Warning: This is most likely an unorganized collection of thoughts and musings more than anything coherent or thought provoking. Proceed with caution.
Right now a lot of people are looking at the Nationals starting pitching staff and expecting the worst, but the starters aren't the only pitchers that pitch, and in the final breakdown of runs allowed there is no breakdown of where those runs came from. A team with good starters and a bad bullpen will likely allow just as many runs as a team that has a good bullpen and bad starters. The Nationals happen to be in that last category and last year's rotation was nothing short of a disaster, but the Nationals still managed to allow less runs than four pitching staffs and were a total of 37 runs above league average. Ever since the Adam LaRoche signing I have been saying that average is underrated. All of this got me thinking, "What kind of record would an average team have, and what do the Nationals have to do to be average."
The Nationals last season allowed a total of 742 runs while a league average team would have allowed 705 runs. That sits firmly between the pitching staffs of the Dodgers and Rockies. The Dodgers were slightly above league average at 692 runs allowed and the Rockies were slightly below with 717 runs allowed. This should help to give some sort of tangible idea of what an average pitching staff should look like. Someone like Kershaw or Jimenez to lead the starting staff, a solid pitcher with flashes of brilliance like Billingsly or De La Rosa, a bunch of other guys at 3-4-5, and a bullpen that has a few questions but for the most part can be counted on. In order for the Nationals to achieve that this season Jordan Zimmermann is going to have to surprise a few people and either Livan, Marquis, Lannan, or Maya will have to catch lightening in a bottle.
Allowing runs is only one half of what a team does. Baseball teams also get to bat and score runs. The Nationals last season score 655 runs which is 46 runs below league average. With the subtraction of Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham it is hard to imagine that the Nationals can improve in this area, but there is some reason for hope. The league average number of runs scored was 701. The two teams that exemplify an average offense are the World Series Champion San Francisco Giants and the 100 loss Arizona Diamondbacks. This leads me to the obvious conclusion that pitching is way more important than hitting, and second it isn't that hard to be an average offense. Both the Giants and the Diamondbacks had major offensive flows. Looking at the Nationals line-up from last season many people might take that over both of these teams, but they scored more runs. I would have to say that when people look at line-ups there is too much star gazing.
The Nationals will miss Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham in 2011, but with any sort of improvement from Ramos, Espinosa, Desmond, Morgan, Bernadina/Morse the line-up should be deeper and longer in 2010. The parts might not be as nice, but the sum could be greater. The Nationals also had a terrible time leaving runners on base. The Nationals stranded around 58% of runners that were able to reach base. In 2011 Desmond batting out of the 2 hole for an entire year should be able to put up better numbers than he did batting 8th, Espinosa should reach base more often than Guzman, Ramos should be better than Neives and possibly Pudge by mid-season, and either Morgan rebounds or Ankiel/Brown/Bernadina will be playing center in May or June. Werth and LaRoche should help more to improve the strand rate than the overall OBP of the team, and really we aren't talking about making the Nationals offense a great one, just an average run.
Using Pythagorean with an average team scoring 701 runs and allowing 705 runs the record would be 80.5 wins, and since half a win is impossible a perfectly average team is a .500 team. Now whether or not the Nationals can get better at both preventing runs and scoring runs is a different debate. With the way the team is being built it is far more likely that they improve slightly at preventing runs and get worse at scoring runs. But there are some other numbers that could help the Nationals to get better at scoring runs.
As a team the Nationals were terrible at going from 1st to 3rd on a single. They did it all of ten times which is 10 times less than a league average team would have accomplished the same feat. The Nationals were caught stealing 73% of the time and while league average is around 71% it is believed a team needs to have a percentage better than 75% to be effective. If Nyjer improves at all it will help this stat. One other small thing that could help the Nationals to score more runs is cutting down on the number of GIDP. The Nationals were only 5 worse than league average at 125 compared to 120, but Pudge accounted for most of those and it is doubtful that he will play as much in 2011.
It is hard to imagine the Nationals scoring 46 more runs by just doing the little things and having improved offense from short, second, catcher, right and center with diminished offense from first and left. The only position that can be counted on for better offense is right and while third looks to be a lock to remain the same injuries can affect anyone. Improving to average next season doesn't seem that likely, but the possibility does exist. It is probably less likely that the pitching staff can improve with no top of the rotation starter. Jordan Zimmermann could be a top of the rotation starter in 2011, but that is unlikely. The better defense should help to prevent a few more runs than last year, but it won't be enough to improve by the necessary 37 runs to become an average team. All of this points to what we already know. That in order for the Nationals to improve by another 10 games in 2011 they are going to need luck on their side, but it also shows that just getting to average needs to be a goal.
The Nationals are still trying to shake perceptions of having cheap owners and of being a team content to lose 100 games. Getting to .500 could be the start of big things. The Nationals likely had to offer Jayson Werth an extra two years at an average of $18 million per. If they had signed more average players like Adam LaRoche earlier in their existence it likely wouldn't have cost as much to get a top free agent. So don't look at the extra year on LaRoche's deal as wasting $8 million. Look at it as saving $36 million. The Nationals also lost out on that top of the rotation starter due to their negative perceptions. Greinke likely wouldn't have made the Nationals winners, but it is much easier to imagine a Dodgers or Rockies style rotation with Greinke in front of Zimmermann instead of Zimmermann in front of Lannan.
This is probably more of an unorganized mess than any sort of insight, but I think there are reasons for hope with the Nationals, and as far as I am concerned watching an average team would be a gift. I have spent the last three years watching a team that has lost 90 games every year and 100 in two of them. I used to think it was just as good for a team to win 75 as it was for them to win 59. They ended up in the same place in October, but perception among players and agents is worth those extra wins as well as the sanity of the team's players and fan base. While being an average team is nothing special. It is a jumping off point, and let's face it average is indeed underrated.