One of the interesting components of the Nats 2013 schedule, often repeated in this space in the early parts of last season, was how “front-loaded” it was in terms of opponent quality. The team’s April and May of last year was loaded with playoff calibre teams, and it wasn’t really a surprise that the Nats were just a .500 team early on. That front-loading also led to a very sparse period in June and July of 2013 where the team played 8 straight weeks of games against teams who failed to make the 2012 playoffs. I didn’t sweat our .500 record at the end of April because of it, pointing to the crucial June/July period as a spot in the schedule where the team should have “made up” for its early season. As we now know, the team continued to play flat all summer and only finally “woke up” when playing a very soft September schedule, and the .500 record in the early parts of the season was far more indicative of the 2013 team than practically any of us thought going into the season.
Caveat before going on; yes I know that the fact that a team made the playoffs in 2013 doesn’t mean they’re automatically going to make the playoffs in 2014. And yes I know that poor teams from last year are improving and could be more “frisky” in 2014. That being said … I feel like we’re in a very odd time in Baseball, where payroll issues, changing dynamics caused by the collective bargaining agreement, and teams being stuck in transition are leading to teams being very slow to change their fortunes. Only Six teams in the NL finished with winning records last year; the 3 divisional winners, the 2 wild cards and the Nats. If you look at the other 9 teams … which are honestly going to be in a position to improve and be a playoff challenger at this point? Certainly not Miami or the Cubs. Philadelphia looks to be in continued decline. The Mets signed a bunch of re-treads and lost their main pitching weapon. The Giants spent tens of millions of dollars and didn’t improve their team. The Padres have 1/5th the payroll of their divisional rivals in Los Angeles. Colorado still has no pitching. Arizona keeps losing trades to get rid of players who don’t fit their manager’s beliefs. Perhaps only Arizona could be friskier in 2014. Its hard to look at the divisions and not basically predict a repeat of 2013′s playoff races. Maybe Cincinnati and Pittsburgh regress a little bit. St. Louis and Los Angeles look every bit as strong as they did last year. So, basically the games we need to be worried about are almost entirely driven by last year’s playoff teams.
How does the 2014 schedule shape up, doing analysis of opponents by their position in 2013? Lets take a look. Breaking down our 2014 schedule by month:
|# games||# games vs 2013 playoffs||# games vs 2013 winning rcrd|
So, once again the team starts the season with a relatively tougher schedule, having to play two sets against the Braves and a 4-game set at home against St. Louis in April. The Braves by all accounts are weakened by the loss of two key players (Tim Hudson and Brian McCann), and have done relatively little to improve their team this off-season, so perhaps some regression from last year’s 98 win team is in order. Still, the Braves are the primary competition for the NL East crown and those early games will be crucial. The Nats also will play the payroll-heavy/possibly improved Angels and the up-and-coming Padres in April, in addition to two 3-game sets against the Marlins and their band of up-and-coming youngesters. It could be another rough month.
May doesn’t get any easier; fully half their games are against 2013 playoff teams. The Nats get the Dodgers and their murderer’s row of pitchers at home, then a west coast trip in Oakland and in Arizona (who finished 81-81 last year and could have made the table above look even more daunting), then a 3-game set at home to Cincinnati (who look to be somewhat weaker but still present a great rotation) before traveling to Pittsburgh for 4-games (tough) and then finishing the month at home against AL-power Texas. That’s a tough month.
June eases up a bit, but it does feature another west-coast trip that includes four games in San Francisco (who could be improved this year) and then three in St. Louis (where we were swept badly last year), before returning home for a big four-game set against divisional rival Atlanta. The rest of the month looks manageable.
July looks to be the easiest month of the season; the toughest series will be in Cincinnati and a home-and-home against Baltimore. The entire baseball world is questioning the direction of Baltimore these days, but they are an AL team that features Chris Davis and a plus offense, and those interleague “rivalry” games are always tough.
August features lots of divisional games early on, a 3-game home set against Pittsburgh, and then the beginning of the final west-coast trip of the season in Seattle (an interesting team for 2014). September starts with the toughest series of the year; 3 games in Los Angeles and then finishes with seven straight divisional series … including the last 10 games against the Mets and Marlins. Which may be a good thing if the team is chasing a playoff spot or positioning towards the end of the season.
Conclusion: like in 2012 the Nats early schedule is significantly tougher than the middle portion (especially August, where they play just 6 games against teams with winning records in 2013). The Nats will have to weather the storm early on and hope to dominate and catch up on playoff rivals during the dog days of summer. Why is this important? Because generally speaking if you can go .500 against the good teams and then go about .600 against the other teams, you’re almost guaranteed a playoff spot. Consider: if the Nats go 24-24 in their 48 games against playoff teams, then play .600 ball in the other 114 games (68-46) … that’s a 92 win season. I think that’s a great goal for this team; 6 games improved with a hope of picking up a few of those games against Atlanta and pipping them for the divisional title.