With the additions of Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson, Brad Lidge, and Mark DeRosa, hopes for full, healthy seasons from Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman, a return to the mean for Jayson Werth, and the expected arrival (in June or on Opening Day) of Bryce Harper, the future appears bright for the 2012 Washington Nationals and their fans.
One early indicator of whether these hopes become reality will be the Nats’ performance against their National League East division foes. Until Major League Baseball enacts a more balanced schedule, which they may do in 2013 when the Houston Astros move to the American League, NL East division teams play 44% of their games against each other. It is virtually impossible to have a good season without a winning intra-division record.
To do so, the Nationals will have to change their history. Since moving to Washington, the Nats have never had a winning record against their rivals in Atlanta, Florida (now Miami), New York, and Philadelphia. In fact, with the exception of last season, they have been the NL East’s doormats.
Since 2005, the Nationals have a division record of 215-292 (.424 winning percentage). Of the three parts of their schedule (division play, other NL, and interleague), the record that matters most — division play — is the Nats worst. Against other NL opponents they are 221-281 (.440) and 56-67 (.455) against the American League.
The only division rival against which they perform even close to .500 is the Atlanta Braves (63-64). The rest is a sad litany: New York, 56-71, .437; Philadelphia, 49-79, .382; and, worst of all, Florida, 47-78; .376.
Only twice have the Nationals performed better within their division than outside of it — the abysmal 2008 season (27-44, .380 vs. East compared to 24-48, .333 against non-division NL clubs) and 2011 (36-36 in-division, 36-38 non-division). Obviously, their divisional record will have to improve if Washington wants to join the ranks of winning clubs.
Despite the bad history, 2011 offered many hopeful signs. First, the Nationals won the season series versus the Mets (10-8) and the Phillies (10-8), thanks to twin late-season 4-game sweeps on the road. The Nats tied with Atlanta (9-9) and fared their “best” against the Marlins since 2006 at 7-11. Their .500 division record was a 6-game improvement over 2010 and 11-games over 2009.
If they can continue that improvement and post a winning divisional record, 2012 might be the Nationals best since baseball returned to the Nation’s Capital. The first test will come May 21 – June 7 when the Nationals are scheduled to play 15 consecutive games against division rivals.
It’s something to pay close attention to as the 2012 season unfolds.