What's the best team in Nationals history? The one that actually won the World Series. Duh.
But it's worth remembering the 2019 Nats only went 93-69 during the regular season. Four previous clubs won more games than that: the 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017 clubs. Those four teams, of course, lost in the National League Division Series, often in agonizing fashion. And so they're forever viewed as underachievers.
Here's the question, though: Were any of those teams good enough to win the World Series?
I've had this debate with some folks a few times over the years, and plenty more times in my own head. Of the four pre-2019 Nationals teams that made the playoffs, which one was the biggest disappointment? Which one of those teams would've had the best chance of winning the World Series if it could only have advanced out of the first round?
The answer isn't obvious, in my opinion. There are compelling cases for several of them, maybe even any of them.
But since there's nothing else to do right now, let's try to settle this debate once and for all. First, a breakdown of each of the four previous playoff qualifiers ...
Manager: Davey Johnson
NLDS result: Lost to Cardinals in five games
MLB ranks: Runs scored (10th), Home runs (eighth), Batting average (ninth), On-base percentage (12th), OPS (eighth), Runs allowed (third), Home runs allowed (second), ERA (second), WHIP (second), Bullpen ERA (eighth), Run differential (first)
Top hitters: Adam LaRoche (33 HR, 100 RBI, .853 OPS), Ryan Zimmerman (25 HR, 95 RBI, .824 OPS), Ian Desmond (25 HR, 73 RBI, .845 OPS), Bryce Harper (22 HR, 59 RBI, .817 OPS)
Top pitchers: Gio Gonzalez (21-8, 2.89 ERA), Stephen Strasburg (15-6, 3.16 ERA), Jordan Zimmermann (12-8, 2.94 ERA), Drew Storen (2.37 ERA, 4/5 SV), Tyler Clippard (3.72 ERA, 32/37 SV), Sean Burnett (2.38 ERA, 2/5 SV)
Pros: Deep and balanced lineup all the way through the No. 8 spot. Dominant rotation featuring three elite starters. Deep bullpen that was well-managed by Johnson. Great chemistry and excitement as the Nationals' first team to reach the postseason.
Cons: No Strasburg in the playoffs (shut down) left Gonzalez as the No. 1 starter, with Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler also in the postseason rotation. No Wilson Ramos after May (torn ACL). No true leadoff hitter (Jayson Werth assumed that role). Revolving door at closer (Clippard held the job most of the year while Storen returned from injury, then lost the job to Storen after struggling in September).
Who they would've faced: Giants in NLCS, Tigers in World Series
Manager: Matt Williams
NLDS result: Lost to Giants in four games
MLB ranks: Runs scored (ninth), Home runs (10th), Batting average (12th), On-base percentage (eighth), OPS (eighth), Runs allowed (second), Home runs allowed (first), ERA (first), WHIP (second), Bullpen ERA (fourth), Run differential (third)
Top hitters: LaRoche (26 HR, 92 RBI, .817 OPS), Anthony Rendon (21 HR, 83 RBI, .824 OPS), Desmond (24 HR, 91 RBI, .743 OPS), Werth (16 HR, 82 RBI, .849)
Top pitchers: Doug Fister (16-6, 2.41 ERA), Zimmermann (14-5, 2.66 ERA), Tanner Roark (15-10, 2.85 ERA), Strasburg (14-11, 3.14 ERA), Storen (1.12 ERA, 11/14 SV), Rafael Soriano (3.19 ERA, 32/39 SV), Clippard (2.18 ERA, 1/7 SV)
Pros: Elite rotation included a healthy Strasburg, peak Zimmermann and consistently effective Fister. Well-balanced lineup had a potent one-two punch (Denard Span, Rendon) and plenty of pop the rest of the way down. Four regular relievers had sub-3.00 ERAs (Storen, Clippard, Matt Thornton, Aaron Barrett). Team was blistering-hot entering the playoffs, going 33-13 over its final 46 games and watching Zimmermann throw a no-hitter on the final day of the regular season.
Cons: Zimmerman returned from a hamstring injury late, but was reduced to pinch-hitting duties in the playoffs. Soriano struggled in September and lost the closer's job to Storen. Williams was prone to too much managing by formula and rarely deviated based on the feel of individual games.
Who they would've faced: Cardinals in NLCS, Royals in World Series
Manager: Dusty Baker
NLDS result: Lost to Dodgers in five games
MLB ranks: Runs scored (eighth), Home runs (11th), Batting average (17th), On-base percentage (10th), OPS (12th), Runs allowed (second), Home runs allowed (third), ERA (second), WHIP (third), Bullpen ERA (first), Run differential (third)
Top hitters: Daniel Murphy (25 HR, 104 RBI, .985 OPS), Harper (24 HR, 86 RBI, .814 OPS), Ramos (22 HR, 80 RBI, .850 OPS), Trea Turner (13 HR, 40 RBI, 33 SB, .937 OPS)
Top pitchers: Max Scherzer (20-7, 2.96 ERA), Strasburg (15-4, 3.60 ERA), Roark (16-10, 2.83 ERA), Mark Melancon (1.82 ERA, 17/18 SV), Shawn Kelley (2.64 ERA, 7/9 SV), Blake Treinen (2.28 ERA, 1/3 SV)
Pros: Murphy had an MVP-caliber season and was one of the toughest outs in the league. Turner was promoted in midseason and became an instant force atop the lineup while also learning center field on the fly. Scherzer won the Cy Young Award. The bullpen overcame Jonathan Papelbon's mid-season struggles and became a dominant force with Melancon closing and Kelley, Treinen, Sammy SolÃs, Marc Rzepcynski and Matt Belisle setting him up.
Cons: Strasburg was out with an elbow injury, though he was rehabbing during the NLDS and hoped to be ready if the team advanced. Ramos' fantastic season came to an abrupt halt when he tore his ACL again during the final week of September. Harper and Zimmerman had down years.
Who they would've faced: Cubs in NLCS, Indians in World Series
NLDS result: Lost to Cubs in five games
MLB ranks: Runs scored (fifth), Home runs (14th), Batting average (fourth), On-base percentage (ninth), OPS (fourth), Runs allowed (sixth), Home runs allowed (eighth), ERA (sixth), WHIP (fourth), Bullpen ERA (21st), Run differential (sixth)
Top hitters: Zimmerman (36 HR, 108 RBI, .930 OPS), Harper (29 HR, 87 RBI, 1.008 OPS), Rendon (25 HR, 100 RBI, .937 OPS), Murphy (23 HR, 93 RBI, .928 OPS)
Top pitchers: Scherzer (16-6, 2.51 ERA), Strasburg (15-4, 2.52 ERA), Gonzalez (15-9, 2.96 ERA), Sean Doolittle (2.40 ERA, 21/22 SV), Ryan Madson (1.37 ERA, 1/1 SV), Brandon Kintzler (3.46 ERA, 1/3 SV), Matt Albers (1.62 ERA, 2/5 SV)
Pros: Lineup was stacked with Murphy, Rendon and Zimmerman all in top form entering the playoffs. Michael A. Taylor stepped up and seized center field job. Bench was deep with options from both sides of the plate (Adam Lind, Howie Kendrick). Scherzer had another Cy Young season, and Strasburg and Gonzalez were healthy and in peak form entering the postseason. A bullpen that had been a disaster in the first half turned into a major strength with the July acquisitions of Doolittle, Madson and Kintzler.
Cons: Harper busted up his knee in mid-August, and though he returned in late September, he was not in top form entering the playoffs. Scherzer tweaked his hamstring in his final start of the regular season and couldn't make his NLDS debut until Game 3. Matt Wieters and Werth had rough years at the plate and in the field.
Who they would've faced: Dodgers in NLCS, Astros in World Series
OK, so what are we thinking here? Let's begin by eliminating the one team I believe had very little realistic chance of winning it all: the 2016 Nationals. Maybe if Strasburg and Ramos were healthy for the postseason, but those two losses really hurt them. Even if they had defeated the Dodgers, can you see a rotation of Scherzer, Roark, Gonzalez and Joe Ross taking down the eventual champion Cubs in the NLCS and then the really strong Indians in the Fall Classic? That's a tough ask.
So that leaves the 2012, 2014 and 2017 teams.
A lot of folks have really fond memories of the 2012 club, and for good reason. You always remember the first one. And that group legitimately had something special going on. It also had by far the biggest NLDS Game 5 choke job of any, blowing a 6-0 lead and ultimately coming within one strike of advancing.
However, the path beyond the NLDS that October would have been a tough one, especially with no Strasburg anchoring the rotation. I've been shouting from the rooftops for seven years now that the Nats didn't lose to the Cardinals because of "The Shutdown," but you have to acknowledge it would've been really tough for them to go all the way without Strasburg's services. Gonzalez was their playoff ace, for crying out loud! Jackson was the No. 3 starter!
And the 2012 Giants would've been a tough team to beat in a best-of-seven NLCS. That team won more regular season games (94) than either the 2010 or 2014 versions that also went on to win the World Series. And it swept a really good Tigers team (starring Scherzer, Fister and AnÃbal SÃ¡nchez!) in the Fall Classic. The hunch here is that the Nats would've lost to San Francisco. Or if not, then to Detroit.
So that leaves us with 2014 versus 2017.
The 2014 Nationals had the worst postseason showing of any of these teams, falling to the Giants in four games. But that was a way more winnable series than you might remember. Yes, Williams' managing in the ninth inning of Game 2 (pulling a dominant Zimmermann in favor of Storen) cost them big-time and led to an agonizing 18-inning loss. But the real reason those Nats lost that series is because they completely stopped hitting.
A team that averaged 4.2 runs per game during the regular season (third-best in the NL) scored nine total runs in the entire NLDS. Nine! The pitching staff actually was really good in that series, allowing only nine total runs to the Giants. Yes, the final composite score of the four-game NLDS (which really was the equivalent of five games because of the 18-inning marathon) was 9-9!
And that 88-win San Francisco club (despite going on to win it all) was pretty beatable. The three games the Nationals lost were started by 38-year-old Tim Hudson, 36-year-old Ryan Vogelsong and 33-year-old Jake Peavy. The one game they actually did win was against Madison Bumgarner!
The 2014 Nationals were stacked. The lineup was really dangerous, led by the Span-Rendon combo at the top. The top three starters (Strasburg, Zimmermann, Fister) were elite. And the bullpen was better than most remember; Storen had been lights-out aside from that regrettable Buster Posey-Pablo Sandoval sequence in Game 2.
Had they advanced, the Nats would've faced a pedestrian Cardinals team in the NLCS that won 90 games but had a modest run differential of plus-16 for the season. After that would've been a World Series matchup with the surprising Royals, who did take the Giants to Game 7 on the strength of their clutch hitting and lockdown bullpen. That would've been a tough matchup, but it still would've been a winnable matchup for the Nationals.
There's a good argument for the 2017 club, too. That was about as healthy a team as the Nationals took into any of those four playoff years, though keep in mind that Harper was still returning from his serious knee injury and wasn't at his best.
Still, any team with a healthy and peak-form Scherzer-Strasburg combo atop the rotation would've had a chance to go all the way (as we certainly saw last October). That lineup was really, really good, with Murphy, Zimmerman and Rendon more than productive enough to offset a less-than-100 percent Harper. And the Law Firm bullpen was fantastic. That trio wasn't the reason the Nats lost to the Cubs. (The 2017 Cubs, by the way, weren't nearly as good as the previous version that broke the 108-year curse.)
So the Nationals absolutely were good enough to advance to the NLCS that fall. But what about their chances after that?
The 2017 Dodgers would've been an awfully daunting challenge in the NLCS. That team rolled over the Cubs in five games by a combined score of 28-8. And after that would've been the Astros, a powerhouse team that outlasted L.A. in an epic, seven-game World Series and captured the hearts of baseball fans around the globe for the way they had built themselves into a model new-age franchise and earned their first championship without resorting to any illegal activities along the way.
Er. Um. Oh.
So we now know the Astros had some help in 2017. Would the Nationals have been able to outsmart them in a theoretical World Series matchup? That's impossible to know. Regardless, it still would've been a tough matchup.
OK, so what's the final verdict? In my mind, I think there's a good argument that the 2017 Nationals were the best team of the four and were best-positioned to go on a long October run. But they would've faced a more difficult path to glory than the 2014 Nationals would've faced.
Yeah, I'm going with Williams, Zimmermann, Fister, Span, LaRoche, Storen and the rest of the 2014 squad as the previous Nats team that probably blew its best chance to win a World Series.