There is a stat out there that experts use to figure out when a team is on the verge of becoming a contender, when a team might only be one player away, when the smallest change can make the biggest impact. That stat is the number of close games a team plays in. I am not sure where the Nationals rank in this stat, as I don’t know where to look it up. I can look up and see that the Nationals are 1-8 in extra inning games and 16-21 in one run games. Last night’s 3-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves highlights the fact that the Nationals can play in the close games, but can’t quite put them away. It also highlights the fact that the Nationals might not be as far away as people think from being able to turn the close losses to wins and the close wins to bigger wins.
There are four positions that have been lacking for the Nationals, and only one of them might have to be filled from outside the organization. A move of Roger Bernadina to center takes care of center field. Bernadina’s OPS of .733 for a right fielder ranks him in the bottom of the league for offense from that position. At his natural defensive position of center field a .733 OPS would be good enough to rank just below Shane Victorino’s OPS of .755 and above players like Cody Ross and Drew Stubbs. This one move would take care of improving center field, but it would leave a gap in right field that the team would have to fill through trade or free agency. Guys like Jason Werth, Carl Crawford, or Michael Cuddyer could provide the answer for right field, but right field and center field are far from the only position the Nationals have lacked at this season.
Cristian Guzman and Adam Kennedy have gotten most of the playing time at second base this year. Up to this point in the season they have combined for a 1.4 WAR. Kennedy has been playing better of late and he will be back next season. Either he could improve his numbers or Danny Espinosa could step in from the minors to either move Desmond to second or man second himself. A decent second baseman should be able to be worth around 3 to 4 WAR. Whether it is the improvement of Kennedy or the rise of Espinosa the Nationals are only looking at an increase of 1 to 1.5 wins from this position.
As much of a problem as second base has seemed the real problem has been catcher. Pudge Rodriguez got off to a hot start, but since has cooled down tremendously. Between Pudge and Neives the Nationals have only gotten a 0.5 WAR. As Doghouse pointed out a league average catcher is around 3.0 WAR. Today is our first look at Wilson Ramos and good or bad it is still a long way from answering the question of if he can even be a league average catcher. If he is the Nationals could be looking at adding 2.5 or more wins, and this speaks nothing to the impact that a deeper line-up will have on opposing pitchers. Having too many replacement level players in the line-up allows the opposing pitcher to relax and choose his battles.
The idea of protection in a line-up is a hotly debated concept. Whether it exists or not is not my issue. I do not think it is debatable that a line-up that has less outs is a good thing. Removing players that don’t get on base, don’t have much power, and don’t go deep into counts with players that do will have repercussions on the rest of the line-up. Whether it is having the middle of the order face a tired starter in the 6th inning, or forcing the opposing manager to bring a reliever in sooner than they would like. Having better hitters instead of weaker hitters helps everybody out.
By simply adding league average players at second, catcher, and center the team is looking at a six game improvement. Add into that equation a Carl Crawford or Jason Werth and their 5-7 WAR and the Nationals are looking at a possible 10 game improvement by only adding one free agent. This doesn’t even get into the fact that Strasburg will be playing for the whole year, Jordan Zimmermann should be healthy, and unless something goes terribly terribly wrong pitchers like Luis Atilano or Garret Mock won’t be heard from again.
Of course this all depends on things working out for Ramos and Espinosa. They could be complete busts, but management can’t make decisions based on the best or the worst case scenario. If they are busts the Nationals end up right back where they are now, and we are talking about all this again next year. There is another caveat. I ignored one possible giant gaping hole in the Nationals line-up. I am sure the title gave it away. Signing Crawford or Werth or even a guy like Cuddyer doesn’t matter if Adam Dunn isn’t resigned. The whole idea that position player wise the Nationals are as close as one player doesn’t matter if suddenly they need two players. Adam Dunn is a huge piece of the puzzle. In order for this team to take that ten game step forward to .500 ball next season Adam Dunn needs to be signed. There is reason for optimism. There is reason for hope. But that all could go away if the big man in the middle goes away. The Nationals might be, as Kasten says, "closer than they appear," but in one moment they can also be further than they appear.