Will the Nationals Have a Winning Season? What Recent History Says


For the first time since baseball returned to Washington, optimism surrounds the Washington Nationals. Fans, pundits and sports columnists are nearly unanimous in their predictions for a winning season and, if Prince Fielder signs, even playoff contention.

Are these predictions realistic or are the Nationals just the latest fad, destined to disappoint their hopeful followers? What does the performance of similar teams over the last decade reveal?

If recent history is any guide, the Nats are likely to fall short of their current lofty expectations this year, but may, a few years later, provide memories fans will savor for a lifetime. For the 2000-2010 seasons, 27 teams have finished with 79-81 victories. Of those 27, 15 (56%) finished the next season under .500 and 12 (44%) finished with winning records. So, the odds favor a Nationals season that falls short of fans’ expectations, expert predictions, and even last year’s 80 wins.

But there is more to the story. While a near .500 finish often predicts a backslide the next year, it has been a harbinger of a budding post-season appearance and an indication of a quality team.

These 27 teams include nine who made the playoffs within the next three seasons. Three (2003 Florida Marlins, 79-83 in 2002; 2005 Chicago White Sox, 81-81 in 2002; and the 2010 Texas Rangers, 79-83 in 2008) made the World Series and two became World Champions. Other play-off teams include: the 2007 Cleveland Indians (80-82 in 2004), 2007 Chicago Cubs (79-83 in 2005), 2008 Milwaukee Brewers (81-81 in 2005), 2009 Minnesota Twins (79-83 in 2007), 2011 Brewers (80-82 in 2009), and 2011 Detroit Tigers (81-81 in 2010).

What’s more, for the 20 teams who won 79-81 games between 2000-2008, only five failed to have winning records at least three years later. These teams are: 2000 Tigers, who collapsed with 321 losses over the next three seasons; 2005 Rangers, who won 80 games in 2006, 79 in 2008 and finally broke the barrier in 2009; the 2005 Nats, we know what happened to them, sadly; the 2006 Reds, who won the NL Central in 2010; and the 2008 Indians, who won 80 games last season.

Overall, recent history says the Nationals have a 75% chance of a winning season between 2012 – 2014 and a 33% chance of making the play-offs (probably a bit higher with the addition of a second wildcard team).

Will the Nationals follow this trend? Like many of the teams listed above, Washington is young, has a strong farm system, a payroll with room to grow, and an experienced manager. With a likely strong front end starting rotation of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Gio Gonzalez and a bullpen full of power arms, the pitching appears strong. Even without Fielder or Bryce Harper, normal, healthy seasons from Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, Jayson Werth, Ian Desmond and a league average hitting bench should equate to more runs scored in 2012. It is also hard to see Davey Johnson as anything but an upgrade over Jim Riggleman.

Teams like the Nationals over the past 11 seasons have harbored similar hopes only to have them dashed by injuries, unexpectedly poor performances, and rivals’ improvements. Only time will tell. It is what makes baseball so enjoyable…and so maddening.

Here are the 79-81 win teams and the season of their next winning record:

  • 2000 Florida Marlins (76-86); 91-71 in 2003, wildcard, World Series champions
  • 2000 Detroit Tigers (79-83); 95-67 in 2006, wildcard, AL Champions
  • 2001 Toronto Blue Jays (80-82); 86-76 in 2003
  • 2001 San Diego Padres (79-83); 87-75 in 2004; first-place NL West 2005-06
  • 2002 Chicago White Sox (81-81); 86-76 in 2003; World Champs in 2005
  • 2002 Marlins (79-83); see 2000 Marlins above
  • 2002 Philadelphia Phillies (80-81); 86-76 in 2003
  • 2004 Cleveland Indians (80-82); 93-69 in 2005
  • 2005 Washington Nationals (81-81); still awaiting a winning season
  • 2005 Texas Rangers (79-83); 87-75 in 2009; AL Champs 2010-11
  • 2005 Chicago Cubs (79-83); 85-77 in 2007, first-place NL Central
  • 2005 Milwaukee Brewers (81-81); 83-79 in 2007
  • 2005 Blue Jays (80-82); 87-75 in 2006
  • 2006 Cincinnati Reds (80-82); 91-71 in 2010, first-place NL Central
  • 2006 Atlanta Braves (79-83); 84-78 in 2007
  • 2006 Rangers (80-82); see 2005 Rangers’ notes above
  • 2007 Minnesota Twins (79-83); 88-75 in 2008; fist-place AL Central 2009-10
  • 2008 Indians (81-81); still awaiting a winning season
  • 2008 Rangers (79-83); see 2005 Rangers above
  • 2009 White Sox (79-83); 88-74 in 2010
  • 2009 Brewers (80-82); 96-66 in 2011, first-place NL Central
  • 2010 Los Angeles Angels (80-82); 86-76 in 2011
  • 2010 Oakland Athletics (81-81); 74-88 in 2011
  • 2010 Tigers (81-81); 95-67 in 2011, first-place AL Central
  • 2010 Los Angeles Dodgers (80-82); 82-79 in 2011
  • 2010 Marlins; 72-90 in 2011
  • 2010 New York Mets (79-83); 77-85 in 2011.

In 2011, five teams won 79-81 games: Nationals (80-81), Reds (79-83), Blue Jays (81-81), Indians (80-82), White Sox (79-83).

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