The Nationals Have a Depth Problem

If baseball teams had 10 man rosters, the Washington Nationals might be the team to beat heading into 2017. With an enviable group of star talent, the top of the Nationals roster compares favorably with just about any other group in MLB. For instance, here are our projections for the just the 10 best players on the Cubs, Dodgers, and Nationals, who we have forecasted as the three best teams in baseball.

Best 10 Players
Name Team WAR
Max Scherzer Nationals 5.9
Bryce Harper Nationals 5.7
Stephen Strasburg Nationals 4.4
Anthony Rendon Nationals 4.0
Trea Turner Nationals 3.6
Daniel Murphy Nationals 3.1
Gio Gonzalez Nationals 2.8
Adam Eaton Nationals 2.4
Joe Ross Nationals 2.3
Tanner Roark Nationals 2.1
Total 36.3
Name Team WAR
Kris Bryant Cubs 5.7
Anthony Rizzo Cubs 4.7
Jon Lester Cubs 4.5
Jake Arrieta Cubs 4.1
Addison Russell Cubs 3.7
Jason Heyward Cubs 3.4
Kyle Hendricks Cubs 3.2
Kyle Schwarber Cubs 2.9
Ben Zobrist Cubs 2.9
John Lackey Cubs 2.8
Total 37.9
Name Team WAR
Clayton Kershaw Dodgers 7.7
Corey Seager Dodgers 5.0
Justin Turner Dodgers 3.7
Joc Pederson Dodgers 3.5
Rich Hill Dodgers 3.2
Yasiel Puig Dodgers 3.1
Yasmani Grandal Dodgers 2.7
Kenta Maeda Dodgers 2.7
Kenley Jansen Dodgers 2.4
Julio Urias Dodgers 2.3
Total 36.3

Despite Steamer’s pretty pessimistic projections for both Adam Eaton and Tanner Roark, the Nationals 10 best players project to create as much value as the Dodgers 10 best players, and are almost even with the Cubs, whose total includes a pretty big bounce back from Jason Heyward. There’s enough room to quibble with forecasts for guys like Heyward or Roark that the +1 WAR gap between the Cubs and Nationals isn’t large enough to be a meaningful difference. Based solely on the best players on each team, we effectively have a three way tie at the top.

But if you look at overall projected WAR on our depth charts, you’ll notice the Dodgers and Cubs both at around +53 WAR, while Washington comes in at +46, closer to the Giants than the other two division favorites in the NL. While the Cubs and Dodgers have stacked talent upon talent, the Nationals enter 2017 heavily reliant on their frontline players to carry them back to the postseason.

In fact, it’s hard to find a legitimate contender with as weak a group of reserves as the Nationals. While most of the focus of late has been on their bullpen and whether they’ll acquire a new closer, the Nationals bench is the more glaring weakness.

If Opening Day was tomorrow, the Nationals five-man group of backup position players would look something like this.

Nationals Projected Bench
Name Position Bats wOBA WAR
Jose Lobaton C Switch 0.295 0.5
Clint Robinson 1B Left 0.319 0.2
Stephen Drew IF Left 0.307 0.4
Chris Heisey OF Right 0.300 0.2
Michael Taylor OF Right 0.290 0.1

Granted, most teams aren’t going to get large WAR projections from their backups, since there isn’t enough playing time to allow them to rack up a lot of value in most cases, but of any contender in baseball, you’d actually expect the Nationals to have the most opportunity to get value from their non-starters. Because their everyday guys are not really everyday guys.

Bryce Harper, as prodigious a talent as he is, has not exactly proven to be the most durable of franchise players yet. He did average 150 games played the last two seasons, but he played in just 100 in 2014 and 118 in 2013. Last year, he reportedly played through shoulder and wrist problems, though perhaps due in part to his team’s lack of depth, he didn’t land on the disabled list.

Likewise, Anthony Rendon played 156 games last year, but remains something of a health question mark, having missed half of the 2015 season, and struggling with lower-half issues throughout his college and early professional career. And those are the two returning hitters from last year’s team that were most often in the line-up.

Daniel Murphy spent most of September on the bench trying to treat a glute injury that he admitted “may be recurring” as he gets older. Jayson Werth is 37 and has spent a good chunk of his career battling injuries. Likewise, Ryan Zimmerman played in 115 games last year, and that was his highest total in three years.

And even if Werth and Zimmerman are healthy, there still are questions about whether either should be regulars on a team trying to win in 2017. Both project to produce less than +1 WAR in over 500 plate appearances, with Steamer seeing them as well below average players at this point in their career. ZIPS is even harsher on the pair, projecting both as replacement level players in 2017. The other elite teams in baseball don’t have one guy in their line-up that projects this poorly, much less two.

And the Nationals seem to be compounding the problem of having two older players with questionable projections by having no real internal options if they play as poorly as the forecasts expect. For all the talk about Zimmerman’s -1.3 WAR last year, that total was almost matched by Robinson (-1.2 WAR) in half the plate appearances; on a rate basis, one could argue that Robinson was the worst player in Major League Baseball last year.

A 1B/PH who can’t run and puts up a 70 wRC+ usually doesn’t get an uncontested roster spot heading into the next year, but the Nationals haven’t even bothered to bring in anyone who could take Robinson’s place, or fight him for a job in spring training. If they decided that Robinson wasn’t good enough to roster again this year — and ZIPS projects him as a below replacement level player, by the way — then they’d currently have to turn to someone like Matt Skole, a 27 year old who Steamer projects for an 88 wRC+ in 2017. ZIPS thinks Skole is a little better than Robinson, but that’s like saying a stab wound is preferable to a gunshot; if either of these guys are playing much in 2017, the Nationals will be bleeding wins.

And this was a winter where left-handed 1B/OF depth was both plentiful and cheap. The Mariners had to take Yovani Gallardo’s negative-value contract just to dump Seth Smith, whom they didn’t want to pay $7 million to. Brandon Moss got 2/$12M from the Royals, but had to take most of the money in 2018 on a backloaded deal to even get that. Either of them would have been real upgrades for Washington, probably adding a win or so to the Nationals ledger for $6 or $7 million while providing a floor to ensure that the team’s season isn’t sunk by getting -3 WAR from their first baseman again.

And that’s just dealing with the issue of the older guys who are currently miscast as everyday players; this says nothing about the strategic limitations that Dusty Baker will be saddled with by trying to response to match-ups with this limited group. Want to pinch-hit for the pitcher in the middle innings? Okay, who do you send up? Robinson, I guess, even though he’s an average-at-best hitter. Heisey, who last put up a wRC+ north of 100 in 2011, is the option against lefties, though not a very good one.

Taylor (or Brian Goodwin, if they decide to swap out fifth outfielders) is on the speed and defense guy on the roster, but he’s actually not a very good baserunner, so the team doesn’t even have a good pinch-running option, and because of Werth’s age and deficiencies, he’s probably more effectively used as a defensive replacement late in games. Which means you can only pinch-run him for Werth or you have to do a double-switch, which requires putting two of these bad bench players into the game at the same time.

A few months ago, Kenley Jansen thought he was going to Washington, who had reportedly put $85 million on the table for him to come pitch the ninth inning. Instead, Jansen re-signed with the Dodgers, and the team has since spent $3 million to bring back Stephen Drew before now acting like they are out of money. They got outbid by the Rockies for Greg Holland, who got all of $7 million guaranteed from Colorado, and Moss went to Kansas City for that 2/$12M deal that would have made all kinds of sense for Washington.

Maybe they’ll end up being the team that lands Pedro Alvarez, who would still represent a real upgrade over Robinson as the non-Zimmerman 1B on the roster. Maybe they’ll sign Angel Pagan to act as a decent switch-hitting bench OF option, and this group won’t look quite so poor heading into the season. But more likely, given the Nationals recent benches, this is what they’re going to roll into the year with, and they’ll bet their postseason chances on total injury avoidance.

Stars and scrubs can work pretty well if your stars stay healthy and you a bunch of interesting role players from your farm system. But the goal of stars and scrubs is to not actually have scrubs, betting on your staff to find useful +1 WAR players at reduced prices so that you can spend money on big money stars instead. The Nationals ownership has shown a willingness to spend on premium players, but by ignoring the back end of the roster, they have set themselves up for potential trouble if Plan A doesn’t work out.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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5 years ago

In 2014, Mike Rizzo signed Nate McLouth for $10.75M over two years. McLouth batted .173 with 1 HR in 139 at bats. Rizzo is gunshy about paying bench players after that.