In this series I look into whether a team could have gone on to do big things despite what the actual final outcome was and decide whether they could have done it or not.
In this very first piece of this Coulda Woulda Shoulda series I will look into whether the 2005 Washington Nationals could have made the postseason.
It was the first season in the Nation’s Capital for the team as they had just moved from Montreal and there was a lot of buzz in the air about a baseball team coming back to DC for the first time since 1971. The expectations were not high about the team’s performance, but that wasn’t anything to worry as the residents of DC and the rest of the baseball community were celebrating baseball returning to a city starved of the sport.
There were some trades made and some free agent pickups that looked decent, but never to the point where they thought it would be a postseason contender, let alone a winning record.
They lost their first game against the Phillies, but they would go on to finish the month of April with a 13-11 record. They certainly looked good, but it wasn’t enough to convince everyone that they could compete and that notion came even more into fruition when they struggled mightily with their offense and finished May with a 14-14 record for the month and 27-25 overall.
In June, it was a completely different storyline as they got hot, and I mean red hot. The pitching was absolutely lights out, the offense was scoring runs left and right, and nothing got past their gloves as they went 20-6 in the month including having a run of winning 10 consecutive games. They were 47-31 at that point and were the talk about baseball.
To start July, they were 5-5 going into the All-Star break, which was not a great record, but they were playing well in those games, just not getting the results they wanted. However they were 52-36 at the break, well ahead of their expectations.
Nick Johnson was having an All-Star like season (though he was snubbed from the roster) as he was driving in lots of runs including ones in the clutch and had an average around .340. Jose Guillen was driving in runs and hitting some clutch home runs. Ryan Church looked like he was going to be a breakout star. Livan Hernandez and Esteban Loaiza were solidifying the rotation. John Patterson looked like he was going to be a future ace. Chad Cordero looked to be a star in the making as he was saving games left and right where it seemingly looked like the game was over when he entered. Any time it was a one-run game, the Nationals won basically every time. It was a good time to be in Washington, DC for the 2005 summer.
But the second half, things went awry as they were now losing those one-run games they were winning in the first half. The defense took a tumble and the offense was not producing consistently like they were before. Church got hurt earlier in the season and when he came back, he was not the same. Johnson, though finished with a .289 average, dropped off significantly in the second half as he hit a slump. They were playing well, just not playing well enough considering their pitching was outstanding. What happened!? To be honest, I’m not quite sure. There was some underachievement and there was some bad luck. The team even went and got Junior Spivey and Preston Wilson in trades, and picked up Mike Stanton via free agency, but that was just not enough. Getting Jose Vidro back from injury seemed like that this was destiny for the team, but not even that could help. It also didn’t help that the Braves, Mets, Marlins, and Phillies got hot in the second half as they all made a push for the playoffs where they were plucking wins off from the Nationals. The worst case scenario possibly imagined came to fruition. They just so happened to be in the best division in terms of record that season.
But what if they kept up that same type of play in the second half? Would it have been realistic of them to make the playoffs?
To be honest, they could have made the playoffs.
However, I don’t think the Nationals would have won the division as the Braves were just better than them, though the Nationals had the edge in pitching. It was also a very weak National League so there could have been a good chance at the Wild Card. The likelihood of even making it out of the Division Series would have been very slim as they would have matched up with the Cardinals who won a 100 games that season. St. Louis was way better than them.
If they had in fact won the division (I’m being hypothetical right now and not realistic), there they would have played the Padres unless the Astros had beaten out the Braves for the Wild Card. The Padres were not a very good club that season where they won a division in an incredibly weak National League West as their final record was 82-80. Nationals would have won that series as their pitching was way better (though San Diego had a decent bullpen). I am not sure if the Nationals would have beaten the Braves in the NLCS that year, but if it came down to pitching, they most certainly would have won that matchup. Now if they would have won that series, in the World Series, they would have faced the White Sox who were just too good to be beaten. The Pale Hose would have taken home the trophy with ease (which they actually did as they swept the Astros though the games that were played in that series were very close). If they had played the Astros in the Division Series, Houston would have won. Maybe I should do the simulator to see if these scenarios would have panned out.
What would have really helped the Nationals going into the playoffs was their bullpen. It was phenomenal all year long as Jon Rauch, Cordero, Luis Ayala, Hector Carrasco, Gary Majewski, Stanton, and Joey Eischen were each fantastic with Stanton being the weakest link. The rotation was good, but after Loaiza, Hernandez, and Patterson, a fourth starter was not their strongest suit as it would have likely been Tony Armas who was not that great after coming from the disabled list. If they had kept Tomo Ohka, then it would have been fine for the squad.
However, if it wasn’t for that such dominant bullpen and solid rotation, this team would have never come close to making the playoffs. There just wasn’t enough talent on offense to carry the club. I really believe that they overachieved a bit in the first half, but severely underachieved in the second half. I do, however, think they would have made the playoffs that season.