The Nationals are 10-9 and tied for second place in the National League East, just a game and a half behind Philadelphia and a game back of the Wild Card lead (yes, that's silly to say in April, but there it is). ESPN's Jayson Stark says it's "reality." Is he right?
Well, for starters, they have 10 games in the win column already. That's as real as the Yankees' 27 world championships, and it's not going to change. Last year they won their tenth game on May 8. They won their 20th game on June 19. Let that sink in. The reality is that with 10 wins in the books already, it's going to be really hard for them to lose 100 games again.
Here are some of the key reasons why they might keep winning:
1. The schedule. The Phillies are by far the class of the NL, and they've already played them six times, stealing a crucial two wins to avoid sweeps in both series. They've also played six against the Dodgers and the Rockies, both playoff teams last year. They play the Phillies nine more times, but not till game number 103. They get the Orioles five times, starting with a three-game set a month from now. Then they go out West for six against the Padres and Giants, which won't be easy, before getting this stretch of softness: Houston, Cincy, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, White Sox (ok those two teams are pretty good), Kansas City, and again the Orioles. It's going to be tough to be much below .500 in that stretch. That takes you to July.
2. Stephen Strasburg. Yes, they have other reinforcements coming, but really Strasburg is the difference-maker. In 1984, the New York Mets went 21-10 in games started by a 19-year-old rookie named Dwight Gooden. The next season, they went 28-7 in Dr. K's starts. Are the Nationals' hitters as good as the Mets were? No. Is it outrageously unfair to set the expectations that high? Without question. Screw it. I'm in love.
3. The bullpen. Sometimes guys get hot for 65 innings. Sometimes three guys get hot for 65 innings. Matt Capps is going to blow some saves, and he might go back to an ERA over 4 next year, but he could certainly do what Chad Cordero did in 2005. Tyler Clippard is another great example of a guy who just might have one or two really good relief seasons in him. He's hitting his spots, hides the ball really well, and could easily be this year's Gary Majewski. Throw in solid contributions from a couple others, and you got yourself an above-average bullpen. (Now, all that could fall apart tomorrow too, but we're talking about why it's possible--we'll get to doubts in a moment.)
4. Ian Desmond. He certainly hasn't been the greatest thing since sliced bread, but he's transitioned into a Major League regular, and his talent shows. Of all the Nationals' starters, he's the one you could see really getting better over the course of the season.
5. The fielding. It's still pretty bad, but it's better, and Riggleman is doing a nice job with the late-inning replacements. After a rough start, Desmond has been solid. Morgan and Harris are a dynamic duo in the outfield. Those are three big upgrades from last year. Zimmerman of course remains arguably the best fielder at any position in baseball.
But of course, there are reasons to be suspicious:
1. Run differential. They've been outscored 84-100, which translates to an 8-11 Pythagorean record (.421). Over the course of an entire season, that would give the team 68 wins, They're 3-1 in one-run games and 1-4 in blowouts. Teams can certainly exceed--or fall short of--their Pythagorean projection over the course of an entire year, as evidenced by the fact that the Nationals fell seven wins shy of their Pythagorean W-L record last season. But most of the time these things even out.
2. Adam Dunn. I'm really worried about him. I'll have more on this in a couple days, but every day he reminds me more and more of a left-handed Richie Sexson. He's always been the classic example of the young player with old player skills. Assuming he's healthy, he's going to get his 30 homers. But with a .217 batting average, he becomes a a detriment to the team.
3. Zimmerman's hammy. These things linger, and while it hasn't shown up yet, the drop-off from Zimmerman to Alberto Gonzalez could easily be worth 8 wins over the course of a full season. (Not that Zimmerman is going to be lost for the season, just that we can't afford to lose him any more if we're going to see .500.)
4. Ivan Rodriguez. You mean a .460 BABIP isn't sustainable? A 38-year-old catcher playing this much can be expected to fade anyway, but regardless he's gotta hit 20 sharply hit outs in a row before the luck evens out. In fairness, it's not all luck. He's only struck out four times all year--he's definitely locked in. But only seven of his 23 hits are for extra bases, and those are all doubles, and his walk rate remains Guzman-esque. It's just not humanly possible to be consistently effective this way.
5. The starting pitching. Losing Jason Marquis really, really hurts, and at this point, with the way he's pitched and the health reports, the odds of him being a major contributor now seem pretty remote. John Lannan is well-covered territory. Let's just say I can't figure out why these guys are wrong, and hope isn't a reason. Livan Hernandez is striking out 3.38 per 9 while stranding 100% and allowing a .158 BABIP and a 6.3% HR/FB rate. If those numbers don't mean a lot to you... it means he's lucky as all get-out. The over/under for his ERA is still 5.00. Scott Olsen looked very good today, but he's still got an ERA over 6.00, and the Garret Anderson strikeouts should have an asterisk next to them. He shouldn't even be in MLB, much less starting against lefties. Craig Stammen? Luis Atilano? Hey, I'll root for those guys, but we're playing really long odds here. All together, this is a group that could still really kill a team.