it is very crude. You swallow swing +- 3 games easily so when I say the Nats may be an 85 win team they could be an 88 win team as easy as a 82 win team. That's playoff bound vs barely .500. I still though think it centers the team on a win total pretty well, in the "run the season 1000 times" type of way. Of course all that matter is what happens in the real one that is played.

mike - that seems fair. I think one of the issues with some of the Nats projections in offense is that you generally project improvement from young players, guys coming back from injury and guys coming back from surprisingly bad years. That's pretty much all the Nats. But at the same time the chances they ALL get better is slim. Some should improve, some should decline (If they do all improve - then go ahead and buy your playoff tickets)