"This is one of the best ballclubs I've ever had." --Davey Johnson, Tuesday at the winter meetings.
Now, Davey has managed some pretty good teams in his days, but there is only one "best" team on that list: the infamous 1986 New York Mets. That team won 108 games -- no National League team has won as many since -- and survived a rollicking postseason to win the World Series. With the signing of Dan Haren, the Washington Nationals' rotation is now set for 2013 and you get the idea that Davey is pretty excited about what his club can do in 2013 after winning 98 games last season.
So let's have a little fun and compare the Nats to one of the great teams in National League history.
Catcher: Gary Carter versus Wilson Ramos
In Carter's last good season, he was the vocal leader of the club, although he wasn't necessarily well-liked since he was viewed as a little prudish by his hard-partying teammates. He hit .255/.337/.439, but drove in 105 runs and finished third in the NL MVP voting. He wasn't really the third-best player in the league, but held down the cleanup spot in the lineup and managed the pitching staff. Edge to Mets, although if Ramos comes back from his injury, maybe not as large as you think.
First base: Keith Hernandez versus Mike Morse/Adam LaRoche
Hernandez was terrific in 1986 in his last great season. (Remember when players started declining after age 32?) He hit .310/.413/.446, led the league in in-game cigarette breaks and while he never had the big power you want from first base (13 home runs), he was second in the league in OBP and seventh in OPS. Throw in outstanding defense at first base and his 5.2 WAR ranked fifth among NL position players. The Nationals may or may not bring back LaRoche, but even if he's back and matches his 2012 numbers, Hernandez is the more valuable player due to his on-base skills and defense. Edge: Mets.
Second base: Wally Backman versus Danny Espinosa
Johnson platooned Backman -- who had no power but hit .320 that year with a .376 OBP -- and Tim Teufel, and the two combined for 3.4 WAR. Espinosa had the third-most strikeouts in the majors in 2012, but he has some power, steals a few bases and plays solid D. With a little improvement from Espinosa I'm inclined to call this one even.
Third base: Ray Knight versus Ryan Zimmerman
Knight had a nice season -- .298/.351/.424 -- but can't match Zimmerman's power. Zimmerman's back and shoulder issues have subtracted some of his defensive value the past couple of years, but this edge goes to the Nationals.
Shortstop: Rafael Santana versus Ian Desmond
Amazing stat: Kevin Mitchell started 20 games at shortstop for the Mets. Yes, there was a time when defense wasn't Johnson's No. 1 priority. Santana had a good glove but his bat had as much power as a wet paper towel, thus Johnson gave Mitchell and Howard Johnson 42 starts at shortstop. Edge: Nationals.
Left field: Mookie Wilson versus Jayson Werth
George Foster began the season as the regular left fielder but didn't hit and played left field about as well as Kevin Mitchell played shortstop. He was released in August. Mookie hit .289/.345/.430, stole 25 bases and had the range to play center. Werth was a 4-win player with the Phillies in 2009 and 2010 but hasn't matched that with the Nationals. A close call, but we can't assume Werth gets better and stays healthy for 150 games. Slight edge to Mets.
Center field: Lenny Dykstra versus Denard Span
In just under 500 plate appearances, Dykstra produced 4.5 WAR. Span is a pretty similar player to the pre-bulked-up Dykstra, although a tick lower in speed and on-base skills. Span's defensive metrics helped him generate a career-best 4.8 WAR in 2012. Slight edge to Mets.
Right field: Darryl Strawberry versus Bryce Harper
The 24-year-old Strawberry versus the 20-year-old Harper: Who do you have? Straw hit .259/.358/.507 with 27 home runs and 28 stolen bases in 136 games -- pretty big numbers for 1986, as he ranked second in the league in slugging percentage. I don't know if Harper will finish second in slugging, but he may hit 30 home runs and rates better than Strawberry in the field and on the bases. Edge: Nationals.
Mets: Kevin Mitchell, Tim Teufel, Howard Johnson, Danny Heep, Ed Hearn, Lee Mazzilli
Nationals: Roger Bernadina, Tyler Moore, Steve Lombardozzi, Chad Tracy, Kurt Suzuki
The Mets used their bench a lot and it was terrific. The rookie Mitchell played all over and had an .811 OPS in 364 PAs. Johnson played third and short and had a .787 OPS. Heep was the club's top pinch-hitter and filled in in the outfield and had a .377 OBP. The Nationals' bench could also be one of the best in the league, especially if Morse ends up here as a sort of super-utility guy (although it seems more likely that he'd be traded if LaRoche re-signs). Edge: Mets.
No. 1 starter: Dwight Gooden versus Stephen Strasburg
Let's match up the two young phenoms. Gooden, 21 years old in 1986, didn't match his historic 1985 numbers, but went 17-6, 2.84, ranking fifth in the NL in ERA and sixth in WAR among pitchers (4.2). Strasburg won't match Gooden's 250 innings but I think he can be a 5-WAR starter in 2013 as he throws around 200 innings. Edge: Nationals.
No. 2 starter: Bobby Ojeda versus Gio Gonzalez
The Mets stole Ojeda from the Red Sox before the 1986 seasons, for a few prospects, including a pitcher named Calvin Schiraldi. Ojeda had a career year in '86, going 18-5 with a 2.57 ERA over 217 innings. That was good for 4.5 WAR. Gonzalez in 2012: 4.5 WAR. Gonzalez's peripherals are a little better and his true talent level a little higher. Slight edge to Nationals.
No. 3 starter: Ron Darling versus Jordan Zimmermann
This would also prove to be the best year of Darling's career, as he went 15-6, 2.81 while throwing 237 innings. This one's pretty even as well: 4.3 WAR for Darling, 4.4 for Zimmermann in 2012. On a per-inning basis, Zimmermann was better, but there's a lot of value tied up in those extra 40 innings. Edge: Even.
No. 4 starter: Sid Fernandez versus Dan Haren
Fernandez's short-arm delivery and ability to hide the ball made him one of the most difficult pitchers to hit in baseball history, even though he didn't throw all that hard. Durability was always an issue for him, but he did throw 200 innings in '86, when he went 16-6, 3.52. Haren certainly has the ability to improve on his 2012 numbers if he's healthy, but he has to be considered a bit of question mark right now. Slight edge to Mets.
No. 5 starter: Rick Aguilera versus Ross Detwiler
Aguilera later had a long career as a closer, but he was a second-year swingman in '86, making 20 starts and finishing 10-7, 3.88. That wasn't much better than replacement-level pitching back then -- the NL ERA was 3.72 in 1986. Detwiler is better. Edge to Nationals.
Mets: Roger McDowell, Jesse Orosco, Doug Sisk, Randy Niemann, Rick Anderson
Nationals: Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Craig Stammen, Ryan Mattheus, Zach Duke, Christian Garcia
Things were a lot different back in '86, as Johnson essentially had a three-man bullpen: McDowell and Orosco shared late-inning duties with the sinkerballer McDowell throwing 128 innings. The Mets had 392 innings from their bullpen that year and McDowell, Orosco and Sisk threw 279 of them. The Nationals needed 515 innings from their bullpen in 2012. The Nationals will probably add another lefty to replace Sean Burnett from their 2012 staff, but this looks like a pretty deep pen, especially if the the hard-throwing Garcia assumes a prominent role. But McDowell and Orosco were pretty clutch in '86. Let's call this one even.
Final tally: 6 to 6 with three positions even! Have we just anointed the Nationals the World Series favorites for 2013? Yes we have.
One other similarity between these: The Mets, like the Nationals, had a lot of young talent. Strawberry was 24, Dykstra 23, Backman 26, Mitchell 24, HoJo 25. On the pitching staff, Gooden, Darling, Fernandez, Aguilera and McDowell were all 25 or younger. Mets fans know all too well that this group of players would return to the playoffs only once more and never return to the World Series. The future of the Nationals looks bright, but success is never a sure thing.