Thursday, May 10, 2012

Contingency Plans For the Nationals

The Washington Nationals, your resident blogger's hometown team and thus the one he sees the most of (although not his favorite team - that would be the Mets), are tied for first place just over a month into the season, despite a currently putrid offense that ranks 28th in scoring and 25th in OPS.  Due to a swath of injuries, Davey Johnson has occasionally had to do things like bat Rick Ankiel third, or the execrable Xavier Nady (.129/.169/.194 thus far, and no, that is not a misprint) fifth, as happened last night.  Fortunately for Washington, their starting pitching has been as good as their offense has been bad, and they have weathered injuries to their primary closer AND their backup closer in maintaining a decent bullpen.  If they keep it up, team management will have a major decision to make during the middle of a pennant race, and they need to start planning for that now.

The first important question to ask is, can their starting pitching keep it up?  The short answer is no, because no rotation can hope to sustain a 2.26 ERA and a .198 batting average against over a full season.  That much is unreasonable.  But it is reasonable to expect that the members of this rotation will continue to have strong seasons.  For one thing, they are all young and come with strong pedigrees. Check it out:
  • Stephen Strasburg: 23 years old, drafted in the first round (1st overall) of 2009
  • Gio Gonzalez: 26 years old, drafted in the first round (38th overall) of 2004
  • Jordan Zimmermann: 26 years old, drafted in the second round (67th overall) of 2007
  • Edwin Jackson: 28 years old, drafted in the sixth round (190th overall) of 2001
  • Ross Detwiler: 26 years old, drafted in the first round (6th overall) of 2007
So, to recap, four of the five are squarely in their primes, and the fifth only happens to be the most hyped pitching prospect since...ever?  They have a mix of career paths (fast risers and late bloomers both) and styles, and they pitch their home games in a stadium that mildly favors pitchers.

Thus far this season all five of them have posted impressive statistical lines.  Sure, it's early, but the quintet has WHIPs between 0.842 (Strasburg) and 1.019 (Jackson).  Jackson has the highest FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) at 3.31, while Gonzalez' is at 1.78.  So they have been good, and it is not unlikely that they will continue to be good.  So what is the problem?

The problem is that Strasburg, by almost any measure their best pitcher, had Tommy John surgery in August of 2010 and is under a strict innings limit of about 160 this year so as not to overwork him.  But what will they do if they are still in a pennant race and he reaches his limit in mid-August?  As it stands now, at his average rate of 6 1/3 innings every time out (he could have easily pitched deeper in each of his starts, but Johnson is as aware of that innings limit as anyone), and assuming that he neither skips any starts nor jumps anyone in the rotation because of off days, Strasburg should eclipse 160 innings in his 26th start of the season, on August 25th against the Phillies.

The Nationals brass, who may themselves be a little surprised at how their team stormed out of the gate, know that they will have a first-class riot on their hands if they all of a sudden say "Nope, that's all, and we're not bringing him back for the playoffs, either," if the Nats are still very much in the thick of things.  Not only is Strasburg their best pitcher, and in 23 career starts looking like he's well on his way to being one of the elite pitchers in all of baseball, he is by an order of magnitude the team's biggest draw with fans both at home and on the road.  The Strasburg Traveling Circus is almost guaranteed to sell a few thousand more tickets each start, which gives the team another serious financial consideration.  So what are the possible solutions to their dilemna?  Let's examine a few.

Cross their fingers and wait for the offense to get healthy
This option would not involve changing anything regarding Strasburg's pitching schedule, but rather hoping that a healthy regular lineup will lessen the reliance on the starting rotation and carry the Nats into October anyway.  Now that Bryce Harper is likely in the majors for good following Jayson Werth's broken wrist Sunday night, we can tinker with their lineup and assume that Johnson makes some wise decisions like "don't hit Ian Desmond in the leadoff spot" and "move Wilson Ramos up from the eight-hole."  Ideally, it would look something like this (all numbers for 2012 except for Morse, who has not played since last year; wOBA stands for weighted on-base average, the theory being that not all hits are created equal):

CF Bryce Harper (.265/.381/.441, .352 wOBA)
RF Jayson Werth (.276/.372/.439, .362 wOBA)
3B Ryan Zimmerman (.224/.312/.343, .291 wOBA)
LF Michael Morse (.303/.360/.550, .387 wOBA)
1B Adam LaRoche (.316/.409/.537, .401 wOBA)
C Wilson Ramos (.260/.348/.364, .311 wOBA)
SS Ian Desmond (.264/.294/.434, .319 wOBA)
2B Danny Espinosa (.189/.281/.245, .239 wOBA)

Even if some regression can be expected from LaRoche (probable), Morse (coming off of an outlier career year), and Werth (returning from a significant hitting injury that he has a bad history with), that's not a terrible lineup.  For one thing, Espinosa's numbers should rise from the abysmal depths that they are currently mired in, lest he lose his job to Steve Lombardozzi (.300/.382/.350, .328 wOBA).  For another, Zimmerman is a much better hitter than his slow start indicates.  The Nationals could also expect to plate a few more runs with Harper, who has both an excellent batting eye and superb base-running speed, in the leadoff spot instead of Desmond.  For what it's worth, these moves would give the Nats a serviceable bench of Ankiel, Lombardozzi, Jesus Flores, Chad Tracy, and one or two other warm bodies (likely from the Nady/Roger Bernadina/Mark DeRosa group).  Even if they only move the needle from 3.3 runs per game to 4, that would represent a tangible upgrade that should result in more wins and fewer nail-biters.

Skip some Strasburg starts
This is a pretty weak option.  Let's say that the Nationals skip Strasburg's turn five separate times (and have someone ready to fill in for each start).  Such an action would push Strasburg's putative final start of 2011 all the way back to...September 22nd. That just isn't going to work, especially not if the team is still in contention on that date.  I think we can leave this option out.

Shut him down on the 25th until the postseason
This also doesn't make much sense.  It would be difficult to stop Strasburg from pitching, other than perhaps a simulated game here and there, for six weeks and then throw him into a Game One scenario after all that time away from competition and regular work.  Besides, the short cycle of rest followed by an intense playoff workload couldn't be easy on his arm.  Pass.

A six-man rotation
Now here's a thought.  What if the Nationals added an extra man to their rotation, either removing a bench player or a reliever in the process?  Don't laugh; they have the manpower to make this happen.  John Lannan, who has made 128 starts for the Nats over the past four years and change, lost out on the final rotation spot to Detwiler and is currently toiling away in AAA Syracuse.  Lannan is really just an innings eater (751 over those four-plus seasons), but if he is your fifth starter, you could do a lot worse.  Of course, Lannan is struggling for the SkyChiefs right now (6.10 ERA and 1.710 WHIP in six starts), so perhaps he is not the best option.

But wait, there's more!  Remember Chien-Ming Wang?  Unlike Lannan, he has had dominant seasons in the past (2006 and 2007 for the Yankees), and he is also lurking in Syracuse, pitching his way back from 2009 shoulder surgery.  In his three minor league starts thus far, Wang has a 2.12 ERA and a 1.000 WHIP across three minor league levels.  If he can even be 75% of the groundball machine that he was with the Yankees (in front of a solid infield defense, no less), then he would make a very effective fifth (or sixth!) starter.

So how does Strasburg's timeline change if the Nationals, for example, call up either Wang or Lannan and add them to the rotation on June 1 (which gives them some time to prepare for such a radical move)?  Now Strasburg's last start would fall on September 16th.  So it still looks like they're stuck with losing him for the postseason, at least if the Nationals follow any single one of these options.  Instead, how about this?

Combination plan
The first part of this plan would be to call up Wang or Lannan and commit to a six-man rotation for the foreseeable future of 2012.  If someone in the rotation falls prey to injury, they still have the other guy in reserve, and beyond those two are league-average guys like Tom Gorzelanny (currently in the 'pen), Yunesky Maya (Syracuse), and Zach Duke (Syracuse).  Hopefully it doesn't come to that, but those guys are there, for what it's worth.  Second, bite the bullet and skip three Strasburg starts, capping him at 22 or 23 for the season (given his innings per start average) and weighting those skips toward the back end of the schedule, when the lineup, ideally, is healthier (and the team, ideally, is still in contention).  Third, at least toy with the idea of going with a seven-man rotation in September with expanded rosters, again depending on standings and effectiveness of the pitchers in question.  And then, breathe deep and loosen the leash a little bit on Strasburg should the team in fact make the postseason, because it makes little sense to chase a title with your best weapon shackled to the bench.

For purposes of argument, let's say that Washington a) adopts the above plan, and b) makes the playoffs.  Strasburg will have made let's say 23 starts at an average of 6 1/3 innings per outing, giving him 145 2/3 on the year, just two starts short of his previously proscribed limit.  In October, Strasburg would almost doubtless be their number one starter, especially if they have the luxury of setting up their rotation.  And let's assume that he pitches deeper into playoff games, say an extra inning above his season average. Should the Nationals make it all the way to the World Series, Strasburg would pitch a minimum of three times (the wild card playoff game/Game 1 of the NLDS, and Game 1 of the NLCS and World Series), and a maximum of five times (wild card playoff, NLDS Game 4, NLCS Games 3 and 7, and World Series Game 4).  At the average of 7 1/3 innings per start, that would add between 22 and 36 2/3 innings to his total, not THAT far above the limit of 160 decreed by the team.  And that would be if the Nats went all the way to the end of the postseason.  They may not, in which case his innings total would be lower and closer to what the team wants in order to protect their investment.

This situation is an interesting conundrum for the Nationals should they continue to contend throughout the season, and my hope is that they figure something out to win games, protect Strasburg from overwork, and still get him on the mound in October should they make the postseason.  If you happen to have any other suggestions, feel free to post them in the comments.