Jan 2, 2014, 6:00 AM EDT
ESPN’s Buster Olney ranked his top 10 teams in MLB the other day, a list that included the Nationals. Olney had the Nats eighth, but if you break it down to only NL clubs, they’re fourth.
The NL teams ahead of the Nationals? The Dodgers (second overall), Cardinals (third) and Braves (seventh).
That seems fair. L.A. and St. Louis are the reigning NLCS participants, and each has either kept the vast majority of its 2013 roster intact or has bolstered in areas of need. (The Dodgers re-signed J.P. Howell and Brian Wilson and added Chris Perez to a very deep bullpen, while the Cardinals upgraded at shortstop with Jhonny Peralta and offset the loss of Carlos Beltran by trading for center fielder extraordinaire Peter Bourjos.)
The Braves have suffered more losses (Brian McCann, Tim Hudson, Paul Maholm) and so far have added only Gavin Floyd and Ryan Doumit. But Atlanta still boasts a deep and dangerous lineup, a deep rotation (albeit one without a true ace) and probably baseball’s best bullpen. Besides, they’re still the division champs until knocked off their perch, so they deserve to sit very slightly ahead of the Nationals at this juncture.
What should be obvious, though, is that the National League as a whole remains tough, and the Nats will face stiff competition throughout 2014, from all three divisions. In addition to those three reigning division champs, there are also the Reds and Pirates in the Central and an improved Diamondbacks club out West.
Throw in a Mets club that is getting better, a Rockies club that has made some aggressive moves this winter and a Giants team that has to believe last year’s disaster was a mirage, and you’re looking at no fewer than 10 teams believing they’ve at least got a shot at making the postseason in 2014.
What does that mean for the Nationals? Well, they have every reason to think they’re as good as anybody else in the league. They return just about everybody of consequence from last season, they’ve made a couple of key moves to bolster areas of need and they’ll enter 2014 with a bit of a chip on their shoulders after their disappointing 2013.
But the road back to October baseball won’t be easy. The Braves are a formidable hurdle in the NL East, and there are no shortage of candidates to fill the two Wild Card berths.
The Nationals can’t afford another slow start and can’t wait until midsummer to turn on the jets. That didn’t work last year, and it surely won’t work this year.
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