A week ago, the NL East was as close as any division has been this late in a season. Five teams were separated by a game and a half, and the prediction that the NL East race would be a four-team dogfight seemed to be coming to fruition. Since then, one team has taken control of the race, and while that’s not terribly surprising, the identity of that team is: it’s the fifth team in the projected four-team race, the foster children of MLB, the Washington Nationals.

Before getting pasted by the Angels last night, the Nationals had ripped off a ten-game winning streak and a 12-1 homestand, a run that pushed them to the top of the division, a spot they still hold this morning. Despite the lowest Opening Day payroll in the division, a thin farm system, no vested ownership and the hangover from two seasons out of the Bingo Long travelogue, the Nationals have managed to be more than just competitive, but actually successful, in their first half-season in D.C.

The Nationals’ 37-27 record is deceptive. Last night’s blowout loss left them with more runs allowed (266) than runs scored (261) for the season, the first indicator that things are amiss. BP’s Adjusted Standings, which account not only for that discrepancy but for a team’s underlying performance and competition level, peg the Nationals as a sub-.500 team, with the largest gap between expected record and actual record in the division (six games) and just barely ahead of the Braves for last place.

Like the AL’s surprise team, the Chicago White Sox, the Nationals have been exceptional in one-run games, fashioning a 16-7 record. While the team’s strong bullpen is a factor in that record, playing .670 ball in one-run games is a mark of good fortune, not reflective of some special ability to win close games. Outside of these contests, the Nationals are a .500 team (21-20), and even that mark may be an overstatement of their talent level.

Contributing to the record is a home ballpark that holds down run scoring, keeping final scores in a small range; go through the Nats’ game log, and you’ll see a host of 3-2, 2-1, 4-2 wins. On just the most recent homestand, the Nationals won six games in which seven or fewer runs were scored. They’ve played more one-run games than any NL team outside of the Diamondbacks, and it’s likely that they’ll lead the league in those contests before the year is out. That’s all RFK Stadium, which is playing as a strong pitchers’ park. The Nats’ pitchers have a 3.95 ERA, which places them eighth in the league and reflects a below-average performance when you consider their home park. Livan Hernandez has been one of the top ten starters in the league, while Esteban Loaiza and John Patterson have been above average. The back of the rotation is still a problem, one not made better by the trade of Tomokazu Ohka for a short-term patch at second base (Junior Spivey).

That the Nationals have an effective bullpen shouldn’t be a surprise. Frank Robinson has been doing this for years, assembling decent bullpens from no-name parts. The raw numbers look better thanks to RFK, but the Nationals would have a good bullpen anywhere. Chad Cordero was one of the 10 best relievers in the NL last year, and may be an All-Star this year. Luis Ayala has walked one man in 38 innings. No one else has the kind of peripherals that make you think they can keep it up, but I probably would have said that in June of 1989, too, when Robinson had the Orioles challenging in the AL East.

This isn’t a good offense. It’s basically two very good hitters–Nick Johnson and Brad Wilkerson–carrying 12 other guys. Ryan Church has been impressive in limited playing time, as has Marlon Byrd, and Jose Guillen has been an average corner outfielder. The loss of Jose Vidro has been devastating to a team that was already getting nothing from shortstop and very little from behind the plate. On ESPNews, Brian Kenny has twice tried to get me to back away from my criticism of the Vinny Castilla signing. Castilla had a good April and has hit .043/.051/.065 since then. OK, maybe a bit better than that, but he’s down to a .276 EqA and likely to lose another 30 points off of that before leaves start hitting the ground. Signing him was a waste of money, even in a market that valued a glass reproduction of Corey Koskie at three years, $17 million. Add Castilla to Cristian Guzman, Brian Schneider and Spivey, and it’s hard to see this team reaching 700 runs unless Wilkerson and Johnson both play 155 games.

Get me, I’m writing comedy.

The Nats’ 37-27 record is a mirage, appearing in the same spot in the desert as the Yankees’ only competent stretch: the one on which the A’s and Mariners play. Remember the Yankees’ 11-1 rush? That was entirely against those two terrible teams. The second half of the Nationals’ homestand consisted of beating up those two AL weak sisters. They won’t play any team that bad again until after the All-Star break; in fact, aside from six games with the Pirates, I’m not sure the Nationals will play a team worse than they are until they go to Milwaukee to kick off the second half. I expect them to be hovering around .500 by then.

This isn’t that unusual. Just one year ago, we watched the Tampa Bay Devil Rays become the It Team with a 12-game winning streak and a 20-6 June. A road trip that saw them go 4-6 against the Marlins, Orioles and Yankees ended their relevance. The year before, it was a big start by the Royals, also fed by dramatic one-run wins, that got people excited. It was a two-week peak by a team that’s been playing .420 ball since you knew the Macarena. Or maybe the Lambada.

Teams that are truly 70- or 75-win teams can have hot stretches within a season that make them look like contenders. It doesn’t mean you throw out all the other information. When you consider who the Nationals have been playing, where they’ve been playing, their talent level and their management team, it’s hard to see them hanging in the NL East race. I think Frank Robinson is one of the most underrated managers in history, a guy who has consistently posted records above his team’s talent–the anti-Baker, if you will–but even he can’t keep this team in contention all season long.

You know what bothers me more than that, though? What I perceive as a stunning lack of interest in this team. Much was made over the Nationals’ crossing the one-million mark in home attendance last weekend. It’s a nice feat given the franchise’s recent history in Montreal, but is it that impressive? On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, the first-place Nationals, playing at the end of a homestand in which they’d lost once, against a team featuring one of the most marketable players in the game (Ichiro Suzuki), sold 37,170 tickets. Capacity is listed at 56,692, but home attendance peaked on Opening Day at a bit over 45,000. The Nationals’ average of 31,912 fans per home date is just 12th in MLB, eighth in the NL.

[Ed. Note. A number of people have written in to point out that RFK’s capacity for baseball is about 45,000, making Opening Day a sellout and moving the team’s average closer to capacity. I’ll concede the fact, but note that the numbers are still unimpressive.–JS]

This is the market that MLB held hostage for decades, that stood out as the most attractive place in which to stick a baseball team that needed a new home, even at a cost of paying off the owner of the closest team. Yet in the first season of Washington baseball since 1972, with an attractive team playing winning baseball, a Sunday afternoon game in June can’t even reach 75% of capacity?

That strikes me as a problem. Consider the last four expansion teams, none of which was as competitive as the Nationals, and aside from the Rockies, none of which was playing in a market whose desire for baseball was as hyped as Washington, D.C.

Year   Team                       Attendance    Average    Rank in Lg
1993   Colorado Rockies            4,483,350     55,350        1
1993   Florida Marlins             3,064,847     37,838        5
1998   Arizona Diamondbacks        3,610,290     44,571        2
1998   Tampa Bay Devil Rays        2,506,293     30,942        7

2005   Washington Nationals        2,584,909*    31,912        8


The Nationals are going to have the least successful debut season of any team since the 1977 expansion, back when overall attendance was half what it is now. They’re going to lag far behind the Rockies, Marlins and Diamondbacks, and about on par with the debut what is now one of the worst franchises in the game. It can’t just be the park; the Rockies and Marlins played in football stadiums, and the Devil Rays in a convention center. None of these teams came close to first place, or 11 games over .500, or a 10-game winning streak.

There are some mitigating circumstances here, beginning with how MLB poisoned the relationship with the city last winter, suspending marketing operations in the midst of a war with politicians over stadium funding. That’s a factor, but again, I point to how D.C. was sold as the last great market for baseball, and I wonder…is that all there is? If a city can’t sell out a warm-weather game on a Sunday as a first-place team in its debut season, what hope will there be when the team is 17 games under .500 two years down the road? Shouldn’t all the hype about D.C. translate to the Nationals being an above-average draw in their own league?

Putting all the eggs in the “new park” basket is a huge mistake; the bump a team gets from new digs is no longer enough to sustain it even through one season, as the broad swaths of empty seats at Petco Park last year or in Great American Ball Park in 2003 have shown.

On field and off, the Nationals have a lot yet to prove.

Thank you for reading

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