Some ways of winning you find yourself liking better than you expected. Five and a half months ago, most of us anticipated the Nationals would win the NL East, so now that Washington is on the cusp of clinching, there isn’t any drama. It’s done. For weeks, it’s been a matter of math and shrinking odds.
Admittedly, the Braves made a better-than-expected showing with a cobbled-together rotation, but the Nationals should clinch at some point this week, which provides time to reflect on how and why they did it. This is why I’d argue it has been more fun to actually see them do it than you might've expected from a slam-dunk preseason favorite.
For example, if you thought they’d win because of their much celebrated young duo of nascent superstars Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, guess again. Both have been good, but Strasburg isn’t the Nats’ best (or second best) starter, and Harper hasn’t been as important to the Nationals’ success in the lineup as Adam LaRoche or Anthony Rendon or Jayson Werth.
So set aside the guys such as Strasburg and Harper who get the most headlines. If you had to peg the “worst” player in the Nats lineup, whom would you peg? Wilson Ramos? Catchers with an OPS north of .700 don't grow on trees -- not these days. Ian Desmond? Asdrubal Cabrera? Those are both useful players with whom you can win, as the Nats have.
Take Desmond at shortstop, one of the last legacies from the franchise’s Expos incarnation, a third-round pick out of high school in 2004. His prospect status languished as he spent the better part of four years bouncing between Class A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg before he finally broke through with a reminder that, in time, youth will be served. If you look at what he doesn’t do -- generate positive numbers in advanced defensive metrics or walk -- you might underrate him. He’s durable and has already notched his third straight 20-homer season while playing a solid shortstop.
Instead, the Nats are an interesting success story because of their depth and because of the number of guys who put them over the top. It’s even more interesting when you consider how many analysts have been critical of the decisions to sign Werth and LaRoche. Some might still lament getting three years of control of center fielder Denard Span in a deal with the Twins for hotshot pitching prospect Alex Meyer. But in the end, this is a concentration of talent that has used financial muscle via free agency and accumulated value from more than a decade of scouting.
That isn’t the only thing that has worked out well, even if the current management regime can’t claim all the credit. Whether getting Doug Fister from the Tigers or stealing Wilson Ramos from the Twins, there’s plenty to brag about. Betting the upside on Werth in his 30s has worked out well for the Nationals, as David Schoenfield noted recently. Reviewing his seven-year, $126 million deal at the midpoint, it certainly looks much better than the B.J. Upton contract (five years, $75 million), a deal many celebrated and a lot of smart folks liked at the time and a deal that has almost no chance of working out, now that Upton’s on the short list of worst regulars in baseball. LaRoche? It used to be fashionable to bash him as a mediocrity; these days he's a solid sure thing the Nats can bet on.
That is not to say the Nationals will have it easy from here on out. They still have important questions to ask and answer -- and two weeks to find answers before they head into October.
Perhaps the biggest question involves their former starting third baseman. As Ryan Zimmerman tries to work his way back from the DL, he went through a full workout Monday at instructional league and will play a simulated game Tuesday. If he can come back in time to get a week or so of everyday play in the majors, the Nats might be able to determine if they can move Anthony Rendon back to second base and start Zimmerman at third or if they’ll have to settle for Zimmerman spot-starting at first, left and -- should they make it -- DH in the World Series. It’s a nice problem to have.
Less enjoyable will be sorting out what they’re going to do with former closer Rafael Soriano. Handed a four-run lead in the ninth inning Monday, he brought the Braves back into the game by allowing two runs to score. Since his latest save Sept. 1, Soriano has allowed six runs and blown two saves in his past 4 1/3 IP across five games. He’s allowed 10 baserunners. He’s giving Nationals fans the willies, and if Matt Williams had any hair left, it would have long since gone grey. Drew Storen came in to clean up the mess, notched his fifth save in five appearances and demonstrated there is no “committee” solution to Soriano’s struggles as a closer -- the job is Storen’s.
The question now might be whether Soriano is worth a postseason roster spot. That might sound extreme, but if he doesn’t show anything in the next two weeks, would you invest the space in keeping him around? They’ll be adding someone from the rotation -- probably Tanner Roark -- to the pen, and with Tyler Clippard and Aaron Barrett around, it isn’t like they’re short of quality right-handed arms for setup work. It might come down to a choice between Soriano and third lefty Jerry Blevins.
The Nationals will be better off if Soriano can put people’s minds at ease in the meantime. He didn’t Monday night, but thanks to the margin they’ve built to clinch shortly, they’ll be able to afford him the time to get back in gear. Those are the benefits you win for yourself when you deliver on the expectation that you’d win going away -- and then you do.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.