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Nationals progress, predicting success

By Ryan Korby

The good news is that the Washington Nationals have already topped their 2009 win total. The bad news is that some are claiming that as a sign of progress. Following two straight 59-win seasons, being on the good side of the 60 win mark is bittersweet, like finding out you only need two wisdom teeth pulled. If the Nats continue at their current pace, they’ll win 67 games this season.

The picture gets rosier if we look at Bill James’ Pythagorean winning percentage which is just a complicated way to say “what a team’s record should be based on runs scored and runs allowed.” Based on this statistic, Washington is playing at a level where they should win 71 games this season. The margin or error for this statistic is about four games, so the Nats have been on the slightly unlucky side, but not on a “this team is cursed” level.

Whether the Nationals were to finish with 67 or 71 wins or not another victory this season, the final win-loss columns would show that they were improved, but that’s where things start to get depressing. Let’s say they finish with 67 wins and match that improvement in each of the following two seasons. They’ll still only be an 83-win team in 2012, barely over .500 and most likely not in contention for the playoffs.

I’d suspect the Nats brass believes this improvement can be sustainable according to their "Plan". The level of talent at the minor league level is better than it was just a few years ago, and it will be fun to watch the progression of the young players like Ian Desmond, Roger Bernadina, and Danny Espinosa at the major league level.

The problem with improving at the major league level is that every other team is striving just as hard at that goal. A few organizational missteps can bring the whole thing crashing down just as fast as the club was built.

Look at the Seattle Mariners. In 2009, the Mariners won 85 games, a 24 game improvement and the biggest swing in the majors that year. This year it’s been 2008 all over again as Seattle has yet to win their 60th game. The question is, were the Mariners really that much better in 2009? Are the Nats really any better than they were last year, or is the change in winning percentage just a matter of variability?

Even the appearance of exciting, young players can be fool’s gold. The 2007 Pittsburgh Pirates (yes, the Pirates) were not unlike this year’s edition of the Nationals. They had some talented young pitchers like Matt Capps, Tom Gorzelanny, and Ian Snell and some young to youngish guys who had good years at the plate like Adam LaRoche, Ryan Doumit, and Nate McLouth. They also had Jason Bay who had received some MVP votes the past couple of years. At the time, an optimistic fan might think the Pirates could be a competitive team. A cynic would at least concede that chances are that one, maybe two of those guys would turn into something special. The thing is, they’re mostly just guys now, and only Doumit is still with the Pirates. The team is also back at the bottom of the standings. The Nationals just as easily could go either way.

By Box Seats blogger  | September 21, 2010; 9:58 AM ET
Categories:  Nationals, Ryan Korby  | Tags:  Washington Nationals  
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