Over the past week I’ve been searching high and low for any news I could find on the Washington Nationals. There is still talk of them going after a starting pitcher, and the biggest news on that is that Mike Rizzo doesn’t want to lose the top draft pick or empty the farm system. It was reported that the Nationals talked to Ricky Nolasco and with Jason Vargas getting a four year deal it could take that or more to sign Nolasco and it is unknown if the Nationals are willing to go down that road with a mid-rotation starter. That is the biggest Nats news of the past few days and everything else I found were a number of columns questioning when the Nationals window starts to close. Some had it as early as 2015 after Span leaves for free agency and others had it after that year when Desmond and Zimmermann are scheduled to become free agents.
Losing Desmond would make it hard. He has been the best short stop in the NL over the past two seasons but of he and Zimmermann, Desmond is the one I’d pick to sign, and I think that will happen before this off-season is over. The Nats are talking to both and would like to keep both, and as far as Desmond goes all reports indicate that he would like to stay. This is all aside from the point of how long the Nats window will or could stay open. Look at the two teams that played in the World Series in 2013. The Cardinals have won two World Series over the last ten seasons and played in four while the Red Sox have played in and won three. Both teams have had seasons in there where they’ve missed the playoffs and the Red Sox in 2012 were a downright sideshow, but through it all they had David Ortiz, and added a mix of homegrown talent and free agents around him to continue to have a team that could contend in most seasons. The Cardinals did it very differently. They are a team made up primarily of homegrown talent and when Pujols left via free agency in stepped Allen Craig and when Chris Carpenter was lost to injury and now retirement, enter Shelby Miller.
The Red Sox and Cardinals employ very different tactics but prove that the idea of a winning cycle or a window of opportunity is a myth. Teams have opportunities via the farm system, trade, or free agency to replace departing talent. If Ian Desmond remains a 5.0 fWAR player and leaves via free agency after the 2015 season the Nats don’t need to replace all 5.0 fWAR at short stop. They could get a solid short stop for less money and then spread the rest around at other positions and perhaps by the time Desmond leaves Brian Goodwin has become a 5.0 fWAR center fielder or Rendon the equivalent at second base. The point is that even a player that seems as necessary as Ian Desmond can be replaced. His wins can be found elsewhere. The two players the Nats have that can’t be replaced are Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, and not the two that we saw in 2013 but the two we’ll see when they reach their potential.
Both Strasburg and Harper failed to live up to expectations in 2013, but that is more our fault than it is their’s. Strasburg was pitching in his first full season since Tommy John’s surgery and Harper was twenty years old and had a couple run ins with outfield walls. After injuring his ribs on the wall in Atlanta at the end of April Harper hit .254/.351/.420 for the rest of the season, and the knee injury he sustained in LA on May 13 didn’t help much either. Harper was both only 20 years old and playing hurt while Strasburg was suffering through some mechanical and composure issues that come with being a developing pitcher in the major leagues. The composure issues were taken care of quickly with a notable moment when Strasburg turned to Ryan Zimmerman after an error and said, “I got you.” To drive home this point even further six of the ten unearned runs that Strasburg allowed in 2013 came in the first month and a half of the season. After that those issues were behind him but he would still drift in his delivery with his landing foot going more towards first base than home plate causing his pitches to ride high and away from the plate in that direction.
Both Strasburg and Harper had good seasons in 2013 but they weren’t the MVP and Cy Young candidates people expected, but there is no reason to think they still can’t be. They were both young players in 2013 and both played through pain. 2014 will be a different season where they can start with a clean slate and an additional year of knowledge. There is no reason to think they can’t be MVP and Cy Young candidates year in and year out, and if they are the Nats’ window will stay open a lot longer than people project. Think about it this way. A team of replacement level players would win 45 games. To be in the conversation for the MVP and Cy Young a player should be around 7.0 WAR, McCutchen was at 8.2 fWAR and Kershaw 6.5, so for argument’s sake we’ll say if Strasburg and Harper are in the year end awards talk they are equal to 14.0 fWAR.
A team of Strasburg, Harper, and replacement level players would win 59 games. That isn’t very good, but that is a terrible way to build a team. It would be the same as the Nationals cutting everyone that isn’t Strasburg or Harper and teaming them with the Syracuse Chiefs to take on MLB. The real point of that is that with Strasburg and Harper under contract the base of building the team jumps from 45 to 59 and if MLB average talent of 2-3 fWAR or 2.5 fWAR on average is placed around them in the line-up and the rotation then the win total jumps to 86.5. Now if that team gets positive contributions from the bench and bullpen then that is a 90 win team. It still isn’t a great way to build a team as a line-up full of .713 OPS hitters and a rotation full of 3.86 ERA starters won’t go very far if they do make it to the playoffs, but you can see that adding talent around two premier players makes it a lot easier to win than when a team doesn’t have those players.
The good thing for the Nationals is that they have those secondary types of players under contract past 2015. Gio Gonzalez, Jayson Werth, and Ryan Zimmerman are all better than average players and adding them to the base raises it that much higher. If Jordan Zimmermann leaves via free agency the Nats have AJ Cole and Lucas Giolito in the system, and there is always the route of trading for or signing a starter. Players like Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond are difficult to replace, but not impossible. If Harper and Strasburg reach their potential they are once in a generation talent. They are the David Ortiz and Adam Wainwright of the Nationals. The players that will define how this team does going forward and players will come and go in their time, but as long as they perform the fortunes of the Nationals will be bright and the window will stay open.