The Atlanta Braves, who have spent the past 10 1/2 months trying to get good in the not-so-distant future, are five games behind the Washington Nationals, who were supposed to rule the National League East and all of baseball in the here and now. The Braves are 11 games under .500; the Nats, who’ve lost six in a row and were outscored 28-12 over four games in San Francisco, are 58-59.
We mention this not just as another way to the tweak the swaggering owners of #Natitude, though that’s always fun, but to make this observation. One of the reasons the Braves could commit to a tear-down — or a “reset,” to invoke John Hart’s word — was that they looked at the Nationals and thought, “They’ve got Scherzer and Harper and Rendon and Werth and Span and Zimmerman and Zimmermann and Strasburg and Fister and Desmond; there’s no way we can match that.”
It wasn’t just the Braves who thought as much. Almost everyone who watches baseball felt the same. The Nats have been picked to win the World Series for so long that it has become a kneejerk response. Trouble is, the Nats haven’t yet won the Series — haven’t won a playoff series — and the odds of them qualifying for postseason this year have dwindled to 31.0 percent, according to FanGraphs. They are fast becoming The Great Team That Never Was.
Because the Braves reside in the same division, they have to pay attention to the Nats, same as they did the Phillies. But the Nationals have sunk $210 million into a pitcher who just turned 31, and even though Max Scherzer has been excellent, we can’t say he has made a difference in the standings — and his massive contract runs through 2021. They owe $42 million over the next two seasons to a 36-year-old who’s hitting .184 (Jayson Werth) and $60 million over the next three to a 30-year-old who’s hitting .219 (Ryan Zimmerman).
Those are the sort of massive outlays that ultimately undid the Phils. Yes, Washington has a cornerstone in Bryce Harper, who’s 22, and the 25-year-old Anthony Rendon, assuming he gets healthy, is superb. But Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond and Doug Fister (who has been banished to the bullpen) are eligible for free agency, and nobody knows what to make of Stephen Strasburg, whose ERA is higher than Julio Teheran’s.
Meaning: The benchmark in the NL East is itself being reset. The Mets have younger and better starting pitchers than the Nats, but the Mets can’t score. (The three hitters they acquired before the deadline — Yoenis Cespedes, Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson — are two-to-three-month rentals.) They were just swept by Pittsburgh, losing twice in bonus cantos and mustering six runs over 33 innings. But they still lead the East by 4 1/2 games.
The Braves have been amassing young pitching themselves, and they have Freddie Freeman. It will be a while before we can put a Braves rotation on the same high shelf as DeGrom-Harvey-Syndergaard-Niese (with Steven Matz set to assume Bartolo Colon’s spot soon), but the expanse between the local club and the top of this division mightn’t be as wide as once believed. The Mets’ pitching is scary good; the rest of their roster is not.