Did you know the Washington Nationals are the best team in Major League Baseball? It’s true: The Nationals currently have the best record in the league after 40 years of mediocrity. They were expected to improve this season, but their rise to the top of the standings is something even die-hard baseball fans couldn’t see coming.
To better understand the significance of the Nationals’ superb season, it is helpful to know the history of the team. The franchise began as the Montreal Expos in 1969 and stayed in Montreal until the end of the 2004 season. During their 35 years as the Expos, the team only made one playoff appearance while every other team in the National League East won at least one World Series championship.
How the franchise has gone so long with hardly any success is difficult to comprehend, and that’s what makes this season so special. Not only are the Nationals looking to make their second playoff appearance — their first since moving to Washington, D.C. — they have the best record in baseball.
But how did the Nationals get to the top? The move that got the ball rolling for Washington was hiring their current general manager, Mike Rizzo. After nearly three years as the assistant general manager, Rizzo was promoted following the resignation of former general manager Jim Bowden. Rizzo’s success as a general manager is one of the reasons the Nationals have improved tremendously in recent years. Rizzo has improved all aspects of the team by making trades, signing high-risk free agents, making smart selections in the draft and hiring new manager Davey Johnson.
Davey Johnson was brought in, following a 69-93 season in 2010. Johnson hadn’t managed since 2000, when he was with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but was hired for his experience with young teams like the Nationals. His guidance led the team to 80 wins in 2011, and they have already surpassed that total in 2012. Johnson also managed the New York Mets to a World Series championship in 1986 in a victory over the Boston Red Sox.
Although the team’s success has been due in part to the influence of Johnson and Rizzo, the players are the ones who are winning the games. The Nationals have received contributions from their entire lineup. With a good mix of speed and power evenly spread throughout the batting order, Washington is one of the most balanced teams in the league. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and first baseman Adam LaRoche (who was signed by Rizzo) lead the team in RBIs following a year in which they both missed considerable time due to injury.
One of the team’s best players is 19-year-old Bryce Harper. Harper was called up from the National’s Triple-A minor league affiliate Syracuse Chiefs early on in the year while the Nationals were fighting injuries. Harper was selected first overall by Mike Rizzo in the 2010 MLB draft. Harper’s all-star season and work ethic has made him a crucial part of the team, and has helped the Nationals move into the top ten in the MLB in runs scored and home runs on the season.
Even more impressive than their hitting is the pitching staff. The Nationals are second in both earned run average and batting average against. Even though Mike Rizzo decided to shut down starter Stephen Strasburg for the year due to his history with Tommy John surgery, the Nats still have an effective rotation. An offseason trade with the Oakland Athletics brought Gio Gonzalez to Washington. Gonzalez has become the team’s ace, leading the team both in wins and complete games. General manager Mike Rizzo also signed starting pitcher Edwin Jackson this offseason, and Jackson has had a career year in 2012.
The starting rotation isn’t the only part of the pitching staff to perform well. The bullpen has been equally impressive. Led by closer Tyler Clippard, the Nationals have seven relief pitchers with an ERA under 3.25. A pitching staff this good gives the Nationals an opportunity to win on any given night.
The Nationals have done all this while playing in what is a notoriously tough National League East. Every other team in the division has made multiple appearances in the World Series since the Montreal Expos franchise was created in 1969. The Atlanta Braves, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies and Miami Marlins won at least one of their World Series appearances since then, leaving the Nationals as the only team in the division without a championship in the last 40 years. The Nationals are one of only two out of 30 teams, the other being the Seattle Mariners, who have never made it to a World Series.
Something that has helped Washington’s chances of winning the division is the sudden collapse of the Phillies. Philadelphia, who won consecutive National League pennants in 2008 and 2009, has been considered the National League East favorites for the last several years. But injuries to key players kept them out of the hunt for the division title.
Because the Nationals are such a young team, they have the ability to contend for years to come. Their years of losing and accumulating top draft picks like Harper and Strasburg have stocked their farm system with high-level prospects. This should lead to continued improvements for the team in the coming years. The Tampa Bay Rays used this same method to build a contending team and they are a good example for the Nationals to follow.
The 2012 playoffs will be a good test for the Nationals. As a young team, playoff experience will be invaluable. But this season will be considered a triumph no matter the outcome. In a few short years, the Nationals could become one of the top franchises in Major League Baseball, and may finally get their long awaited World Series title.