I’m one of the guys who confidently went down this road last year. In the end, the result was me kicking myself for daring to be so confident.

I’m ready to try it again anyway. I’m ready to say it: The Washington Nationals once again look like World Series favorites. They were already good, and they’ve made themselves better.

Yeah, I know. It’s early. Many rosters are still in shambles, and there’s still time for other top World Series contenders to make moves. The case I’m about to present is slightly premature.

And no, it hasn’t been a particularly busy winter for the Nationals. His first big move of the offseason was to hire Matt Williams to take Davey Johnson’s place as the club’s manager, but Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo has since made only one impact move.

That does not mean, however, the Nationals haven’t upgraded. 

Per MLB.com, the Nats have added Doug Fister, Nate McLouth and Jerry Blevins and subtracted Dan Haren, Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol, Fernando Abad and Mark Lowe. Per FanGraphs version of the stat, the Nats have added much more 2013 WAR than they’ve lost:

That’s a 6.9-WAR swing in the right direction, so the moves the Nats made look like upgrades simply when taken as a whole.

Considered individually, though, they look like even bigger upgrades.

None more so than the switch from Haren to Fister, in which the Nats might as well have switched out Pete Best for Ringo Starr. This much is evident if we compare what the two have done recently:

Fister has been an elite pitcher, as his 2012-2013 WAR ranks in the top 15 among starters. Go back even further and look at the last three seasons, and Fister‘s been a top-10 starter.

In other words, the Nats aren’t putting their trust in another reclamation project this time. And not surprisingly, Steamer is projecting Fister to have a better season than the one the Nats just got from Haren. Via FanGraphs:

These numbers look good enough, but worth noting is that Steamer projections tend to be conservative. Fister has done better than a 3.3 WAR in each of the last three seasons. He’s at least as likely to outperform his Steamer projections as he is to meet them.

Nats starters finished seventh in ERA and tied for seventh in WAR in 2013 with Haren’s mediocrity. That was thanks in large part to Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, who combined for a 3.21 ERA. If they stay the course and Fister holds up his end of the bargain, the Nats will have a top-five, top-three or the top rotation in baseball.

You know, sort of like they did in 2012.

Now to the next upgrade, which concerns what the addition of McLouth means for Washington’s bench.

Outfield depth never looked like a strength heading into the 2013 season, and it ended up biting the Nats. They missed a lot of offense when Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth were out with injuries, and their reserves couldn’t pick up the slack.

Compared to the reserve outfielders the Nats worked with last year, adding McLouth‘s bat is huge:

*Nationals numbers only.

Now, barring another wave of injuries, McLouth is very likely to have fewer plate appearances coming his way in 2014. And as solid as his overall numbers for 2013 look, he did fade in the second half.

However, Steamer still sees McLouth‘s offense being solid. The 93 wRC+ projected for him would do nicely relative to what the Nats got from their reserves in 2013.

As for Blevins, he’s a puzzle piece that the Nationals lacked for much of 2013, as they broke camp without a clear left-handed relief option. With Blevins around, they won’t be doing so again.

While he did have reverse splits in 2013, Blevins’ career numbers vs. lefty batters are quite good:

Blevins isn’t totally out of his depth against righty batters either, holding them to a .240/.326/.385 slash line for his career. Rizzo is aware of this.

“Blevins can pitch a full inning, he can pitch against right-handed hitters and left-handed hitters. He has pitched four outs, so we feel good about that part,” the Nats GM told MLB.com.

We may only be talking about three moves, but we’re talking about three big moves. The acquisitions of Fister and McLouth will bolster two areas that really hurt the Nats in 2013. While the Blevins acquisition is less important, it should stabilize an area where there had been little stability.

Maybe you’re still sitting there thinking, “Is that it?” If you are…Well, yeah. That’s it. It’s not like the Nationals needed to go out and overhaul their entire roster, you know.

While it was a disappointing season, Washington’s 2013 season wasn’t a disaster. The Nats won 86 games, and they did so despite Murphy’s Law hitting them from every which direction. 

Harper’s injury woes were easily the biggest blow. He had a 1.150 OPS and nine home runs through the end of April. Then he got hurt in early May when he collided with a wall in Atlanta, collided with another wall soon after, and that was pretty much all she wrote.

On top of that, the Nats got virtually nothing out of Adam LaRoche, and had to make do at catcher and second base for much of the season.

Things should be better in 2014, as left field, first base, catcher and second base are four areas where Steamer sees the Nats getting a lot more production:

Basically: Harper, as expected, is going to be Washington’s best player, LaRoche won’t be a disaster, and Wilson Ramos and Anthony Rendon are going to establish themselves as above-average regulars. All around, the Nats are projected to have quality regulars at every position.

And while it can’t be ignored that Steamer sees Span, Werth and Ian Desmond taking big steps back while everyone else takes forward steps, here’s a reminder: Steamer projections are conservative. In light of their track records, those three players should be able to outperform their projections.

Even despite the modest projections, Washington’s offense as a whole is projected to be better than the up-and-down unit of 2013. The Nats got a total of 18.9 WAR out of their hitters this past season. Add up the Steamer projections for 2014, and you get a total of 20.2 WAR.

All told, I leave you with this: think of the Red Sox.

The Red Sox had a Murphy’s Law season of their own in 2012, losing over 90 games thanks to injuries, poor performances and bad vibes from start to finish. But there was plenty of talent on their roster, and they used the offseason to put talent where there wasn’t any.

The Nationals, who won a league-high 98 games in 2012, fit the same mold. The poor season they suffered through in 2013 should not obscure the fact that they entered the winter with plenty of incumbent talent, and they’ve shored up noticeably weak areas by bringing in more talent.

Williams may be a rookie manager, but he’s not being thrust into a situation where he’ll have to do a lot with little. What was a weak offense should be better. What was already a very strong rotation should also be better. What was a decent bullpen (3.56 ERA) should, at the least, continue to be decent. 

The result should be the Nationals posing a serious threat to the reigning NL East champion Atlanta Braves, whose offseason has thus far been defined by the loss of Brian McCann. And if the Nats make it to the playoffs, their starting foursome of Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann and Fister will allow them to match up with anybody.

And as things stand now, the other top World Series contenders just don’t look better now than they did before.

The Red Sox and Dodgers have been largely quiet. The Tigers have been busy, but have been busy rearranging talent rather than adding talent. There’s a good case to be made for the Cardinals after adding Peter Bourjos and Jhonny Peralta, but their fate will hinge largely on their 2013 rookies avoiding sophomore slumps.

There’s a lot of offseason left. Teams are going to continue to rise and fall in the on-paper rankings. But from where I’m sitting right now, the Nationals are looking awfully good.

And this time, I’m really confident.

[Puts hand behind back, crosses fingers.]


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.


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