Are the Nats any good? Hard to tell.
The Atlanta Braves already have endured two six-game losing streaks this season, plus a separate five-gamer. They haven’t spent a single day above .500 and haven’t been within five games of first place since the third week of April. They just lost their best player, first baseman Freddie Freeman, to a broken wrist that could keep him out until August. Entering the weekend, they had fewer wins than all but three teams in baseball.
And that, folks, is the second-place team in the National League East — the Washington Nationals’ closest pursuer, a mere seven games back entering Saturday.
It’s difficult to convey exactly how bad the NL East, outside of Washington, has been through the first quarter of the season. But this pretty much sums it up: When you take away head-to-head matchups, the Braves, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies and Miami Marlins entered Saturday’s games a combined 27-65 (.293) against the rest of baseball. That included a 9-16 (.333) mark against the Nationals — who opened a three-game series at Atlanta on Friday night — and an 18-47 (.277) record outside of the division. Four of the game’s six worst records entering the weekend belonged to this quartet.
The Nationals’ eight-game lead entering Friday was the biggest by a division leader through May 18 in a decade; the 2007 Red Sox led the AL East by 91/2 games through the same date.
The rest of the NL East is so bad, in fact, it may require us to cast a more skeptical eye on the Nationals, who are the primary beneficiary of all that ineptitude. Their 25-16 record entering Saturday had been bloated by their 16-9 intradivisional mark; against everyone else, they were a pedestrian 9-7. The best news for the Nationals is the fact they entered the weekend with 52 more games against division foes. That kind of schedule can mask a whole lot of bullpen issues.
Still, the vast gap between the Nationals and the rest of the division has them looking more and more like this year’s Cubs — a regular season juggernaut that coasts for six months in a mediocre division and eases into October without ever being threatened. Through May 18, 2016, the Cubs were 28-10 and already holding a first-place lead of 71/2 games. Their lead never got below 41/2 games the rest of the way, and they wound up going 103-58 (50-25 within their division) and winning the NL Central by 171/2 games over a solid St. Louis Cardinals squad that contended for a wild card until the season’s final week.
Some might also be tempted to compare this Nationals season to 2014, when the team went 96-66 and won the East by 17 games, with the other four teams all finishing below .500. It may still wind up that way, but that year, the Braves were leading the Nationals in the standings as late as July 18 before crashing and burning in September (7-18). Even then, none of the four division also-rans lost more than 89 games.
Three other times this century, a division has produced just one above-.500 team: the 2011 AL Central (won by the Tigers), the 2008 AL West (Angels) and the 2005 NL West (Padres).
None of the four NL East trailers appears particularly capable of mounting a sustained summer surge that might put a scare into the Nationals. The Mets would seem to be the most likely candidates based on pedigree, but they have spent the first quarter of the season in a state of disarray, their huge potential — many experts projected them to be the Nationals’ equals this season — squandered amid injuries, internal turmoil and underperformance.
A year ago, when the Mets went 87-75 and earned an NL wild card, they never lost more than four games in a row, but they already have losing streaks of six and seven games, the latter of which ended Friday. While analytics site FanGraphs has the Mets going 63-60 the rest of the way, that still wouldn’t be enough to push them over the .500 mark for the season.
What about the others? The last-place Marlins were outscored 35-8 during a five-game losing streak through Friday, recently wrapped up a 1-8 homestand and are looking like a good candidate for a midsummer fire sale. The Braves may have lost whatever slim hopes they had with the loss of Freeman. And the Phillies, having lost 15 of their previous 19, entered Saturday at 15-24, the franchise’s worst 39-game mark since 2000, and lost again. Their pitching staff, the worst in baseball by most measures, allowed a .271 average, .339 on-base percentage and .472 slugging percentage during that stretch, turning every opposing batter into the equivalent of Dave Parker or Dustin Pedroia.
This is what the Nationals are up against for the next 20 weeks or so. They may be a great team, or they may be fundamentally flawed. Either way, those answers need to be found somewhere other than the NL East standings.