After years of occasionally mediocre, but typically awful play, the Washington Nationals have finally become winners, prevailing in a major-league best 98 games and capturing the National League East title.
Both the team and its fans are very excited. I’d say that the excitement is justified considering what the team was facing heading into the season.
The Nationals had failed to even record a winning season since moving to Washington in 2005. And the competition in the division looked imposing. The Philadelphia Phillies had won the division five straight years and were coming off of a 102 win season. The Atlanta Braves just missed the playoffs last year and had a very talented roster. And the Miami Marlins loaded up in the off-season in expectation of a postseason run.
Most people thought simply making the playoffs would have been a tremendous achievement. Only the most optimistic fan would have predicted the team having the best record in baseball.
So while what they accomplished this season was indeed impressive, I have some advice for both the team and its fans: Don’t be satisfied. You should want them to win the World Series this season.
This may seem like pointless advice. Of course they want to win the World Series this season! Isn’t the goal of every team to win the World Series?
I’m not saying that the team doesn’t want to, or that they won’t make their best attempt to win. But I also get the impression that the division title is being looked at as a tremendous accomplishment on its own, and anything they do from this point forward is simply icing on the cake.
I believe a major cause of this lack of urgency is the main reason why they made the playoffs in the first place: The team’s talented young core. With emerging stars like Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Bryce Harper, and Jordan Zimmermann, the team appears to be set up to win for years to come. Many fans (and most likely team officials as well) probably think that even if they fall short this season, then they’ll still have a good chance at a title in the near future.
As I wrote earlier this year, pinning your hopes on an up-and-coming team can be dangerous.
Sometimes, young teams do indeed make a steady progression which culminates with a championship. In 2006, the Philadelphia Phillies were a team that just couldn’t seem to get over the hump into the playoffs. In 2007, they finally made the playoffs, but lost in the first round. The following season, they won the World Series. But it doesn’t always work out that way.
It’s possible that what you’ve seen from the Nationals this season is the best you’re ever going to see. While their younger players might still improve, it is also possible that they’ve already peaked.
For example, Bryce Harper looks like he will become a superstar. But he wouldn’t be the first player to never build on a promising rookie season. In 2010, Atlanta Braves outfielder Jayson Heyward received similar hype and was also regarded as a future star. Since then, he’s suffered from assorted injuries and hasn’t really improved much, if at all.
Injuries can derail even the most talented teams. Jordan Zimmermann, and Stephen Strasburg have already undergone Tommy John surgery. If either of those pitchers suffers another long-term injury, that’s a major blow to the team’s chances.
Speaking of Strasburg, isn’t his much-publicized shutdown rather telling? The organization obviously thinks they have a bright future ahead of them, or there is no way they would keep him out of the playoffs.
If the Nationals fail to win the World Series in the next few seasons, I can guarantee there will be a lot of people regretfully looking back at that decision. Wouldn’t it be a shame to look back and realize that by shutting down Strasburg, they jeopardized what was their best chance at a title?
So yes, Nats fans should be excited about the division title. And no matter what happens from here on out, the season should be considered a success.
But don’t take future success for granted, as that future may not truly be as bright as it looks right now. World Series champions or bust!