The Washington Nationals are the consensus top team in baseball right now. Should they be?
The Washington Nationals are supposed to be the best team in baseball. Whether by offhand mention or official power rankings, everyone is tripping over themselves to anoint the Nationals as the best team in baseball. The secret reason behind this is that they almost certainly are the best team in baseball. I don't remember the last time a team was so widely considered the best team. The Yankees after '98? The A's in the late '80s?
Oh, wait, I have it: The Red Sox before the 2011 season started. There we go.
Which is, and always will be, a great way to suggest that we shouldn't pre-order those playoff tickets just yet. The 2011 Red Sox are a three-word cautionary tale, just as Ryan Vogelsong is a way to use two words to describe a poster of a kitty hanging from a tree by its claws.
So are we getting too excited about the 2013 Nationals? One of the things I always like to do before a season is play the should-be-better/should-be-worse game. Who would you expect to improve from 2012 to 2013, and who would you expect to do worse? Start with the bad news first:
Adam LaRoche had perhaps his best season at age 32, rebounding from two straight down seasons. He shouldn't be as good.
Ian Desmond -- a career .259 hitter in the minors and .262 hitter in the majors -- hit .292, which lifted his on-base percentage to an acceptable level for the first time in his career. He also more than doubled his home-run output. He could be a young player coming into his own, but considering the improvements came without corresponding improvements to his plate discipline, the odds are good that he gives some of those gains back.
Both Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler had ERAs more than a half-run below their FIPs, which suggest they might regress a touch.
Other than those four, it's hard to find an obvious regression candidate. Maybe Teddy Roosevelt. And it's not like those players all came out of nowhere. LaRoche has had several good seasons, and Desmond was highly touted for a reason over the last few years. Zimmermann has long been underrated, and Detwiler is looking like the kind of pitcher who wipes his nose with strikeout rates and FIP. So while it's wise to be bearish on them, it's not wise to be especially pessimistic, really.
Then you ask the complementary question: Who should be better? The short answer is "everyone else." Jayson Werth should play in more than 81 games, and Wilson Ramos is back. Dan Haren should be as least as good as Edwin Jackson, but he'll probably be even a tick better. I'm not sure if Stephen Strasburg will be better, necessarily, but there should be more of him. The shift from Mike Morse to Denard Span is worth a few wins if you're a WARrior. It makes the team much better defensively, for sure.
And just when you're about to concede the point, admitting the Nationals have a really strong chance to be better than the team with a Pythagorean record of 96-66 last year, you get to Bryce Harper. He was 19 last year, remember. When Mike Trout was 19, he had a .281 on-base percentage in 135 plate appearances. That's how hard it is to succeed as a 20-year-old; coming up that young flummoxed even the great Mike Trout. But Harper thrived, persevering through ups and downs, and acquitting himself quite well on the leaderboard of 19-year-olds in the history of baseball.
Here's where Harper ranked among 19-year-olds, all-time:
AB: 533 (1)
BB: 56 (1)
2B: 26 (T-1)
3B: 9 (2)
HR: 22 (2)
OPS: .817 (4)
OPS+: 119 (6)
SB: 18 (2)
And of the 19-year-olds who finished with an OPS+ over 100 with 300 at-bats or more, more than a couple of them took huge steps forward the following year:
|Player (year)||OPS+ in age-19 season||OPS+ in age-20 season|
|Mel Ott (1928)||139||165|
|Tony Conigliaro (1964)||137||133|
|Ty Cobb (1906)||132||167|
|Sherry Magee (1904)||122||134|
|Bryce Harper (2012)||119||?|
|Mickey Mantle (1951)||117||162|
|Cesar Cedeño (1970)||114||97|
|Ken Griffey, Jr. (1989)||108||136|
|Edgar Renteria (1996)||103||80|
|Eddie Kranepool (1964)||100||94|
If you believe Renteria was really 19, you'll also believe that he was 15 in the Gulf Coast League in 1992 and 16 in the Midwest League in 1993, and you'll also believe that it's a complete coincidence that his debut, peak, and decline all neatly correspond to what you'd expect from a player who is two or three years older. You seem very nice! But I'm not going to spend a lot of time worrying about how Edgar Renteria relates to Bryce Harper.
The players who went on to be superstars tended to improve (or stay at a level that was already superstar-like). The outliers are Cesar Cedeño, who saved his breakout year for his age-21 season, and Eddie Kranepool, who never had a breakout year. So if you think Harper is more Mantle than Kranepool -- or even more Griffey than Renteria -- the odds are at least fair that he'll take that jump from good to great before he can drink.
So in addition to all of the should-be-betters up there, don't feel like an overly optimistic goof for thinking the Nationals will also employ Super Bryce Harper instead of the regular ol' Bryce Harper they slummed it with last year.
Add it up -- including full years from Drew Storen and Rafael Soriano -- and, no, we're probably not getting ahead of ourselves with the Nationals. It's rare that you can look at a roster and not find an upgrade waiting to happen. The lineup, the rotation, the bullpen … it all checks out. And if Harper does half of what Trout did in his age-20 year, the Nationals won't just be as good as we think. They could be better.
Just like the 2011 Red Sox.
(Sorry. I just didn't want you to get too cocky, Nats fans. Heckuva team you got there, though. Heckuva team.)