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A healthy Stephen Strasburg is the biggest reason the Nats will improve in 2012.
How much better? Ah, glad you asked. I'm about to do something I don't often do: Delve into sabermetrics. Specifically the all-everything stat known as WAR (Wins Above Replacement).
For the uninitiated, WAR attempts to quantify how many wins a particular player can add to his team beyond what a faceless, Class AAA call-up would produce himself. It's by no means a perfect stat, because it's calculated through all kinds of secret formulas people like you and me can't figure out on our own (unlike, say, on-base percentage or ERA). There is also more than one formula for WAR: one devised by baseball-reference.com and one devised by fangraphs.com (the latter of which gives more weight to defense).
But if nothing else, it's a fun way to try to project how much a team has or has not improved from one season to the next, so let's take a look not only at Gonzalez's impact on the Nationals but the overall impact of other expected changes from 2011 to 2012.
Surprisingly -- or perhaps not surprisingly to those who are against the trade -- Gonzalez alone shouldn't have a huge impact on the Nationals' won-loss record. He's projected to post a WAR next season of 3.1. (In other words, he'll account for roughly three more wins than a replacement-level pitcher would.)
But you also have to account for what the Nationals already received from that rotation spot this season. For these purposes, let's say Gonzalez is replacing Livan Hernandez. Livo's WAR this year was 1.9. So the net effect of Gonzalez instead of Hernandez is 1.2 wins.
It may not sound like a lot, but as you'll see, these things add up quickly when you lump a bunch of players together.
Truth be told, there are two big reasons to believe the 2012 Nationals will be significantly improved from the 2011 Nationals: Ryan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg returning to full health.
Strasburg's ability to pitch five months next year instead of only one month makes a huge difference. In only five September starts, he managed to produce a 1.1 WAR. That's pretty staggering. Extrapolate that out to the 25 or so starts he should make next season, and now Strasburg's WAR skyrockets to 5.5. Of course, he'll be replacing someone from last year's rotation (let's say Jason Marquis, who had a 1.6 WAR). Still, a net WAR of 3.9 is substantial, and the Nationals will happily take that.
Just as a healthy Strasburg will have a significant impact on the Nationals, a healthy Zimmerman for all of 2012 would pay off major dividends. After missing 2 1/2 months with an abdominal tear and then struggling to get his swing (and throwing motion) back, Zimmerman posted a disappointing 2.5 WAR in 2011, down from 7.2 the previous season. Fangraphs doesn't project Zim to get all the way back up to that level but still believes he'll produce 5.9 wins in 2012. Subtract the 0.4 WAR Jerry Hairston produced while filling in at third base, and you get a net addition of 3.0 wins next season.
(Anybody still with me here? Don't worry, we're almost done.)
There are more reasons to believe the Nationals will be better in 2012 than they were in 2011. Jayson Werth's WAR during a bad year was only 2.5; he's projected to revert to form and raise that number to 4.6 (a net gain of 2.1).
Adam LaRoche was actually worse than the mythical "Replacement Player" with a -0.2 WAR during the two months he played. If he returns to the typical form he's displayed throughout his career, he'll produce a WAR of roughly 2.3 next year. Take away the 1.0 WAR the Nationals got out of their revolving door of left fielders -- LaRoche ostensibly takes their place with Michael Morse moving from first base to left field -- and LaRoche gives the Nats a net gain of 1.5.
OK, time to add this all up. Here's the net gain the Nationals could expect simply from the addition of Gonzalez, the return to health of Strasburg, Zimmerman and LaRoche and the return to form of Werth...
PLAYER NET WAR
So, yeah, I just tried to create a statistical argument that the Nationals will win 11.7 more games next year even if they don't make another move this winter. Obviously that sounds far-fetched, and this is purely theoretical (and also assumes that all of these players will stay healthy and that everyone else on the roster will both stay healthy and produce to the same level they did this season).
I'm a big believer in the idea that ballplayers are not computers. They're human beings, and all sorts of factors account for their performances, many of them unquantifiable.
So the point isn't to declare the Nationals are guaranteed to go 91-71 in 2012. The point is to show that this already figured to be an improved team next season, and the Gonzalez trade will help improve it slightly more.
Should Rizzo rest on his laurels and be content with the roster as it currently stands? No. There's still the issue of center field. There is still a bench to overhaul. And there's still a bullpen to sort out.
But even if you're skeptical about the Gonzalez deal, you shouldn't be too skeptical about the Nationals' ability to take another significant step forward in 2012.