With opening day right around the corner, few doubt that the Washington Nationals are seen as the Mets’ chief competition in winning the National League East this season. The Nationals have won the division three of the last five years, averaging almost 92 wins a season. On SI.com 6 of the 8 sportswriters predict the Nationals winning the division, with only 2 picking the Mets (none predict the Mets will win the World Series).
Here in Mets land we have had a fairly positive spring leading to a confident fan base. Other than Steven Matz, the starting pitchers have come out of the spring unscathed. Zack Wheeler’s velocity looks good and even Matt Harvey made steps to regain his old form. The bullpen looks solid and arms like Hansel Robles and even Rafael Montero look ready to make positive strides this season.
While fans were disappointed by David Wright’s shoulder impingement, it was unrealistic to expect his body would suddenly be ready to play after two mostly lost seasons. Players like Jose Reyes and Wilmer Flores provide depth and make the injury easier to swallow. Add a dedicated Yoenis Cespedes, the ball flying off the bats of everyone from Lucas Duda to Jay Bruce to Michael Conforto, and the Mets look ready to have a solid offensive effort as well.
Then why is everyone picking the Nationals?
To suggest they don’t have a top team is just denial. Max Scherzer is as dominant as anyone not named Kershaw, winning the Cy Young last year with 20 wins and a sub 3.00 ERA, striking out 284. Stephen Strasburg won 15, Tanner Roark 16 with a 2.83 ERA.
Their line up is anchored by Bryce Harper, one of the top young talents in the game, and (yes, we know) the real National League MVP last year, Daniel Murphy whose ridiculous numbers of .347 with 25 homers, 104 RBIs, and 47 doubles infuriate me every time I see them. Throw in young talent like Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner as well as recent acquisition Adam Eaton and it is easier to see they have a balance to their line up the Mets do not have.
But do they have weaknesses?
Yes. Just two days ago the Washington Post ran “The Nationals Have a Closer, and his Initials are TBA” as a headline. Dusty Baker acknowledged the team wanted a set closer, but frankly didn’t know who it should be. The article cited “internal debate” because none of their candidates, Blake Treinen, Koda Glover, or Shawn Kelley, are ideal. Compare that to the Mets back end of the bullpen (particularly when Familia comes back from his 15 game suspension) and the Mets have a huge advantage coming out of the pen.
Another concern of the Nationals is and will always be the health of their $175 million man Stephen Strasburg. The last two seasons he has been limited to 24 and 23 starts, and their rotation is not the same without him. While Joe Ross looks like a good young arm, the Nats shipped their top pitching prospects Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez in the deal for Eaton and do not have the pitching depth the Mets do. The Mets are much better equipped to absorb an injury to a starting pitcher than the Nationals, and Strasburg has not shown an ability to stay on the field for 30 starts.
A final concern the Nationals cannot ignore is their lineup. While most expect Harper to rebound from an off year, some of their older bats like Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman might have their best years behind them. Their second best bat last year, Wilson Ramos, took his .307 average and 22 home runs south to Tampa, and as ridiculously good as Trea Turner was last year (.342 average, 33 stolen bases) it would not be surprising if the sophomore slump dragged his performance down.
The Nationals are without a doubt a good, confident team; but so are the Mets. The biggest difference between the Mets and the Nats is that the Mets have much better depth all around and would be able to fare alright if an every-day player or pitcher gets injured. A fast start anchored from healthy pitching should put the Mets exactly where they need to be: Ready to unseat the Nationals as the best team in the National League East.