In 2014 it would’ve taken 80 wins to win the NL East and since the close of the season the Braves have decided to go backwards, the Marlins are starting the season without Jose Fernandez, and while the Mets pitching will be very good all they’ve done so far is downgrade their outfield defense. The Mets and Marlins will be forces to contend with in the future but that future is more likely in 2016 or 2017 than 2015. The Braves were still the biggest threat to the Nationals and they’ve decided to take themselves out of the race.
Jason Heyward, who the Braves traded yesterday for Shelby Miller, was worth 5.1 fWAR in 2014. This was largely based on defense but his 110 wRC+ shouldn’t be ignored since he was only one of four Braves with over 100 PA to have a wRC+ over 100. Instead of riding out Heyward’s contract and taking the extra first round pick the Braves opted to bring in Shelby Miller, a pitcher that was worth 0.2 fWAR last season and 2.2 the year before. The big thing about Miller is he is controllable, but he isn’t the type of pitcher a team should be giving up a 5.0 WAR outfielder for, especially a team starved for offense.
The other Braves move of the week was to trade Tommy La Stella to the Cubs for another pitcher. La Stella wasn’t one of the four Braves with a wRC+ of over 100 but his 84 wRC+ is just slightly below the average for that position of 88. La Stella is a league average hitting second baseman which for the Braves in 2014 was a godsend after Dan Uggla, and even with the below average mark La Stella was the fifth best offensive player on the Braves. The Braves have so far traded two of their better offensive players and done nothing but add to their menagerie of mediocre pitching, and both Evan Gattis and Justin Upton are rumored to be on the trading black as well. If the Braves trade those two and don’t get an offense in return they’re in danger of trying to fight off the Phillies instead of battling the Nats.
The Mets and Marlins both look to be in better positions for 2015 than the Braves, but neither appear ready to take the next leap. Of course the Nationals didn’t look ready for that in 2012 either and that season ended pretty good for them. Matt Harvey returning to the Mets rotation is huge and Noah Syndergaard should be up at some point. The Mets rotation has a chance to be formidable, but with Harvey coming back from Tommy John’s and Syndergaard being a rookie the Mets rotation has a chance to be great but remain a question mark.
Knowing this early in the offseason how many wins it’s going to take to win a division is difficult, but none of the teams behind the Nationals appear to have made any moves to get better and the Braves have gotten worse. With Fernandez out until midseason the Marlins best hope is to finish around .500 the Mets were the only other team in the NL East with a positive run differential in 2014 and one last great season from David Wright with Matt Harvey returning as good as he was when he got hurt and Noah Syndergaard just being average would be enough to make the Mets a mid-80’s win team meaning the Nationals still need to try to win the NL East in 2015 but not as hard as they would if they were facing the 2012 or 2013 Braves.
Determining exactly how many wins it’s going to take to win the division is important for a playoff contender. 90 wins normally makes the playoffs but if a lower total can be aimed for and winning still achieved then it gives a team in the Nationals position a unique opportunity. Running projections on the Nationals likely gives them a win total in the mid-90’s if you expect Bryce Harper to bounce back and Ryan Zimmerman to play 140 games at first amounting to a 1.0-2.0 WAR. If all it’s going to take to win the NL East is 87 wins and the internal projections say the Nats should win 95 then they’re safe to remove either Ian Desmond or Jordan Zimmermann and get no immediate return. The benefit of this is the further away from the majors a prospect returned in a trade is the higher that prospect’s ceiling. So if the Nats can aim for a lower win total they can make better use of the tradeable assets at their disposal.
None of this means the Nats should do that as winning the NL East isn’t the only goal and the Nationals are going to want as good a team as possible on the field when they have to play the Giants, Dodgers, or Cardinals. Despite the fact having the best record in the NL hasn’t helped the Nationals in their playoff appearances it is still and advantage and win trying to win any advantage should be sought. So while a mid-80’s win total likely clinches the NL East that isn’t the only goal for the Nationals and aiming higher has its benefits, but so does stocking a farm system with talent and winning season after season after season.