Maybe Medlen will be the starter he was last year. Maybe Dan Haren bounces back. Maybe Dan Uggla hits for a higher average. Maybe LaRoche will match his career high in homers again. Maybe Teheran taps into his potential. Maybe it doesn't matter that there is a lefty deficiency in the Nats' bullpen. My point is, these are two great teams that still have question marks.However, the big, all-important unknown when comparing these teams is how will each shortstop fare in 2013?
Shortstop is the most demanding fielding position, and both teams must be happy with their respective shortstops. Ian Desmond undoubtedly had a career year in 2012. Andrelton Simmons set the world on fire when he was called up in June. The problems are that Desmond's season came out of nowhere and is a prime candidate to fall back to earth, while Simmons' year was shortened by a freak injury and not much track record in the minors of really setting the world on fire with his bat. Maybe Desmond's new power approach is permanent. Maybe Simmons is truly the best fielding shortstop in the majors that comes with a league average bat. We won't know until the year is over.
Atlanta and Washington may have different approaches in pitching style, but they actually had similar results. The Nats are surely a power staff from top to bottom. The Braves have more of a fineness approach with the 5th highest groundball rate. The Nats stuck out more guys, but the Braves walked fewer. The amount of balls in play were nearly the same and both at league average, according to FanGraphs. Both teams posted the exact same xFIP at 3.80. Lots of plays will go to shortstop this year for both teams, so it's vital to consider each player's defensive contributions over the course of the season. Both UZR and DRS showed Desmond as a negative fielder for his entire career until both saw him as a positive fielder in 2012. Positive corroboration is good news for the Nats, but it's hard to believe a SS can permanently become Omar Vizquel on the field after being Derek Jeter for three years. When Simmons is on the field, the Braves have a definitive advantage. Gone are the days when Tim Hudson had a personal SS in Jack Wilson to give him more defensive support. Scouts and metrics will tell you Simmons is elite on the diamond. No injury history in the minors is good news for the Braves, and his impact should be impressive.
Let's just assume Desmond is a league average fielder. What we can't assume is that he'll repeat his excellent season at the plate. After being a patient, high strikeout guy with good BABIP and power in the minors, Desmond saw growing pains in the show with the same high strikeout totals, but much less walks and weaker contact. That's to be expected. What's not to be expected is suddenly posting career highs for your entire professional career by a wide margin in homers and Isolated power. He moved down in the lineup after hitting at the top for nearly all of his career and his production exploded. He started hitting only slightly more flyballs than normal, but with much, much better results of HR/FB. This leads me to believe a better approach was more permanent than some might expect. He's changing his swing after not being expected to be just another low-walk, high-contact middle infielder that hits at the top of the order (exactly what Simmons is expected to be, btw). Desmond has shown he can make good contact in the minors with high averages, but never this many homers. I think Desmond proves to have another great year at the plate but not 25 homers again after only hitting 22 previously in his entire career. 18 homers sounds realistic.
If Desmond turns into a pumpkin, the Braves will be in great shape. I don't think he will, so Simmons needs to play 150 games, be an elite fielder, and put up an OPS above .700 for Atlanta to be able to pass the Nats. I don't think the WBC will affect him, so I think he'll play 150+. No doubt in my mind he'll be elite defensively. Desmond has some doubts about his defense and his power making an encore in 2013, but Simmons' production with the bat is a big question mark. He's only 23, with less than two seasons in the minors with not much history for patience and power. This means there could be long slumps that could be broken or endured with short hops and bloop hits. Pitchers challenged Simmons with a higher fastball rate than the league average. The Braves have a potent lineup, so hopefully he'll continue to see fastballs and be able to keep a high average. Simmons will see his peaks and valleys this season, but he should have a somewhat league average OPS. The MLB average was .724 last year, so anything above .700 and he's successful in my book. It's optimistic to lead him off on Opening Day, but maybe he'll see more fastballs that way, so it's worth trying. Simmons is a mature player. He was unfazed by his call-up and showed he is an excellent ballplayer. If he only ends up hitting near league average for a full season like I expect, he'll be a 5-6 WAR player.
I think both teams improved this offseason, but in order to win they'll need big production from their shortstops. These are two very different players, but both have great potential heading into 2013. Just as important. both shortstops have question marks looming over 2013. If one falls, while the other makes strides, it will make the difference in what should be a highly competitive NL East race.