Jordan Zimmermann of the Washington Nationals pitches against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park in Washington DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
I'll answer the question in a word or two, then you can be on your way. If you want to stick around for the supporting body of text, we'd love to have you.
No. Thank you for your time. It's not like anyone's even asking that question. Well, maybe one person. Sorry to be so blunt, Mrs. Gonzalez, but as constructed the Nationals are still a few steps behind.
Can the Nationals compete with the Phillies? Absolutely. It's a fine and important distinction between the two, but no one should be surprised if the Nationals are hanging around the top of the division in August, pestering the Phillies, jockeying for position with the Braves, and keeping the Marlins at arm's length. Also, the Mets are in the NL East too, which is just adorable.
It would take a few substantial developments to make the Nationals favorites. Ian Desmond would have to find his bat; Jayson Werth would have to produce; Anthony Rendon and/or Bryce Harper would have to come up and do super-prospect things. Mix and match a couple of those, or add in your own if you want, but the Nationals are still a long way from being favorites.
But from being contenders? It looks like they're already there. You can go through the Phillies' and Nats' rotations and give the edge to Philadelphia at every spot, but the Gio Gonzalez trade helped close the gap just a bit. It made it clear that the difference between the two teams (and the Braves or Marlins) isn't an act of God. It isn't going to take 393 different surprises for the Nationals to win their division -- they've improved enough to where they can get there by baseball acting a little weird.
That's the distinction. Baseball is what happens while everyone's making plans, and the Nationals have put themselves in a spot where it wouldn't take too many freaks and tweaks for them to win a wild card, or even the division. Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Gonzalez are an enviable top three. There's talent throughout the lineup. The reigning division winners have a left side of the infield that doubles as their middle of the order, and it's creaky and sproingy. Baseball can happen.
Put it this way: Make a list of the things that would have to happen for the Mets to leapfrog the four other teams in the East. By the time you get to #8 on the list, you're yelling, "Honey? How do you spell pterodactyl?" down the stairs because you're at the part where they need a pterodactyl to swoop down and grab Roy Halladay, possibly to build a nest.
The Nationals' list starts off with: "Have pitchers pitch like they're supposed to, and have hitters hit like they're supposed to." Before the addition of Gonzalez, there were some mental contortions that went along with the rotation. Maybe if Ross Detwiler … if Chien-Ming Wang's sinker is back …. As is, if the talent shows their true talent, they should be good.
Better than the Phillies? Not on paper. But the game isn't played on paper, except for that one time I was at a game at Candlestick, and a gust of wind kicked up 50 hot-dog wrappers, whipping them around the infield. It was totally played on paper that night. But while the Gio Gonzalez trade didn't make the Nats favorites, it made a surprisingly solid team even better.
They'll have a better chance than most teams will have this year. While no one was looking, the Nationals built a pretty fearsome rotation out of the ashes of elbow ligaments and Oakland's financial conundrum. They're not favorites, but then again, it's baseball. They don't have to be.