I have the Washington Nationals on the brain. Why am I obsessing over the worst team in Major League Baseball? I prefer not to go into specifics, but let's just say they make for an interesting case study and provide an opportunity for me to exercise the baseball obsessed side of my brain, something that I have not been able to do for a while.
The problem with the Nats is simple -- they have no pitching. The fact is so painfully obvious that it hardly is worth mentioning. Name an important pitching stat and the Nationals were either last in the league or near the bottom.
ERA: 5.00 - 28th
Walks Allowed: 629 - 30th
Strikeouts: 911 - 30th
K/BB: 1.45 - 30th
Fielding Independent Pitching: 4.82 - 28th
*Note - In ERA and FIP only the Brewers and Orioles ranked worse.
What do these stats tell you? Well, it means that Nationals pitchers do not miss bats and give up far too many walks. That is a cardinal sin in baseball. The personification of the pitching woes is nominal "ace" John Lanaan. The young lefty's FIP is not far off that of the team as a whole at 4.70. Yet, that is not reflected in his ERA which was a respectable 3.88 in 2009. Lanaan's K/9 was a very low 3.88. It is usually not very good if you strikeout rate equals your ERA, though it is an interesting coincidence. Lanaan's BB/9 was 2.97 which is mediocre to bad which brought his WHIP to 1.35, also mediocre to bad.
And this is the best pitcher on the team.
Now, that may not be true in the very near future as phenom Stephen Strasburg and fellow first round draft pick from June Drew Storen come of age, but it comes down to the young leading the younger in an attempt to climb out of the cellar towards the light of respectability.
OK, so the Nats pitching woes are a given. Yet, when I did a little more searching I found an interesting factoid. In 2009 the Nats payroll was $61,455,049, good for 26th in the league. It is what it is. The interesting part is the allocation of that $61.45M -- 80.22 percent was spent on position players. That is $49,299,240.30 (or so) spent on men playing the field.
Which means that the ENTIRE Nats pitching staff last year was paid $12,155,808. To put that in perspective, last year Brad Lidge made $12.5 million.
Um, is it just me or does this seem like a case of misplaced priorities?
Now, Washington's offense was not as bad as the pitching. At the same time, it was not head over heals better as it was 21st in the league last year in runs scored. Ryan Zimmerman is a stud and Adam Dunn is the prototype player for a sabermetric based lineup. Add some decent on-base percentage guys and another slugger and Washington has the potential for an above average offense. Not stellar, but above average. A team can win with an above-average offense if the run-prevention side of the equation makes up the difference (see Seattle Mariners), yet the Nationals pitching is atrocious and was not greatly helped by a defense that is pretty much in the exact middle of the league.
Let's look at the broader perspective. The Nationals options are to wait for Storen and Strasburg to become full time studs and fill in the roster around them, which probably means another year or two of absolute misery in D.C. or they can make a vie for a slightly below average team next year by going out and getting a couple innings-eaters who can help make up for the payroll disparity. Or, they can do both, which is what I would suggest. Go out and sign Jason Marquis to a three year deal and see if Jon Garland will sign a stop-gap two year deal. Wait for next offseason and go after one of the top end starters that will be in the free agent pool. Going into 2011 the Nats could have a rotation that looks something like 1) Strasburg 2) free agents from next year, like Brandon Webb 3) Jason Marquis 4) John Lanaan and 5) Garland or Storen (who might end up more valuable in the bullpen) or the next best piece from the minor league desert that is the National's farm system. That would be a respectable rotation and would help the payroll disparity and probably win a significant amount more games than the 59 they mustered last year.
The bottom line is that the Nationals need to spend more of their bottom line on the mound. Even mediocre pitchers like Marquis and Garland would be an improvement from what they have been running out there. A youth movement is a good thing if you have the talent like the Rays or the Rockies. In terms of financial resources, which the Rays and Rockies do not have, the Nationals should be able to add another $20-25 million to the payroll and add some arms and at least make a climb towards respectability.
If not, there will be a paucity of curly W's in our nation's capital for years to come.