Washington Nationals Among Playoff Contenders in Competitive National League: Fan’s Take

Opening day has arrived and almost every team in baseball has hopes of a successful season; some have championship aspirations while others have more modest goals.

The National League presents an interesting mix of teams; none of which is a clear favorite to win a title in 2012. In fact, in the following article one team that is conspicuous by their absence is the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals; who will play the season without Albert Pujols for the first time since 2001.

With that in mind, here is my look at predicted playoff teams with projected season-ending record.

Division Winners:

East - Philadelphia Phillies (96-66)

Simply put, the pitching on Philadelphia is the best; not only in the National League East, but in all of baseball; and the pitching staff suffered little erosion in the offseason. In fact, the swapping out of Ryan Madson for Jonathan Papelbon in the closers role can be looked at as a slight upgrade. Any starting rotation that boasts the likes of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels can claim they are deserving of post-season play.

Where the Phillies will suffer is in their lineup. The loss of Ryan Howard to an achilles injury and the departure of Raul Ibanez to the New York Yankees will impact one of the better run producing lineups in baseball. Howard is not expected back until May at the earliest; while second baseman Chase Utley continues to struggle returning to the form that made him a perennial all star. This season, Utley will begin the season in the disabled list with a knee injury.

A full season with Hunter Pence and speed provided by new acquisition Juan Pierre may help lessen the blow of Howard and Ibanez not being in the lineup but the window of opportunity for this team as presently constituted is slowly closing; but not before another long playoff run.

Central - Cincinnati Reds (92 - 70)

In the tightest division race in baseball, the Cincinnati Reds are positioned to overtake a weakened St. Louis Cardinals team for the division title. With a talented lineup and a decent enough pitching staff, the Reds should be expected to take the next step and ascend up the standings.

Joey Votto and Jay Bruce have both established themselves as legitimate sluggers; while Brandon Phillips and Drew Stubbs provide speed on the base paths for the Reds. The rotation does not boast any single dominant starter, but a collection of pitchers who can win ten or more games and pitch 150 or more innings. Johnny Cueto, Bronson Arroyo and Mike Leake each has above average pitches and is well positioned to win their share of games for the Reds.

Aroldis Chapman is a talented fire-baller; and if he can find a way to harness his pitches, he may evolve into a dominant late game reliever. His presence will be essential for the Reds, as prized free agent closer Ryan Madson will be out indefinitely with a torn elbow ligament. The closer role poses the biggest threat to the Reds' plans of post-season play, but the team has more than ample talent to contend this season.

West - San Francisco Giants (91 - 71)

Pitching is essential to winning in baseball; especially for a team that struggles to score runs. So is the case for the 2010 World Series champion San Francisco Giants. The Giants have an abundance of quality pitching; beginning with starters Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, and ending with closer Brian Wilson. The main area of weakness for San Francisco is the lack of run support; where the Giants scored a league-worst 570 runs all season. The lack of scoring put an undue amount of pressure on the starting pitching; who allowed the second fewest runs in 2011.

The return of catcher Buster Posey and a return to form of third baseman Pablo Sandaval will certainly help in the box score. Youngster Brandon Belt will make the major league roster and has an opportunity to build off of his promising 2011 debut.

With the Colorado Rockies, Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks in the division, the Giants will need to rely heavily on their talented pitching to emerge in October.

Wild Card Winners:

Arizona Diamondbacks (89 - 73)

Justin Upton has emerged into one of baseball's elite talents; and will again be the key driver of the Diamondbacks' success.

The pitching staff is solid; anchored by Cy Young candidate Ian Kennedy and supported by Joe Saunders and Daniel Hudson. Arizona will need consistent performances by the top of the rotation and another season like what J.J. Putz provided last year; saving 45 games for the playoff-bound Diamondbacks.

Like the Giants, run support will be key; where Arizona scored a surprising 731 runs; good for fourth in the league. If the starters can remain healthy; even a slight drop-off in scoring should have minimal impact on the team's chances for a second straight playoff berth.

Miami Marlins (85 - 77)

The team who spent the most money in the off-season will likely see a return on their investment. The Marlins have had the biggest overhaul of a team in years; with not only player additions but a new name and stadium to boot.

Jose Reyes will be a welcomed addition to the top of the Miami lineup and be a solid place-setter for the big bats in the lineup. The pitching staff also saw significant additions, with starters Mark Buehrle and Carlos Zambrano to go along with elite closer Heath Bell to bookend games for the Marlins.

The addition of Reyes to the team means a position change for former shortstop Hanley Ramirez; who will now man the hot corner in Miami.

Health will play a critical factor for the Marlins; in particular ace starter Josh Johnson, who missed significant time last year with shoulder ailments. With his health less in question, there is little doubt that new manger Ozzie Guillen will have plenty of talent at his disposal; and Guillen himself is a proven commodity as manger formerly with the Chicago White Sox.

All signs point to the Miami Marlins making a lot of noise this season and be in the hunt throughout the season.

On the fringe:

Washington Nationals (83-79)

Even though the Nationals will likely improve on last season's performance; with three key challengers in the division (including the Atlanta Braves), Washington will be in the mix to capitalize if any team above them falters.

The Nationals made key additions for 2012; adding Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson to the starting rotation, coupled with full seasons expected from top of the rotation starters Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. In the bullpen, former Phillies closer Brad Lidge arrives in the Nation's Capitol to help solidify an already solid bullpen corps. The combination of Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen will be a force to be reckoned with; especially if the team is successful in scoring more runs in 2012.

On the offensive side, a healthy return of first baseman Adam LaRoche and a healthy season of all star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman will be essential for increasing run support. Last season's pleasant surprise, Michael Morse will start the season on the disabled list and need to provide another solid 25 - 30 home run season; while Jayson Werth will need to resemble more of the player the team expected when he was signed last off-season.

Clearly there are a lot of "ifs" when it comes to the Nationals. The team possesses a good combination of talent and youth and should be a tough team to beat all season. With 162 games to decide their ultimate fate, many things could occur this season that could result in the franchise's first playoff appearance since the Montreal Expos in 1981. As a Nationals fan, this season offers the most hope for me in a long time and I remain hopeful to witness playoff baseball in Washington.

Scott Duhaime is a fan of the Washington Nationals (formerly Montreal Expos) for over 30 years. His professional career includes a solid foundation of analytics that contributes to a better appreciation of player and team contributions.

Sources:

Yahoo! Sports: Washington Nationals roster

Yahoo! Sports: Philadelphia Phillies roster

Yahoo! Sports: Cincinnati Reds roster

Yahoo! Sports: San Francisco Giants roster

Yahoo! Sports: Miami Marlins roster

Yahoo! Sports: Arizona Diamondbacks roster

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Updated Thursday, Apr 5, 2012