The Washington Nationals are your 2016 NL East champions, having clinched the division Saturday night. Their only worry right now is how much champagne stings when it gets in their eyes.

So, it’s up to us to worry about their path through the National League playoffs.

This doesn’t involve taking anything away from the season they’ve had, mind you. The Nats‘ 6-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Parkwhich combined with the New York Mets‘ 10-8 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies to wrap up the NL East racewas their 90th with eight games to go. They have a shot of making it three 95-win teams in five years.

Even in getting this far, the Nats have made it look easy. There were only six days all season in which they didn’t have first place all to themselves. They’ve taken a division that many thought would be the domain of the reigning NL champion Mets and were a wire-to-wire juggernaut.

An MVP-caliber season out of free-agent signee Daniel Murphy has helped. So has a Cy Young-caliber season out of Max Scherzer, a free-agent signee from a year ago. Wilson Ramos, Trea Turner and Tanner Roark have also starred. Dusty Baker has been as advertised as the cure for what ailed the team under former manager Matt Williams in 2015.

But like an elephant and an elephant seal, making it through a 162-game season and making it through the postseason are two completely different animals.

Doing the former doesn’t guarantee anything with the latter, and the latest odds at FanGraphs don’t favor the Nats as World Series favorites as much as the NL’s other two division leaders:

It’s not surprising that the Cubs are the big favorites to win it all. All they’ve done this season is win 98 games and outscore their opponents by something like 1,000 runs. They’re good. Really good.

But the Dodgers over the Nationals? This despite the fact the Nationals have won more games? This despite the fact they would therefore have home-field advantage in the likely inevitable matchup between the two clubs in the National League Division Series?

It’s not actually that hot of a take.

With a 12-9 record in September, the Nationals aren’t backing into the postseason. But it is fair to say they’re stumbling in, having been tripped up by a roster with increasingly noticeable cracks in it.

Bryce Harper is the big one. There’s a he-said, they-said thing going on between Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated and the Nationals over the state of Harper’s health. Verducci has circled shoulder woes as reasons for Harper’s plummet from last year’s MVP-winning season on two occasions, most recently this week. The Nats have pushed back, with Baker telling Byron Kerr of MASN Sports: “I don’t know where he’s getting that from.”

Injury or no injury, though, Harper’s not right. His .814 OPS and 24 homers mark a pretty good “bad” season, but he entered Saturday with a .761 OPS and 15 homers since April and, even more concerning, just a .630 OPS and one homer in September.

With Harper struggling, the recent news on Murphy looms that much larger. The veteran second baseman is hitting .347 with an NL-best .987 OPS, but the Nats have shut him down with (resists urge to write “bum butt”) with a mild strain in his buttocks. Baker hasn’t promised Murphy will be ready for October.

“I’m not a doctor. I don’t know,” Baker told Bill Ladson of “[The trainers] are doing everything they can to try to alleviate the pain and get rid of whatever is in there. We have a capable [training] staff here. I’m glad he didn’t do it any worse.”

Washington’s lineup is thus dealing with the possibility of having Harper and Murphy at less than full strength in October. In the context of this being the No. 4 run-scoring offense in the NL, that’s not a big deal. In the context of the Nats offense being below average in the second half, it’s a big deal.

Meanwhile, the jury remains out on Stephen Strasburg. He’s been terrific when healthy in 2016, putting up a 3.60 ERA and striking out 11.2 batters per nine innings. But he’s out with a strained flexor mass in his right arm and has only progressed as far as playing catch. His return is up in the air.

On the bright side, Scherzer and Roark are an excellent one-two punch. And with Mark Melancon having cemented a closer role that Jonathan Papelbon routinely bungled, the starters have a good bullpen backing them up. Asking the Nats to win a short postseason series on the strength of their pitching isn’t asking too much.

But it won’t be easy.

Assuming the Nationals come up against the Dodgers in the NLDS, Scherzer and Roark will match up against the formidable trio of Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda. And as good as Washington’s bullpen is, the Dodgers’ pen is arguably the best in the entire National League. Los Angeles is also going into October with a red-hot offense. Only the Boston Red Sox have been more productive in the second half.

Even if the Nationals were to survive the Dodgers, their reward would likely be a date with the Cubs. The matchup problems would be deja vu all over again. It would be Scherzer and Roark against Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks. It would be Washington’s Melancon-led bullpen against Chicago’s Aroldis Chapman-led bullpen. And it would be Washington’s weakened offense against arguably the only NL offense better than the Dodgers.

As ominous as things sound, however, it can always be worse.

Injuries haven’t completely robbed the Nationals of their best qualities, a la the Cleveland Indians and their starting pitching. Strasburg may be out of commission, but even a reasonably healthy Murphy should be considered a threat after what he did last October. Let’s not forget that Harper has also been energized by October before, wreaking havoc in the 2014 NLDS.

And above all, there’s this: After failing as heavy favorites in 2012 and 2014, maybe being underdogs for a change is just what the Nationals need.


Stats courtesy of and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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