The Washington Nationals are going to win the National League East in 2015. They’re not off to a great start this season, but it doesn’t matter. They’re going to win the East – likely by a comfortable margin – and will probably finish with the best record in baseball.
The Nationals have an insanely good starting rotation. All five of their starters have finished in the top ten of Cy Young Award voting in the past three years, and any of them could conceivably make the All-Star Game this season. The rotation is so good, that Tanner Roark – who had a 15-10 record last year – can’t even crack it.
Teams with elite starting pitching almost always make the playoffs. When a team can start a top-flight pitcher every night, it’s inevitable that it will win the vast majority of games. The last team that touted a similar “super rotation” was the 2011 Phillies who won 102 games and finished 13 games better than the second place team in the division.
But this season isn’t about winning the National League East. The Nationals have already proven they can do that, capturing division crowns in 2012 and 2014. This year, the Nationals need to accomplish what it failed to do in both of those years: Win a playoff series.
Honestly, considering the hype surrounding this team, winning just one playoff series would be seen as a disappointment. Although nobody on the team has outright said so, it seems obvious that anything less than a World Series appearance would be seen as a failure. (Then again, I basically said the same thing back in 2012)
Unfortunately for Nats fans, it wouldn’t shock me if they once again suffered an earlier than expected exit from the playoffs.
Having an elite starting rotation becomes much less of an advantage once the playoffs begin. It doesn’t matter if the Nats have amazing depth, because teams typically only use four starters in the playoffs. And when it comes down to it, just about every team in the playoffs has a good starting rotation.
It’s more common for playoff games to be determined by the rest of the roster, and the Nats don’t appear to be quite as impressive in that regard.
The Nats have struggled to score runs early in the season. A big part of that has been due to some injuries, and once Jayson Werth, Denard Span, and Anthony Rendon return from the disabled list, the lineup will look much better.
On the other hand, injury problems can sometimes become a season-long trend for a team. Sometimes teams spend the entire season waiting for everyone to get healthy, but it never happens.
Even when healthy, the Nats’ offense isn’t overwhelming. While there are few obvious weak spots in the lineup, they also lack the type of hitter who can be counted on to carry the team. Which Nats hitter would opposing managers game plan around? Maybe Bryce Harper can become that player, but he hasn’t shown that he’s at that level yet.
But the biggest problem for the Nats appears to be their bullpen. The relievers have pitched poorly this season, most notably when they managed to blow a lead in all three of their games against the Phillies last weekend.
The bullpen won’t kill them during the regular season because the starters will likely pitch deep into games. In most games, the Nats won’t need more than 2-3 innings worth of relief. They should be able to get through that with the pieces on hand.
The playoffs are a different story. Playoff games often come down to late-game pitching matchups, and the Nats will likely be at a disadvantage there. They don’t appear to have many (any?) dependable options, and Drew Storen might be the worst closer in the league. He’s already blown one playoff series in his young career, and if the Nats don’t upgrade, he might get a chance to blow another.
I have some advice for Nationals fans: I know that 2015 might seem like it’s only about the playoffs, but that’s the wrong mentality. Don’t treat the regular season like a formality. Instead, you should enjoy it as much as you can.
While the first two weeks haven’t lived up to expectations, this is probably just a minor bump in the road. Eventually this team will find its stride, and once that happens, it will be magical.
Enjoy watching an All-Star starting pitcher every night, and delight as they mow down one overmatched lineup after another. Enjoy it as the Nats pile up victory after victory and run away from their competitors in the East.
Enjoy it while you can. Because once the playoffs begin, you might not find yourself enjoying things quite as much.
This post has been part of the Blogging from A to Z April Challenge. In case you couldn’t tell, today’s letter was N, and the topic was “Nationals.”