As Steinberg covered over on the Bog, experts are coming out of the woodwork to pick the Nationals for the playoffs. There is surely a lot to like on the Nationals’ roster, headed by a rotation that makes anything seem possible. There are also questions, like if Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond can take a step forward, if Michael Morse can overcome his lat injury and repeat his 2011 season, if Bryce Harper can contribute at 19, etc.
The Nationals’ biggest impediment to the postseason likely has nothing to do with their roster. It’s their schedule.
The National League East has one resident, though aging, juggernaut in the Phillies, a perennial contender that collapsed last year but remains brimming with young talent in the Braves and a splashy up-and-comer in the Marlins. Allso, the Mets. It has become perhaps the toughest division in baseball.
In interleague play, the Nationals receive no breaks. East plays East this year, meaning the Nationals get a heaping helping of another one of baseball’s most rugged divisions. In total, the Nationals will play the Phillies, Braves, Marlins, Red Sox, Yankees and Rays 63 times – 39 percent of their games against six legitimate contenders. The easy wins will be hard to come by.
Davey Johnson would surely scoff at the logic. He relishes playing the best teams, a bring-it-on attitude he has passed on to his players. But the Nationals face what appears to be a significant scheduling disadvantage compared to the teams that figure to be their chief wild card competitors.
Consider the schedule of the Reds, Cardinals and Brewers, who figure to be the three best teams in NL Central. They will each play the Cubs, Astros, Pirates, Twins and White Sox at least 57 times.
If the Cards, Reds and Crew rack up wins against those presumed bottom-feeders as expected, the Nationals may actually find the path to winning the division easier than nabbing a wild card, even with an extra playoff team in the mix.
The Nationals, many experts agree, have playoff-caliber talent. If they can reach the playoffs with their schedule, they will have earned it.