While anything can happen in a full 162 game regular season, the Washington Nationals look like a team that is all but assured to win the National League East. Yes, it is only the middle of April and yes, the Nationals have only played nine games but perception is trending towards reality. Don’t think of this as a dart on the wall or an overreaction to the first part of the season but rather a quantifiable opinion based on three key rational points.
Dominant Starting Pitching
A case can be made that the Washington Nationals have the best starting rotation in the National League if not all of Major League Baseball. Stephen Strasburg is a phenomenal talent who averaged 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings (SO/9) in his career and 14.8 SO/9 through three a starts in 2014. He carries a career 3.01 ERA and 4.67 SO/BB average. Gio Gonzalez is just two years removed from a 21 win season and has only allowed one run so far in 2014. Even in a “down” 2013 campaign he won 11 games and posted a 3.36 ERA.
Jordan Zimmerman is coming off a 19 win season and has not carried an ERA over 3.25 since 2010. He has also averaged over 200 innings pitched over the past two seasons. The addition of Doug Fister only helps an already potent rotation. Fister has a career 3.53 ERA and should be good for at least 170 innings after his return from a strained right lat muscle which started his 2014 campaign on the disabled list. Tanner Roark is only his second season but in 2013 he made five starts while appearing in 14 games. During that sample he posted a 1.51 ERA over 53.2 innings pitched. After Roark is a more than serviceable group headed by Taylor Jordan and Ross Detwiler.
The Washington Nationals will be penciling in a lineup, on most days, with four possible 30 home run players in the likes of Jayson Werth (36 in 2009), Adam LaRoche (33 in 2012), Ryan Zimmerman (30+ in 2009 and 2010), and 21 year old phenomenal talent, Bryce Harper (22 in 118 games played in 2013). They also trot out four players capable of 20+ steals in Jayson Werth (20+ twice), Bryce Harper (18 in 139 games in 2012), Denard Span (20+ three times) and Ian Desmond (20+ three times).
The combination of Ian Desmond, Anthony Rendon and Danny Espinosa will serve as a solid defensive middle of the diamond and a steady but not impressive offensive group. While that does not sound impressive those three, in some form of platoon scenario, are not being asked to shoulder the load. That right is reserved for Werth, Harper, Zimmerman and crew. Overall, this is a more balanced offense than many will admit.
Atlanta Braves Injury Report
While the Nationals have a few injured players there is no comparing them to the walking wounded that is the Atlanta Braves, the closest competitor in the National League East. Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, two of the Braves projected impact starters, are already gone for the season with Tommy John Surgery. New addition Gavin Floyd and impact starter, Mike Minor, are both hoping to return before the season turns to May while Josh Venters, a valuable bullpen piece, hopes to return from a second Tommy John Surgery. While it is true that the Braves have a talented crop of pitchers it is still an arduous task to overcome injuries to so many key arms. He has been admirable through the early part of 2014, but it should not be expected that Aaron Harang will continue to pitch at a level that has not been seen in his previous 10 Major League Baseball seasons.
Overall the New York Mets, while improving, are not ready to take the crown back while the Miami Marlins are getting better but still not close. The Philadelphia Phillies are too old with too many issues, despite their payroll, to be a legitimate contender. That leaves the Nationals and the Braves. With the injuries to the Braves and the talent on the Nationals roster it would be nothing short of a shock if the Nationals do not win the National League East in 2014.