2012 Washington Nationals - Wild Card Bound?

Pundits have been keeping an eye out, and warning fans of other NL East teams about the pending Washington Nationals wave that should be sweeping over the division for about a year now. They mostly point toward a GM who has vast experience in the game in Mike Rizzo, who isnt afraid to negotiate with the infamous "Scott Boras client" in both the draft and free agent maket; they point to the success (or lacktherof depending on point of view) that has allowed the Nats to make very good draft picks over the past 4 or 5 seasons; and the crowning jewel in this warning to Phillie and Brave and Met fans about the not so much laughingstock anymore Nationals, is that they have an ownership group in place that isnt afraid to go and spend money to get what the teams needs to contend, as evidenced by the Jason Werth signing last off season.

I have posted on your site a few times over the years, most notably when your team was playing the Brewers, and also since I visited Nationals Park a few years back and loved the experience. This current Nationals team should be a joy to watch, a lot of fun to see the young players mature further, and hopefully bring the first playoff appearance to the franchise since the Montreal Expos made a strike shortened playoff appearance in was it 1981?

I am a big fan of the website Baseball Prospectus, and purchase their annual preview publication every year and then tweak things a bit to make predictions for the upcoming year. BP uses a projection system called PECOTA, which does monumental things with math that I have very little comprehension of. But it has served me well over the years, and I enjoy reading the review, and the contributors have a very good track record of Saber-success. The tweaks that I make to the system simply put more weight on a teams outcomes (for the entire season) on starting pitching.

I have been doing this for about 5 seasons now, and have been quite successful. As a side note, Brewer fans will probably forever chide me since I predicted that they would win 88 games last year and yet won 96. I wont feel too bad about that projection since I had been on average too optimistic on the team, so a correction was probaby in order. Add to the fact that the teams Pythagorean W-L record was only 90-72, makes me feel even less unreliable. In past projections, I almost was right on the 2009 San Francisco Giants winning the Wild Card while everyone else had them finishing in last place, and the following year had the Padres doing the same (they missed by one game).

Without further adieu, here are my 2012 National League Projections:

Division Winners

  1. Philadelphia Phillies 90 wins (true talent level)
  2. San Francisco Giants 90
  3. St. Louis Cardinals 88

No surprises in these three teams as the pick for winning their respective divisions. The Phillies still have the best pitching staff in all of baseball, so much so, in fact, that they could almost field an entire team of replacement level players apart from the pitchers, and probably still finish in first place. The most surprising thing about that could be that both Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee are in their mid 30s now and show no signs of letting up. The Giants have great pitching as well, and with a full season's worth of good health from Buster Posey, they should re-claim that NL West crown. The closest race between 1st and 2nd place lands in the NL Central, where Adam Wainwrights return in addition to a full season of David Freese, and newly acquired Carlos Beltran should pave the way for another Cardinal playoff run. The big question mark for them will be health and age of their stars.

The Wild Card Teams

  1. Washington Nationals 88 wins
  2. Los Angeles Dodgers 87

It shouldnt be that surprising to fans who follow the Nationals that this team is ready to win now, and is poised to do so for the next 5 or 6 years. A full season's worth of Steven Strasburg should put the Nats in great shape to contend not only for the division title, but makes them the best Wild Card team this season. A Strasburg Cy Young candidacy isnt out of the question either. Add to it the possible promotion of Bryce Harper at some point, the two Zimmerman's and Gio Gonzalez, and a bevy of young stars who should get better as time goes on makes this team my favorite to watch this year. In deference to my own projection system, I was burned wildly by the Dodgers last year. Bad seasons from Rafeal Furcal, Ted Lilly, Andre Ethier and Chad Billingsley helped to make me look really silly with an 88 win projection for the Dodgers last year, so I am going to be a bit tepid about this one, since the projection relies very heavily on Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw.

The Contenders

  1. Atlanta Braves 87 wins
  2. Milwaukee Brewers 87
  3. Arizona Diamondbacks 87
  4. Miami Marlins 86
  5. Cincinnati Reds 84

Of the 3 teams grouped together at 87 wins, all of them have starting pitchign staffs that measure up well against one aonther. This would include the Dodgers, although their rotation is a bit more top heavy than the other staffs. The key for the Braves will be keeping their pitchers healthy, a nice rookie year from Julio Teheran, and a bounce back from Jason Heyward. One big question mark for them will be how healthy Chipper Jones can stay all year, and how much he can contribute. The Brewers also have a very nice starting rotation with Zack Grienke and Yovanni Gallardo at the top, but the bottom of the rotation is very questionnable. The departure of Prince Fielder will make it difficult for the Brewers to replace those runs, but they did a nice job of gaining back some of that ground by signing Aramis Ramirez to play 3B, but a lot of weight is going to be placed on rookie Mat Gamel's back as the First Baseman. The Diamondbacks finished somewhere near 10 games above their Pythagorean W-L record last year, but they had very solid performances from guys like Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson and Justin Upton. The addition of Trevor Cahill and the improvement of the players listed previously will keep them in the hunt in the NL West. If the Marlins had been able to lure one of the players that "slipped away" from them during the winter meetings (Albert Pujols, CJ Wilson, or even Prince Fielder) they would be considered strong contenders for the NL East title. Hanley Ramirez needs to regain his pre-2011 form and Jose Reyes needs to stay healthy all season long for them to make noise. A full season of Josh Johnson helps that along as well. And the Cincinnati Reds acquisition of Mat Latos really pushed them up into contention mode after their disappointing 2011 season. Their big problem is that they are probably a pitcher short and need at least 120 games or so from Scott Rolen. They will be a fun team to watch, but probably just dont have enough to make the playoffs this year.

Playing for a nice Draft Pick

  1. Colorado Rockies 80 wins
  2. Chicago Cubs 80
  3. San Diego Padres 78
  4. Pittsburgh Pirates 77
  5. New York Mets 76
  6. Houston Astros 65

The Rockies have Troy Tulowitzki and bunch of really young pitchers on their team. This would be a huge expectation for them to condend this year. The Cubs are admittedly in full scale re-build mode, and this true talent number probably drops off of a cliff as July approaches and guys like Marlon Byrd, Alfonso Soriano, and even Geovanny Soto are dealt to contenders for prospects. The Padres have a very nice farm system, but their best non pitcher is (one of my favorite players) a defense first CF in Cameron Maybin, whose only big time value would come if he learned to lay off of pitches outside of the strike zone. The Pirates have 5 or 6 really big time prospects in their system, and one of the most exciting young players in Andrew McCutchen, but it looks like another in a long line of losing seasons for this once very successful franchise. The Mets. Ugh. They are in really bad shape, still a few bad contracts left in guys like David Wright, Johan Santana and Jason Bay, and nothing really spectacular on the horizon. And even though the Astros should again be quite pathetic this year, they have a lot more to look forward to than the Mets, with nice prospects in Jarred Cosart and Jonathan Singleton.

All of the Win numbers above are true talent level, and of course teams rarely play at their true talent level. Trades always occur, players get hurt, and teams get lucky and find themselves in the playoffs.

I plan on watching a lot of Nats games this year on my MLB package on cable, and have confidence in their ability to possibly even win the division this year, but you guys should start expecting this team to go far, and hopefully they can fill that beautiful stadium on a regular basis.

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