Sports Illustrated magazine has been around since 1954. It is highly respected and is read by 23 million people every week. On SI’s MLB Preview issue for 2019, the Philadelphia Phillies are on the cover. It features four of their stars, in full uniform, with the caption “Loved in Philly, Feared Everywhere Else.” It goes on to predict that the Phillies will win the National League East Division by 7 games, and go on to win the National League Pennant, after defeating the Brewers and Dodgers in the postseason. Now, if the Phillies are so feared and destined to do great things according to such a prolific magazine, how am I, some random guy, so confident that the fine citizens of the greater Washington metropolitan area have absolutely nothing to fear? Simple. Know thine enemy. And no one knows any team better than their divisional rivals.
Let’s start by examining the “feared” Phillies. Before the Bryce Harper signing, nearly everyone was saying that the NL East would be an extremely close three-way race, between Philadelphia, Washington, and Atlanta. Which is funny, because also before the Bryce Harper signing, Phillies fans had been calling Harper overrated trash for the previous 6 years. So, since the conclusion of Harper-palooza, what exactly has changed? The Phillies acquired a .249 hitter and that pushes them from “division contenders” to “world series favorites?” May I remind you Mr. Harper failed to take heavily favored Washington teams even out of the first round. Phillies fans have not-so-kindly reminded me so for a long time now. But him going to an equally favored Philadelphia team means he all of a sudden can take them to baseball’s promised land? Seems a little sketchy to me. But moving away from my own personal biases, the Phillies have a very good lineup. Their hitters include McCutchen, Segura, Harper (who in all fairness is usually solid, just not the messiah avid Philadelphia supporters would like you to believe he is), Hoskins, and Realmuto. Not bad at all. Their bullpen will be great, with David Robertson, Seranthony Dominguez, and Hector Neris, and their rotation will have Aaron Nola, and, uh, um, and……Vince Velasquez? We know that Nola is great. Arrieta is very good (most 0f the time anyways, we’ll see which Arrieta shows up this season), but beyond that, it gets a bit dicey. Nick Pivetta will be good someday…but that day is not today, and likely not this year. Rounding out their rotation is Eflin and Velazquez. Take a moment to ponder that last sentence. That means Eflin and Velazquez consist of 2/5 of their rotation. I don’t think a team that has 40% of its games started by Eflin and Velazquez is going to the playoffs, no matter how many overrated outfielders they add to their lineup.
Let’s say they do make the postseason. They would most likely reach the divisional series (because either they win the division or they win a wild card game because Aaron Nola started it). After Nola, they can turn to Arrieta, who will probably do an at least decent job, giving his team a serious chance at winning. And then what? Even if they’re up 2-0 after their 1-2 punch that is the top of their rotation, who’s next? Pivetta? Eflin? I’m surely not the first person to tell you the postseason is ALL about pitching. They would get obliterated in their next two contests, because their opponent would actually have quality starting pitchers all throughout the rotation, not just stacked at the top. Granted, that would give them a good chance in Game 5 (provided they won the division, Nola would be resting Game 1 if he just pitched the Wild Card contest), but even if all the stars aligned and they reached the NLCS, winning a best-of-seven series would be a virtual impossibility with the back end of that rotation. They just don’t have the pitching. And let’s face it, if they didn’t get the hype that came from Harper’s signing, no one would be picking them to win the World Series. Note how I didn’t say Harper, or Harper’s production, I said Harper’s hype. Baseball Reference, a very respected statistics website, projects Harper to hit .265 with 27 home runs this year. That’s good and all, but that doesn’t push you from “contender” to “champion.” Never before has the addition of a .265 hitter taken a team from pretty decent to greatness, and will likely not happen here. Not with that rotation anyway. So, if you’re a Nationals fan, you’re not really too worried here.
Moving on to the Braves of Atlanta, basically the same deal. Bright lineup, with Acuña, Donaldson, Freeman, Albies, Inciarte, and Swanson. That is a lineup that easily can compete with any team in the league. And then you look at their rotation. Same as the Phillies: two good pitchers (Foltynewicz and Newcomb), and then the rest is, well, not so great. Teheran and Gausman are both washed up and coming off underwhelming seasons. Don’t expect them to get better with age. And their bullpen is much worse off than the ones of Philadelphia and Washington. If you’re a Nationals fan, not worried.
As for the Marlins, what is there to say. SI guaranteed them triple digit losses in their preview. Not that what SI says is gospel, they’ve got a lot wrong about the Phillies, but it’s still a pretty clear sign they’re not contenders. If you’re a Nationals fan, not worried.
As for the intriguing New York Mets, who are, in the personal opinion of this amateur writer, considerably underrated, they are not to be overlooked. The additions of Cano, Ramos, and Diaz are not to be ignored. Their rotation is top-tier (when healthy, which is literally never), and the back end of their bullpen is definitely talented. But, with a slightly underwhelming lineup, stellar pitching, even if healthy, will likely be not quite enough not be enough to beat Philadelphia, Atlanta, or Washington. A step in the right direction for the Mets, but not quite at the level of contender. If you’re a Nationals fan, not worried.
And with all of that, we are now at my favorite topic, the Washington Nationals. In SI’s MLB preview, each team got a full page dedicated to them. On Washington’s, it mentions Harper by name five times. He’s not even on the team, and SI felt the need to mention him on five separate occasions. Now of course, SI was totally justified in doing so. Harper was their star player for years and his stunning departure leaves them with a ginormous hole in their outfield that can never be replaced, removing them from contention for all eternity. That was sarcasm. In Harper’s 6.5 years with Washington, he was their best player for only one of those years (according to baseballreference.com). And he is being replaced by the number 4 prospect in all of baseball, five-tool phenom Victor Robles. His absence will barely be noticed, if you don’t listen to all of the writers and talking heads that think the Nationals will never ever be the same again after losing one .279 career hitter. As for the people Washington does have on its roster, there are no holes to be found. Their abysmal catching situation from last year? Turned into a strength with the new platoon combination of all-star Yan Gomes and the surprisingly good Kurt Suzuki. The loss of Daniel Murphy? Could possibly be an upgrade, Brian Dozier now holds that position. Their revamped rotation not only is good 1-5, but has quality depth in AAA Fresno, so when Strasburg gets hurt in mid-April they’ll be just fine. Their bullpen is anchored by Sean Doolittle and the resurgent (and very very strong in Spring Training) Trevor Rosenthal. The additions of Kyle Barraclough (bear-claw) and Tony Sipp jive well too.
I’ll let you in on a baseball math secret. No holes + depth = a great shot. So people of the baseball universe, get it through your heads: the Washington Nationals are totally fine, and don’t care what you think. Or don’t, and be prepared to be taken by surprise when by late July, the Washington Nationals are sitting atop a comfortable lead in their division, and Citizens Bank Park erupts in loud chorales of boos when Bryce Harper steps to the plate.