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The Washington Nationals’ Stealth Rebuilding

Leave the headlines to the Marlins. Washington will take the wins.

If movement is a synonym for progress, then you have to be excited by what the Marlins have accomplished this offseason. Rarely has a franchise undergone such a comprehensive makeover in the span of one winter. Start with the name of the team itself — the generic, appeal-to-all-constituents “Florida” has been replaced with the more geographically precise “Miami.”

The Florida Marlins played in Sun Life Stadium;1 the Miami Marlins move into Marlins Park, their new half-billion-dollar digs, complete with a retractable roof, aquariums behind home plate, and a $2.5 million home run sculpture that can only be described as hallucinatory. The sculpture’s garishness is nearly matched by that of the team’s new uniforms, whose color scheme was apparently designed by a committee of Tenderheart Bear (yellow! orange!), Princess Pony (light blue!), and Darth Vader (black!).

On the field, the Marlins have several new toys to play with as well. The team’s ownership attempted to atone for two decades of penuriousness in one offseason. Albert Pujols turned down the team’s $200 million-plus offer, but he was about the only free agent who did. Jose Reyes got $106 million for the next six years. Mark Buehrle got $58 million for four. Heath Bell got $27 million for three. And to mold this impressive collection of talent into a winner, the Marlins hired the irrepressible Ozzie Guillen as manager.

It’s a new day in Miami. A franchise that has won 88 games just twice in its 19 seasons2 was on the cover of the March 5 issue of Sports Illustrated, with the caption “MARLINSANITY?” overlaid on a photo of Guillen and Reyes. The implication is clear: The NL East has a new, rising power. The Phillies are aging, the Braves are underachieving and run with a corporate ethos that values profits over winning, and an aggressive young team is about to make its mark.

And it’s true: There is a franchise in the NL East that has a chance to shake off years of mediocrity by contending in 2012. But it’s not the Marlins.

It’s the Washington Nationals.

There are a number of reasons why the Nationals have the better shot at making the playoffs this season, but the most important reason may be the easiest to overlook. The Nationals have less ground to make up. The Nats went 80-81 last season; the Marlins were 72-90. The two teams had equally productive offenses — the Marlins scored 625 runs, the Nationals 624 — but Washington allowed 59 fewer runs than Miami, 643 to 702. For as much noise as the Marlins made on the free agent market this winter, they had to add a superstar player just to make up the 58-run gap between the two teams in 2011.

The Marlins did just that, of course; when healthy, Reyes is one of the three best shortstops in baseball. Signing Reyes also allowed the Marlins to move Hanley Ramirez to third base, potentially upgrading the defense at two positions. Ramirez had a lost 2011, hitting .243/.333/.379 while dealing with a shoulder strain that limited him to 92 games. If his body holds up, Ramirez should rebound offensively and put more runs on the scoreboard.

Reyes is coming off his best season (.337/.384/.493), but he hit a more pedestrian .282/.321/.428 in 2010. Split the difference; Reyes was worth about eight Wins Above Replacement over the last two years combined, so adding him to the Marlins’ roster should be worth about four wins. Figuring on a three-win improvement from Ramirez, we can reasonably expect the Marlins to improve by about seven wins from those two positions alone.

Which just gets them to where the Nationals were last season.

While the Nationals didn’t match the Marlins’ bold move to add offense this winter, they quietly made improvements in other areas. Let’s break down the other reasons why the Nationals, despite garnering a fraction of the attention that the Marlins have, are poised to outperform them.

The New Starters

The Marlins apparently decided that the missing ingredient for their rotation was a dash of that winning Chicago tradition. Not only did they sign the White Sox’s winningest pitcher of the last 20 years (Buehrle), they also traded for the Cubs‘ winningest pitcher of the last 20 years, Carlos Zambrano.

Buehrle is not as consistent as an atomic clock, but only barely. He has thrown more than 200 innings for 11 straight seasons, and despite a fastball that rarely breaks 87, and despite a strikeout rate that in recent years has remained below five per nine innings, Buehrle has always been an above-average starter. It helps that he has an uncanny knack for the double-play ball, that he’s a phenomenal fielder (three Gold Gloves), and that he’s one of the most difficult pitchers in baseball to steal off of. (In his entire career, opposing base runners have swiped only 49 bases. They’ve been caught 68 times. He also picks off seven or eight runners a year.)

With all that, Buehrle’s career ERA is 3.83. He has never had an ERA under 3 in his career. He turns 33 years old this month. The Marlins bought themselves a nice no. 2 starter — they didn’t acquire an ace.

Meanwhile, the Nationals acquired their own left-handed starter this winter, trading four prospects to Oakland for Gio Gonzalez. The price tag was steep — A.J. Cole and Derek Norris both made Keith Law’s Top 100 Prospects list, and Brad Peacock also got consideration — but Gonzalez gives the Nats’ rotation an immediate jolt. Other than being left-handed, Gonzalez shares almost nothing in common with Buehrle.

While Buehrle relies on his defense, Gonzalez’s modus operandi is to try to get strike three before he reaches ball four. Despite a lot of the latter — Gonzalez led the AL with 91 walks last year — his low-90s fastball and hellacious curveball guarantee a lot of the former as well. Gonzalez had a 3.12 ERA last season — equaling Buehrle’s career best — and a 3.23 ERA in 2010. He’s only 26 years old. While he will undoubtedly miss the vast dimensions at Coliseum, he (like Buehrle) won’t miss the DH or the AL’s superior talent. Given the age gap, it’s not unreasonable to expect that Gonzalez will help the Nationals at least as much as Buehrle will help Miami.

The Marlins also traded for Zambrano, who had burned so many bridges in Chicago that he left Lake Michigan on fire. Like Buehrle, Zambrano has been a very good pitcher for a very long time, and like Buehrle, his best days are probably behind him. It’s not coincidental that the Cubs finally reached their wit’s end with Zambrano last season; after never having an ERA above 4 in his career, Big Z had a 4.82 ERA in 2011, and his strikeout rate dropped nearly 25 percent.

In some ways, it’s a miracle Zambrano has lasted this long, given that he was a member of the 2003 Cubs’ rotation. On his way to getting his team five outs away from a World Series, manager Dusty Baker worked his pitchers’ arms in a manner that almost certainly violated labor laws and possibly the Geneva Convention. Kerry Wood wound up in the bullpen two years later, and Mark Prior’s arm literally exploded on the mound in a pyrotechnic display of flesh and sinew.3 Zambrano managed to avoid his teammates’ woes, but the grind of so many innings at a young age seems to have finally caught up with him — he hasn’t pitched 200 innings in a season since 2007, and hasn’t thrown even 150 innings since 2009.

In order to get the Cubs to pick up almost all of Zambrano’s salary, the Marlins agreed to send Chris Volstad to Chicago. Volstad lacks Zambrano’s velocity and his panache, but he threw more innings than Zambrano did last year, with an ERA (4.89) that was almost identical. Zambrano’s an upgrade on Volstad, but the improvement isn’t as large as the Marlins think.

While the Nationals called Buehrle with Gonzalez, they raised on Zambrano by signing free agent Edwin Jackson to a one-year deal. Jackson was, quite simply, the bargain of the offseason. The former wunderkind (Jackson made his major league debut on his 20th birthday, beating Randy Johnson) took years to harness his stuff, but over the last three seasons he has averaged 208 innings with a 3.96 ERA. He’s only 28 years old, and still has knockout stuff on the mound. Jackson turned down a three-year, $30 million deal with the Pirates to sign with the Nationals for one season, betting that a breakout season will lead him to greater riches next winter. Even sans breakout, he should be good for 200 innings and an above-average ERA, two things the Marlins can’t count on from Zambrano.

Finally, what was largely lost in the Marlins’ talent grab for their rotation is that while they added Buehrle and Zambrano, they also lost Javier Vazquez, who retired this offseason at the age of 35. Vazquez had a 3.69 ERA in 193 innings for Florida last year, with a strikeout-to-unintentional-walk ratio of nearly 4-to-1. Vazquez was arguably the best starter in the majors from mid-June on; he had a 1.85 ERA after June 16. Buehrle and Zambrano figure to replace him in quantity; they might struggle to do so in quality.

Meanwhile, the big loss to the Nationals rotation is Livan Hernandez, the ageless innings sponge who won a world championship with the Marlins in 1997 and has cheerfully provided teams with copious amounts of mediocre pitching ever since. Advantage: Washington.

The Returning Ace

Much of the excitement in Miami stems from the fact that Josh Johnson, the team’s ace, seems to be fully healthy after missing most of 2011 with shoulder issues.

When healthy, Johnson is one of the best pitchers in baseball. He led the NL with a 2.30 ERA in 2010, and had a 1.64 ERA in nine starts last season before he had to be shut down in mid-May. It’s just that he’s rarely healthy. Johnson also missed the last month of the 2010 season with shoulder problems, and he missed most of 2007 and half of 2008 with elbow issues that eventually required Tommy John surgery. If Johnson can hold up for 200 innings this season, he’ll give the Marlins a big lift. That’s a big if.

Meanwhile, the Nationals have their own ace coming back from arm surgery. You may have heard of him: Stephen Strasburg. When Strasburg arrived in the majors in 2010, he accomplished the hardest thing for a phenom to do — he exceeded the hype. He struck out 14 batters in his debut, and finished with a remarkable 92 strikeouts in 68 innings before something went pop in his elbow.

Prior to that fateful pitch, Strasburg had never dealt with a significant arm issue. More important, he returned from Tommy John surgery as good as new, if not better. Despite being handled with kid gloves upon his return last year, Strasburg made five starts for the Nationals in September, and in 24 innings he allowed just 15 hits and two walks, while striking out 24. If that’s what Strasburg can do when he’s less than fully recovered, the Nationals can’t wait to see what he does now that he’s 18 months out from surgery.

Strasburg figures to give Washington as much of a lift as Johnson will give Miami. But the Nationals’ ace last season was another recovering Tommy John survivor. Jordan Zimmermann went under the knife in August 2009, and he made it back in time to make seven starts for the Nationals in 2010. Last season he stayed healthy all season, and gave Washington a 3.18 ERA and a 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. With nothing to play for, the Nationals were extremely conservative with Zimmermann, allowing him to make only 26 starts and throw only 161 innings. Look for those numbers to be around 33 and 200 this season. The combination of Strasburg and Zimmermann gives Washington a duo at the top of their rotation that the Marlins can’t match. Few teams can.

The Bullpen

Miami guaranteed Heath Bell $27 million for the next three years, and in doing so they violated one of the cardinal rules of fantasy — and real — baseball: They chased saves.

Bell certainly has them — he racked up 132 of them over the last three years. And since joining the Padres in 2007, Bell has averaged 75 innings and a 2.53 ERA. But that’s just it — he was pitching for the Padres, playing half his games in Petco Park, the 21st-century version of the old Astrodome, where fly balls go to die.

For his career, Bell’s ERA on the road (3.61) is more than a point higher than at home (2.56). Moreover, last season Bell’s strikeout rate fell precipitously, from 11.1 Ks per 9 innings in 2010 to 7.3 Ks per 9 innings. Other teams were so leery of Bell that the Padres could not find a trade market for him at the July deadline, opting to trade setup man Mike Adams instead. The Marlins gave Bell a three-year contract because of all those saves, but they might find that the performance that led to all those saves got left behind in San Diego.

The Marlins need Bell to pitch at an elite level because the rest of their bullpen is weak at best. It doesn’t help that last year’s closer, the pitcher formerly known as Leo Nunez, is in immigration limbo after it became known that his real name is Juan Oviedo and that he’s a year older than he claimed to be. Recent reports say he will resolve his status within a few days, but even so, it’s hard to imagine this problem not becoming a distraction for the Marlins.

The Nationals didn’t need to add a reliever this winter. Drew Storen, just 23 years old last season, locked up the closer’s role with a 2.75 ERA and barely a base runner per inning, and Tyler Clippard had another fantastic year as a setup man; he had a 1.83 ERA and struck out 104 batters in relief. (Clippard is the only reliever in baseball to strike out 100 batters each of the last two seasons.) But they did anyway, inking former closer Brad Lidge to a low-risk, high-reward deal that guarantees Lidge just $1 million. If the Nats got the Lidge who posted a 2.49 ERA for the Phillies the last two years — albeit in just 65 innings — they have a cheap asset that lengthens their bullpen. If they got the nightmare Lidge from 2009 (7.21 ERA), they can cut him painlessly.

The Manager

I have nothing bad to say about Ozzie Guillen, and not only because he has the inclination and the Twitter podium to respond with disproportionate force. He is the only man to guide a Chicago team to a world championship in the last 100 years, and that deserves respect. He does a terrific job of handling a pitching staff, and seems to know how to needle his players enough to keep them on edge but not so much that he alienates them.

That said, Davey Johnson is one of the most successful managers of the last 30 years. When Johnson got his first job, at the helm of the New York Mets in 1984, the Mets were coming off a 68-94 record — and that was their best record since 1976. In Johnson’s first season, the Mets won 90 games. They won 98 the following year, then 108 games and a world championship the year after that. They averaged 93 wins from 1987 to 1989, falling one game short of the World Series in 1988. But in 1990, Johnson was fired for having the audacity to start the season 20-22.

By 1993, the Mets had the worst record in baseball.

That was the same year Johnson was hired in Cincinnati, where he replaced Tony Perez mid-season. The Reds finished 73-89, but in 1994 they were 66-48 and led the NL Central when the strike wiped out the season. In 1995, they again finished first and advanced to the NLCS, but owner Marge Schott had already announced that Johnson would be let go after the season. Johnson moved on to Baltimore, and the Reds wouldn’t make the playoffs again for 15 years.

In his first season with the Orioles, the team won the AL wild card, making their first playoff appearance in 13 years. In Johnson’s second season, the Orioles won 98 games and the AL East. But — stop me if you’re heard this before — Johnson didn’t get along with team owner Peter Angelos, and he resigned after the 1997 season, on the same day he won AL Manager of the Year honors. Since Johnson left — stop me if you’ve heard this before — the Orioles have had 14 consecutive losing seasons.

Johnson’s final stop was L.A.; after finishing 77-85 in 1999 — his first full losing season ever — he guided the Dodgers to an 86-76 record in 2000. And then lost his job.

Despite an almost eerie track record of success, Johnson hadn’t managed in over a decade, partly because he was burned out from the day-to-day stress of the job, and partly because he was as bad at getting along with his superiors as he was good at managing the guys underneath him. Being unable to kowtow to Marge Schott or Peter Angelos could happen to any of us, though. The Nationals finally brought Johnson back after Jim Riggleman committed seppuku on his own managerial career last June, and the Nationals finished a respectable 40-43 under Johnson.

With the chance to run the Nationals from the first day of spring training, and with the new talent that the Nationals have added, Johnson figures to replicate his previous success this year. Particularly since he may soon be able to call on …

The Wild Card

When the Mets hired Johnson in 1984, his job was made considerably easier by a pitching prospect who had spent all of 1983 in A-ball, striking out 300 batters in 191 innings. The kid was so impressive in camp that Johnson insisted he make the Opening Day roster.

The kid was a 19-year-old Dwight Gooden, and in 1984 he was Rookie of the Year, striking out 276 batters in 218 innings. In 1985 he won the Cy Young Award, going 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA, the lowest ERA in the majors since the strike zone was redefined in 1969.

The Nationals don’t have Dwight Gooden in their farm system, but they do have Bryce Harper, the no. 1 overall pick in 2010. The most-hyped high school hitter of all time — Harper was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was 16 years old — Harper hit .318/.423/.554 in A-ball last year. He struggled a little after a promotion to Double-A, hitting .256/.329/.395 in a brief audition, but the simple fact that he was in Double-A at the age of 18 is astounding.

As a pure hitter, Harper compares with the two greatest no. 1 picks ever — Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. Harper is 19 years old; when Griffey was 19, he debuted with the Mariners and hit a respectable .264/.329/.420. Rodriguez debuted briefly when he was 18, but spent most of his age-19 season in the minors — he hit .232/.264/.408 in 48 games in the major leagues.

But here’s the thing: At 20, Griffey hit .300/.366/.481, won a Gold Glove, and made the All-Star team. When Rodriguez was 20, he hit .358/.414/.631 and was probably the best player in baseball.4 Maybe it’s too much to expect Harper’s bat to develop even faster than the phenoms who preceded him. But Griffey and Rodriguez make it clear that a truly historic talent can be one of the best hitters in baseball before he can legally drink.

Before spring training, Johnson made it clear that he wanted to break camp with Harper in his outfield. While he won’t get his wish — the Nationals sent Harper to Triple-A on Sunday, as delaying his free agency by a year is worth giving him another month or two in the minors — Johnson probably won’t have to wait long. By the middle of the season, Harper could be one of the best hitters in the Nationals’ lineup. The Marlins’ no. 1 prospect, meanwhile, is Christian Yelich, a fine young outfielder who isn’t going to see the light of day this season.

The Nationals haven’t qualified for the postseason since 1981, 31 years and an international border ago, the longest playoff drought in the four major sports. Particularly with the addition of a second wild card, it seems likely that Washington’s drought will finally end this year. The Marlins have the new ballpark, the new image, the new manager, the new superstar, and the new buzz. All the Nationals have is the better team.

Filed Under: Bryce Harper, People, Stephen Strasburg, Teams, Washington Nationals

Rany Jazayerli runs the Rany on the Royals website. He is one of the founders of Baseball Prospectus, and works as a dermatologist in suburban Chicago.

Archive @ jazayerli