It’s easy to miss the point. But with the Washington Nationals, we shouldn’t. The team that opens its season Thursday may be the best since baseball returned to Washington. Also, in an era of powerhouse teams, the Nats have a chance to win 100 games and perhaps the World Series, too. Because five key players, including Bryce Harper, may be free agents after this season, it may be years, or decades, before the Nats have the potential to be this good again.
You noticed that horrifying word “potential,” so different from “reality.” The mention of other superb teams also may make you think of the champion Houston Astros who play in the same spring training complex as the Nats — a reminder to stay humble. You mutter, “Dodgers, Yankees, Cubs, Indians and Red Sox, too.”
Things can go wrong for the Nats. They have a rookie manager and the memory of four first-round knockouts in the past six Octobers. They have never played their best when it mattered the most. In three losses in Game 5s of division series, the Nats have made plenty of blunders that scream “choke,” including several last year. Pressure proof, they’re not. Their rotation lacks a proven fifth starter, and the back end of their bullpen, while excellent, has arm-misery history.
However, for a reality check — good reality, not bad — cast your mind back just five months. At the end of 2017, the Nats dreamed about finally getting their best possible roster healthy in time for the playoffs. That would be the best of all Nats teams in this period of 95, 96, 97 and 98 wins. What a club that would be!
It never quite happened. Max Scherzer and Harper weren’t quite themselves. Scherzer nursed a hamstring pull from his last tuneup start. Harper had only five games to get into shape after more than six weeks out with a knee injury. Talk about rotten timing. Both had good playoff moments. But Scherzer gave up four runs in one relief inning to lose Game 5, and Harper hit .211 for the postseason.
There was no “next series” for the Nats, when their three-time Cy Young Award winner and their 2015 MVP might have been at their best.
Would that best possible Nats roster ever get its chance again?
Sit up straight. Finally, the Nats are in (almost) one healthy piece. Except for Daniel Murphy, still not quite back from knee surgery, the Nats now have the roster they hoped to have last October as they head to Opening Day.
In fact, it may be a bit better. Adam Eaton, one of the more valuable all-around players in MLB from 2014 to 2016, is back in left field, batting leadoff and hitting .313 in Florida after missing 139 games last year.
No one will be surprised if the Astros, who have added Gerrit Cole to their rotation, or the Yankees, who traded for Giancarlo Stanton, or the Indians, who won 22 straight games late last season, represent the AL in the World Series. And the Red Sox added slugger J.D. Martinez (45 homers).
In the NL, the same pennant hopes apply to the Dodgers, who led MLB in wins last year with 104, and the Cubs, who have rebuilt their rotation on the fly so that it now features Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana.
But if Washington isn’t fascinated by its team, and doesn’t plan to enjoy the Nats to the fullest, regardless of their eventual fate, then it’s a pure waste of fun. As a fan, you feel like you wait forever to see a team like this. It’s here.
Nobody in MLB has a better tandem of star starting pitchers than Scherzer, who is a no-hit or 20-strikeout threat whenever he starts, and Stephen Strasburg, who, over the past three years, has learned how to pitch to game situations, rise to occasions and be a winner. The Nats have won 52 of his past 65 starts. Strasburg has also removed the last iota of doubt that he can dominate in the postseason. Behind these stars are vets Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark, a combined 134-93 with a 3.46 ERA as Nats. Try to find any third-fourth starter combo to match that.
It may be many a year before the Nats have an infield to match Anthony Rendon (25 homers, 100 RBI, .301 batting average last year), Ryan Zimmerman (36, 108, .303), Murphy (.334 the past two years) and Trea Turner (.304 career). Watch now because Murphy will probably be gone as a free agent next year. Few teams have as fast or strong-armed an outfield as Harper, Michael A. Taylor and Eaton, all of whom have been big league center fielders.
The bullpen firm of Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler had a 2.50 ERA in 77 appearances last year after they were acquired by General Manager Mike Rizzo near the trade deadline. All have been closers. The addition of this trio is the reason that the 2018 Nats may have a higher ceiling than any of their predecessors. The bench, with Howie Kendrick (.291 career), Matt Adams (20 homers last year), Brian Goodwin, utility energizer Wilmer Difo and two-time all-star Miguel Montero as a backup catcher is the most versatile, best-hitting set of reserves the Nats have had.
Look at the list. That is 19 Nats who are either stars or standouts relative to the roles they are asked to play. It doesn’t include a four-time all-star in catcher Matt Wieters, who is trying for a bounce-back year and hit well in spring training. Or elite outfield prospect Victor Robles, 20, who may be up to stay at some point this season. Reliever Trevor Gott had a 0.00 ERA in Florida, and Sammy Solis also pitched well.
Have we forgotten anything? Oh, yes, the manager, Dave Martinez.
It’s sometimes said of Dusty Baker that he was the best manager in MLB for 21 hours a day, and he wasn’t too bad the other three hours, during the game, either. But Nats ownership, and some of the club’s baseball people, too, wanted to see if they could feel enthusiastic about their manager for all 24 hours.
With Martinez, here come the analytics information, all at once, ready or not — starting Thursday. If it works, that is another reason that these may be the best Nats of this era.
Most people try not to let the inevitability of death diminish their enjoyment of life. Only Woody Allen characters brood on mortality, and spoil their appetites, when presented with a seven-course gourmet meal. Yet sports fans, including some in D.C., don’t apply this obvious truth to their enjoyment of their teams.
The Nats may have injuries and misery this season, fuss among themselves or doubt the manager. They may not even win the NL East. All those nasty things have happened to highly touted Nats teams in just the last three years.
Imagining failure requires no talent. Amassing enough talent to force us to imagine great success as a new season opens, that is an accomplishment. As spring training ends, and the nerves start dancing again, the Nats have done it.
Read more on the Nationals: