The bullpen, one of the best last year, won’t contain a single rookie and is anchored by established young power arms. As recently as mid-2010, the Nats would have begged Lannan, Chien-Ming Wang, Ross Detwiler and Tom Gorzelanny to be in their rotation. Now, one will be a starter, two may be in the pen and one figures to disappear.
How much does pitching really matter? For reference, the Nats were fifth in the National League in home-park-adjusted ERA last year. Now, getting perhaps 65 starts from Gonzalez and Jackson, plus about 59 starts from Strasburg and Zimmermann (vs. only 31 in ’11), they ought to improve.
Since ’96, NL teams that finish fifth, fourth, third and second in park-adjusted ERA have won an average of 86, 88, 88 and 90 games. With average health, that’s where the Nats probably sit — an 86-to-90-win pitching-based team with a rangy infield defense but a mediocre offense, despite a healthy Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche at the corners.
That sounds entertaining, especially compared to all previous D.C. teams going back to the 1930s. But what does being a good team, but far from a great one, actually get you these days?
Maybe a lot. In the last dozen seasons, seven World Series winners have averaged only 89.6 wins in the regular season. Three additional teams reached the World Series with an average of 89.7 wins. Call it postseason parity or call it a fluky October format built for cheap thrills and TV ratings more than a meritocracy. But it definitely adds fun for the fans of teams at the 85-to-90-win level, where the Nationals will probably find themselves either this season or very soon. If the playoffs are expanded to 10 teams for 2012, which seems likely, the hurdle for joining the playoff party drops with (according to history) 90 wins a lock, 89 a near certainty and decent odds down to 87.
This isn’t a playoff prediction for this year, or any other season. It’s an attempt to provide context for enjoying, or agonizing with, an 80-81 team that’s rapidly become relevant. The Nats have national buzz with their farm system ranked No. 1 recently by Baseball America and several “contender” picks from gurus. How deliciously disorienting to a city just seven years removed from a 33-season hiatus from the big leagues.
For weeks, friends and even strangers have asked me, in essence, “Is it safe?” to start investing allegiance, rather than passing interest, in the Nats.
It’s never safe. It’s baseball. But it’s time. That window is finally open. A new Nationals era, joyful or otherwise, begins this weekend.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/boswell.