Nationals Win The Pennant? Not As Crazy As It Sounds

As we saw during the World Series last week, even the most successful MLB managers tend to do more bad than good.

After leading his team to two consecutive World Series appearances, the ever-quirky Ron Washington seemed to play his own minor role in his team’s nose dive in Games 6 and 7 with each confusing pinch hit and bullpen replacement he made. Even Tony La Russa, who today upon his retirement is drawing comparisons to the all-time great managers, had his own flubs in last week’s series including the almost infamous phonegate.

The thing is though, even with their managerial misfirings, these two managers have lead their team to a combined eight World Series berths. What it comes down to is not the X’s and O’s, but the manager’s ability to motivate a group of 25 young men who have never held actual jobs, and know nothing but how to play baseball. After all, where would the Cardinals be without the steady, undying reassurance of La Russa, or the Rangers without the unbelievable energy that Washington brings to his job day-in and day out.

It’s with this that I was pleased to hear one thing and one thing only from Davey Johnson in his press conference today where he was, after a ridiculously long waiting period, officially named the Washington Nationals skipper for next year. Johnson told the press in attendance that not only does he think the Nats can win next season, he set his goals as high as “Winning the pennant. Winning the division. Winning the National League.” 

Talk about a way to turn some heads. The Nationals have failed to have anything better than a .500 season throughout the duration of their existence, and now after one halfway decent year the team’s new full-time manager thinks they can win the pennant. That’s the kind of prediction that can get people fired after one year. The thing is though, Johnson, as crazy as he sounds, is just doing his job. He needs not just the Nats fans and the Nats media to think he is crazy, he needs his team to start being crazy themselves. Those who are crazy enough to believe that they can go from 80-81 to the World Series are probably the only ones who actually can. 

But how crazy is it REALLY? We all know the Nationals are on the up-and-up, they have tons of young talent and seem ready to compete. But I think the general shock that was caused by Johnson’s statements was that there is a perceived barrier between competing for the playoffs and aiming for a pennant. When people hear such high goals, there’s an instinctual feeling that some important step is being skipped, but a quick look at the National League landscape actually makes things seem a bit clearer.

The Philadelphia Phillies won 102 games last season and seemed a lock to represent the National League in the 2011 World Series all season long. But do things still look so certain for their 2012 just a month after their elimination? The Phil’s just let Roy Oswalt go to test the free-agent waters and there is no certainty that he will be back. Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley have seemed to slow down rapidly, and super-slugger Ryan Howard destroyed his Achilles in the final play of the Cardinals’ series and could miss a significant amount of time in 2012. As much talent as the Phillies have on their roster they are aging, and they will not be able to keep up their act for long.

The Milwaukee Brewers are young and talented, but who knows where they will be this time next year with the seemingly definite departure of Prince Fielder? The team has also lost Francisco Rodriguez and will soon have to make a decision on starter Zack Greinke, who will be a free-agent next season. As fun as 2011 was for the Brew-Crew, things could turn around very fast even by mid-season in 2012.

The Cardinals pulled off an amazing run to win the World Series this fall, but with Tony La Russa gone and Albert Pujols potentially out the door, how much of a “safe bet” could you possibly place on St. Louis today to be in the same spot they are in now next year?

The Atlanta Braves imploded last season and who knows what direction they will take next. When the Mets suffered their epic collapse in the early part of this decade they never fully recovered.

The San Francisco Giants fell short of the playoffs in 2011 after winning it all in 2010 but still had a strong 86-76 record. They lose Carlos Beltran in 2012 most likely however which leaves Aubrey Huff and Pablo Sandoval as their biggest sluggers. The team is expected to get back Buster Posey this coming season, but who knows what type of player he will be after that monstrous blow last year?

That really just leaves the Arizona Diamondbacks who, admittedly, are stocked and ready to go in 2012. Their young lineup and talented pitching staff should be back at 100 percent in 2012.

Still, when one breaks down the competition in the National League, at least pre-free-agency, Johnson’s prediction seems hardly that ridiculous. Looking out at the league from Nov. 1, it seems like the Brewers, Cardinals, Braves, Phillies, and Giants are all on a downward slop, and the Nationals look ready to strike.