Are the Nats any good? Hard to tell.

The Washington Post Sunday - - BASEBALL - BY DAVE SHEININ dave.sheinin@wash­

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.






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