In the past 30 years, five teams have won at least 105 games. I've gone on record as saying the Washington Nationals have an excellent chance of joining that exclusive company.
While we've analyzed the Nationals previously, I was interested in looking at what went right for these five clubs. Looking at their history might give some insight on what needs to go right for the Nats to win 105 games.
First, a snapshot of the five teams:
2004 Cardinals: 105-57
855 runs (1st in NL)
659 runs allowed (1st in NL)
Run differential: 196
29-20 in one-run games
32-13 in blowouts
Beat up on: 14-5 against Reds
2001 Mariners: 116-46
927 runs (1st in AL)
627 runs allowed (1st in AL)
Run differential: 300
26-12 in one-run games
34-10 in blowouts
Beat up on: 8-1 against Twins and Orioles
1998 Yankees: 114-48
965 runs (1st in AL)
656 runs allowed (1st in AL)
Run differential: 309
21-10 in one-run games
42-13 in blowouts (5+)
Beat up on: 10-0 against Royals, 11-1 against Rays
1998 Braves: 106-56
826 runs (4th in NL)
581 runs (1st in NL)
Run differential: 245
23-21 in one-run games
35-8 in blowouts (5+)
Beat up on: 8-1 against Dodgers and Diamondbacks
1986 Mets: 108-54
783 runs (1st in NL)
578 runs allowed (2nd in NL)
Run differential: 205
29-20 in one-run games
27-9 in blowouts (5+)
Beat up on: 17-1 against Pirates
What can we take away from this? It shouldn't be surprising, but you have to dominate both sides of the ball. Even the Braves, while ranking fourth in runs, were just 19 runs behind the No. 2 team (although a more distant 48 runs behind the Astros). A year ago, the Nationals won 98 games while finishing fifth in runs scored and second in runs allowed. Their run differential was 137, so they're going to have to improve by about 70 runs to have a chance at 105 wins. That probably means adding about 50 runs on offense (doable with an improved Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman hitting all season like he did in the second half, a healthy Jayson Werth and more production from catcher) and allowing about 20 runs less on the defensive side.
The one problem area is the Nationals may not have an easy team to beat up on. The Mets had the Pirates (64-98 that year) while the Braves and Yankees took advantage of expansion opponents in Arizona and Tampa Bay. The Nationals have to play the Braves and Phillies 19 times each, and both of those could be 90-win clubs. For the Nationals to reach 105, they're going to have do exceedingly well against the Mets and Marlins.
It's not a big surprise that all five of our teams had excellent health in the rotation. Here are the number of starts from each club's top five starters:
From what I can tell, the only significant injuries were Chris Carpenter went down in September for the Cardinals (and missed the playoffs) while John Smoltz made just 26 starts for the Braves. The Yankees promoted Orlando Hernandez during the season and the Mariners put rookie Joel Pineiro in the rotation late in the season.
So the Nationals likely need their five guys to remain healthy -- especially since there isn't an obvious No. 6 guy right now on the 40-man roster.
Do you need a surprise player or a guy or two having a career year? Not necessarily. Let's look at each club.
Cardinals: Offense was built around three guys with a 1.000+ OPS: Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen. Those three certainly had other big years. The rotation wasn't actually that dominant -- Carpenter led with a 3.46 ERA and Matt Morris, Woody Williams and Jeff Suppan all had ERAs over 4.00 (but about league average for the time).
Mariners: The big surprise for Seattle was second baseman Bret Boone, who had a monster .331/.372/.578 season. He had other good seasons but that was a career year. Starter Paul Abbott went 17-4.
Yankees: More than anything, the Yankees relied on extraordinary health. Four position players played 150-plus and two more played 142 and 149 games. Nobody really had a career year -- Scott Brosius hit .300 (and hit .247 in 1999), but he had hit .300 with the A's in 1996 so it wasn't a complete fluke. El Duque certainly was a surprise at the time (12-4, 3.13 ERA) but he proved to be a good pitcher.
Braves: The Braves did have a huge season from 37-year-old first baseman Andres Galarraga (.305, 44 home runs) and 30-plus home runs from Chipper Jones, Javy Lopez and Andruw Jones, but the only real surprise was rookie closer Kerry Ligtenberg (30 saves, 2.71 ERA).
Mets: The Mets had one obvious career year from starter Bobby Ojeda (18-5, 2.57 ERA) and Ray Knight had a good season after two miserable ones, but most of their stars -- Darryl Strawberry, Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez -- had just a typical year for them.
You can win 105 games and still have flaws -- or at least minor ones.
Cardinals: As mentioned, the rotation was solid more than great, ranking tied for fourth in the NL in ERA and lacking a true No. 1. They didn't receive much offense from catchers Mike Matheny and rookie backup Yadier Molina.
Mariners: Never had a regular left fielder (Al Martin received the most playing time and he wasn't very good) and shortstop Carlos Guillen and third baseman David Bell were both below average with the bat.
Yankees: The bullpen depth was actually a little thin as Mike Stanton had a 5.47 ERA that year and Jeff Nelson pitched just 40 innings. But Mariano Rivera was great and Ramiro Mendoza was the secret weapon, posting a 1.93 ERA in 42 relief innings.
Mets: The team defense wasn't great, with second basemen Wally Backman and Tim Teufel both subpar defensively, Kevin Mitchell and Howard Johnson both seeing significant time at shortstop, and George Foster spending part of the season as the team's left fielder. Rafael Santana was the regular shortstop and hit just .218
All five teams had excellent benches.
Cardinals: John Mabry was the top reserve, slugging .504, while So Taguchi and Roger Cedeno backed up in the outfield. The team acquired Larry Walker for the stretch run and he slugged .560.
Mariners: Mark McLemore was the team's supersub, playing infield and outfield and posting a .384 on-base percentage with 39 steals in 487 plate appearances. Stan Javier was a solid fourth outfielder (.375) and pinch-hitter Ed Sprague hit .298.
Yankees: Tim Raines (.395 OBP) and Joe Girardi were the main subs, but Chili Davis came off the DL late in the year to replace Strawberry, who had colon cancer, as the team's DH.
Braves: Platoon outfielder Gerald Williams hit .305/.352/.504 and backup catcher Eddie Perez hit .336/.404/.537 in 167 PAs. Ozzie Guillen filled in at shortstop when Walt Weiss was injured and hit .277.
Mets: Mitchell played all over and hit .277/.344/.466, Johnson played third and short and slugged .445 and Danny Heep hit .282/.379/.421. Even pinch-hitter Lee Mazzilli had a .417 OBP.
This is an area where I think the Nationals can also excel. They have solid backups in Tyler Moore, Roger Bernadina and Steve Lombardozzi, two quality catchers in Kurt Suzuki and Wilson Ramos and a pinch-hitting specialist in Chad Tracy. The bench would have been even stronger if they'd kept Michael Morse as left field/first base insurance, but Moore can fill the same role.
In listing the five keys for the Nationals to win 105 games, I'd go something like this:
1. All five starting pitchers remaining healthy.
2. Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman putting up bigger numbers.
3. Maybe one surprise/career year. Best candidate: Danny Espinosa.
4. Bullpen depth + quality. (Check.)
5. Don't screw it up. (Check. Davey Johnson has been here before.)
It can be done. As I said, the toughest road will be all the games against the Braves and Phillies. But even that can be overcome. The 2004 Cardinals went 8-10 against the Astros and 9-8 against the Brewers. The '98 Braves went 3-6 against the Cubs, 4-5 against the Astros and 1-3 against the Yankees. The '86 Mets went 8-10 against the Phillies.
Anyway, it should be a fun ride. That's how good I think the Nationals can be: We could be seeing an all-time great team.