No matter their standing on paper, the Phillies will be considered a rival. Last year at Nationals Park, on the final day of the regular season, shortstop Jimmy Rollins claimed the Phillies would have won the division if they had stayed healthy. Werth responded this spring by telling the Philadelphia Inquirer the Nationals, who endured an abundance of injuries themselves, would have won 120 games if they stayed healthy.
“Personally speaking, I just always wanted to beat them because of the way they carried themselves,” second baseman Danny Espinosa said. “The way that they walked into everything, they thought they already won the game. That’s how they walk around. And that’s the right attitude to walk around [with]. But for me, when I see that, that makes me want to beat someone even more.
“They got talent, but we won the division last year. Injuries, they had ‘em, we had ‘em. At the end of the day, we won the division. We missed Werth. We missed Zimmerman. We missed [Michael] Morse. [Ian] Desmond went down. We still found a way to do it.”
At the bottom of the NL East, the New York Mets locked up David Wright, went young in their rotation and generally disregarded their outfield. The Miami Marlins shipped most of their best players to Toronto in a firesale, and Miami residents opened their Sunday newspapers and read full-page ads owner Jeffrey Loria bought to explain the gutting of his team.
“I think everyone in the division got better,” reliever Tyler Clippard said.
Even the Marlins?
“Marlins . . . not so much,” Clippard allowed. “I’m more referring to the Phillies and the Braves.”
The presence of Atlanta and Philadelphia alone will make defending the NL East crown a difficult task for the Nationals. They’ll play 38 games against two of the best teams, on paper, in the National League. Stephen Strasburg has repeatedly called it the best division in the league, and within the Nationals’ clubhouse he is not alone in his belief.
“It’s, in my opinion, the toughest division in baseball,” Clippard said. “I think it’s going to help us. We feel like we’re one of the best teams in baseball. Playing in the best division in baseball is going to prepare us for where we want to go. There’s going to be some struggles along the way. That’s what a baseball season entails. But I think it’s going to be good for us.”
The Nationals came to spring training as the favorite to win the NL East again. They know they face stiff tests — “It’s not a blow-away division,” Espinosa said. The Braves and — maybe more than anyone but the Nationals expect — the Phillies figure to challenge them deep into the fall. The Marlins and Mets . . . not so much.