With Cespedes, the Mets Hold a Slight Edge in the National League East

Although public perception might lead you to believe that the Mets are clear favorites in the National League East, the reality is that we should be prepared for a tight race all year.

The biggest battle in the high stakes arms race in the National League East between the Mets and the Nationals just ended, with the Mets scoring a decisive victory: securing the return of Yoenis Cespedes to Flushing for the 2016 season.

According to reports, the Mets and Nationals were the last two teams “in” on Cespedes as the bidding came down to the wire. The Nationals reportedly offered around $110 million for a five-year contract, with some of that money deferred. The Mets winning bid ended up being much less in total dollars, only $75 million, but over three years, none of it deferred, with an opt-out for Cespedes after the first year.

The reacquisition of Cespedes dramatically alters the balance of power in the NL East for the upcoming season. Instead of the Nationals having a slight advantage (my position before Cespedes signed), it is now the Mets that enter 2016 as my favorites.

Among starting position players, ZiPS appears to have the Mets leading by about two games after adding in Cespedes. Factor in the Mets additional position player depth (platoons + preparedness for injuries) and I think Mets +2/+3 is a good forecast.

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If you were to listen to the media and to fan sentiment, you would think that the Mets were heavy favorites to win the National League East in 2016 even prior to signing Cespedes. As just one example, Rising Apple had a piece entitled “Mets are still better than the Nationals” a few weeks ago. Ten days ago, I ran this (clearly unrepresentative) poll on Twitter:

However, betting sites had the Mets and the Nationals even with one another in World Series odds, and Fangraphs Steamer projections very famously had the Nationals projected five games better than the Mets before Cespedes (and Bastardo). Collapse aside, the Nationals had a similar pythagorean record to the Mets last year and actually had a better record by Baseball Prospectus’s 3rd Order Win Percentage.

But that was then, this is now. The Nationals lost Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond and Drew Storen, while the Mets reacquired Cespedes, graduated a few players to the major leagues, and added an amazing amount of depth. So where are we now?

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Some Systems Still Favor the Nationals

You may be surprised to know that even with the addition of Cespedes, Steamer still projects the Nationals to finish ahead of the Mets in 2016:

mets nats 2016 proj steamer.png

You can ignore the win totals, as projections systems will regress teams toward .500 — but you can pay attention to the order in which the teams are projected to finish. Nationals first, Mets second (with a wildcard).

Steamer is just one projection system, so I’ll be discussing my favorite one, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS. For the record, I used Szymborski’s ZiPS projections for a series of articles last year when #MarlinsTakeover hysteria was at it’s peak. I guaranteed the Mets would finish ahead of those Marlins and, to say that prediction was correct would be an understatement.

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ZiPS Projections for Hitters: Advantage Mets

Let’s take a quick look at the ZiPS projections for each team, in the same manner as last year, first without comment.

Obviously, a few things have already changed, and I am obligated to include all of the ZiPS disclaimers (e.g. ZiPS projections depend on playing time estimates; shouldn’t be used to compare teams, etc., you can read all about it here). But a quick and dirty estimate looks like this.

The top ten Nationals position players should total around 22 WAR — accounting for the fact that Trea Turner will be called up at some reasonable point, etc. The top ten Mets position players ought to account for around 27 WAR, including Cespedes.

The key here is that the Nationals have more potential variance in their outcomes. Bryce Harper is only projected by ZiPS for a 6.9 WAR season, although last year he ended at 9.5. Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth are only projected for 1.4 WAR combined, although as recently as 2014 they combined for almost 7 WAR. Werth is 36, but Zimmerman is only 31, so it is possible that they (and Anthony Rendon) have big rebounds.

The Mets lack the upside of Harper and Rendon, but have a much higher floor. Cespedes is projected for 4.4 WAR, although last year he posted 6.7. David Wright and Travis d’Arnaud are projected for 5.2 WAR combined, although on a per-at-bat basis d’Arnaud could reach 4.5 WAR on his own in a full season.

Overall, offensively, the Mets have a much, much deeper team than Washington does. Even the 10th through 14th best offensive players for the Mets have positive projections along with the possibility for more, as players like Wilmer Flores (1.7 WAR), Kevin Plawecki (1.4 WAR) and Alejandro De Aza haven’t even factored into the above projections.  The Mets can also use that depth to play matchups — for instance, Neil Walker is only a .260/.317/.338 hitter against lefties, while Flores hit .310/.355/.600 (!!) against them last year.

In contrast, the Nationals are a wasteland beyond their top few stars, with Matt Den Dekker or Wilmer Difo a tweak away from starting every day. Although there is a chance that Washington may end up with a better starting eight in 2016 than the Mets, the much more likely outcome is that they do not.

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ZiPS Projections for Starters: No Edge

Coincidentally, we see much of the same on the pitching side of things: the Nationals have the brightest star in Max Scherzer with a supporting cast with a fairly wide range of outcomes compared to the Mets.

The Nationals actually have both of the best pitchers in the National League East according to ZiPS, in Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Until he gives up the mantle, Scherzer is the unquestioned #1 in the East. But where does Strasburg compare to the Mets Big Three of Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, and Noah Syndergaard?

nlep.JPG

Strasburg had the worst year of his career by ERA last season (a still-good 3.46 ERA), but he struggled with injuries in the first half. In the second half, he posted an eye-popping 12.48 K/9 along with a microscopic 1.09 BB/9. Put it all together and you’ve got a 11.5 K/BB ratio, .177 batting average against, and 1.90 ERA. I happen to believe in Strasburg, and think he’s primed to bounce back to his usual stellar self (~3.00 ERA, ~4 WAR) as does ZiPS. If he does, is that enough to topple the Mets rotation?

The Nationals are projected to receive 18 WAR from the above quintet, with contributions also from A.J. Cole, and Lucas Giolito (who ZiPS doesn’t love yet, projecting just 8.2 K/9 and an ERA around 4.00). The Mets are projected for 15 WAR from their initial quintet, but with a big lift from Zack Wheeler (1.5 WAR, 3.74 ERA) and palatable depth including Rafael Montero and Logan Verrett.

The problem with these projections, I believe Dan will tell you, is that the Mets starters are all projected for 179 innings or fewer. ZiPS doesn’t know about Tommy John, or innings limits, or anything else. In reality, if you were to expect that deGrom, Harvey, and Syndergaard will be close to 200 innings, and if Matz will be able to chip in another 160, that the Mets rotation will look much better than it does here.

Nonetheless, this comparison is probably too close to call. I believe it’s reasonable to give Washington the edge at this point because of Scherzer, Strasburg, and their depth. The Nationals have seven starters projected to be above league average, and have the brightest star of them all. But when healthy, no team can match the five starters the Mets will be trotting out there.

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ZiPS Projections for Bullpen: Advantage Nationals

Finally, we reach a section where the Mets, not the Nationals have the single best player: Mets closer Jeurys Familia. Even though Steamer doesn’t agree, ZiPS and the Fans Projection (and I) have Familia as one of the top closers in the league, with a high strikeout rate, killer ground-ball percentage, and low ERA.

Fortunately for the Mets, Familia is no longer the only viable option in the back-end of that pen. The Mets recently added Antonio Bastardo (3.35 ERA projection) to pair up with Addison Reed (3.55 ERA projection) along with a returning Jerry Blevins, Josh Edgin, emerging Hansel Robles (3.34 ERA), Sean Gilmartin and Jenrry Mejia in the second half.

The Nationals bullpen, however, still looks incredibly strong, as they’ve added Oliver Perez and Yusmeiro Petit to pair with Shawn Kelley, Blake Treinen, and Aaron Barrett to set-up Jonathan Papelbon. Make no mistake, the Nationals bullpen is excellent and is probably still better than the Mets, even despite the additions of Blevins and Bastardo.

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Overall

The ZiPS projections favor the Mets over the Nationals in 2016 by two or three wins, and I agree. I believe the Mets have a superior offense, superior depth, and a strong enough starting rotation to keep pace with the elite Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer, and lock-down bullpen of the Nationals. But I also believe that, even with Cespedes, this is a much closer race than people think.

The Nats should bounce back from a 2015 which could only be described as an epic disappointment. According to Baseball-Reference, Bryce Harper put up the 8th best season since 1990 last year, trailing only Barry Bonds, Cal Ripken, Mike Trout, Alex Rodriguez and Sammy Sosa, putting up 9.7 WAR when he was only projected to put up 4 WAR. Instead of rallying around him, the rest of the team choked — and then he got choked, by a teammate. A team hasn’t had that kind of amazing individual performance and failed to win at least 88 games since Larry Walker did so for Colorado in 1997.

But the Mets should be talented and deep enough to withstand a rejuvenated Nationals team. Thanks to all of their new additions — most notably Cespedes, Walker, and Asdrubal Cabrera — the Mets can put out a lineup every day which matches up favorably against the handedness of the opposing starter, and which can withstand a notable injury or two (looking at you, David Wright).

Anything can happen in a long season, but given neutral luck, Mets fans can say something that they haven’t said in a very long time: we are the favorites to win the Division, and even if we weren’t, we’d have an inside track on a wild card and return to the postseason. It’s a very good time to be a Mets fan.

Haphazard Projections!

  • Mets 92-70
  • Nationals 90-72
  • Marlins 80-82
  • Braves 71-91
  • Phillies 65-97

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Brian Mangan is an attorney living in New York City. 

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Mets ZiPS projections: http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/2016-zips-projections-new-york-mets/

Nationals ZiPS projections: http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/2016-zips-projections-washington-nationals/