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The 2017 Washington Nationals could be the best team in club history

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Fresh off clinching a playoff berth, the Washington Nationals stack up well with previous playoff teams in franchise history.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Washington Nationals Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Braves beat the Miami Marlins 10-8 in extra innings Sunday afternoon, lowering the Washington Nationals’ magic number to zero and handing them their fourth division title in six seasons.

It was the quickest Washington had ever clinched the NL East, a testament to both how well the Nats have played this year and how bad the rest of the division’s been.

Dusty Baker and Co. will likely host the winner of the NL Central in the NLDS, an obstacle that Nats fans have become all too familiar with since the team moved to Washington in 2005.

If the Nats do manage to make it past the first round, it would automatically make them the best team in Nats history. Yet between their star power and potent offense, this year’s club might already own that title.

How well do the 2017 Nats fare compared to previous teams?

Year Win Total NL East Clinch Date Runs Scored Team OPS Runs Allowed Rotation ERA Bullpen ERA Defensive Runs Saved
Year Win Total NL East Clinch Date Runs Scored Team OPS Runs Allowed Rotation ERA Bullpen ERA Defensive Runs Saved
2012 Nats 98 Oct. 1 731 .750 594 3.40 3.23 -15
2014 Nats 96 Sept. 16 686 .714 555 3.04 3.00 11
2016 Nats 94 Sept. 24 763 .751 612 3.60 3.37 -15
2017 Nats (proj. totals) 100 Sept. 10 847 .791 670 3.45 4.66 -35
Projected totals are prorated over 162 games.

Two numbers jump off the page in this graph. The first is just how dominant the Nats’ lineup has been this season. Washington’s scoring 5.2 runs per game and is just seven long balls away from tying the franchise record for home runs in a season. Led by the team’s core of elite hitters, it’s no question that this is the best offense the Nats have ever had.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Nats haven’t fared very well with the glove by advanced metrics. Their -35 defensive runs saved ranks as the fifth worst mark in the majors. Daniel Murphy “leads” the way with -15 DRS at second base, with Ryan Zimmerman (-7), Adam Eaton (-6) and Brian Goodwin (-6) rating poorly as well.

As important as defense is to winning a baseball game, however, the Nats’ playoff chances don’t take too big of a hit due to their mishaps in the field. They still have Michael Taylor (+10 DRS) manning center field with Anthony Rendon (+9) at third and Wilmer Difo (+14) holding the “sixth man” role after impressing in limited action this season.

Put it all together and you’ve got an offense-heavy team that makes up for its mishaps in the field with one of the stronger lineups in baseball. While Bryce Harper is the big difference maker between an above average offense and an elite one, Rendon, Zimmerman and Murphy still combine for a .928 OPS — a number that would rank 13th among position players.

It’d be impossible to talk about the best teams in Nats history without touching on the starting pitching. The rotation’s been the backbone of Washington’s success since entering the playoff picture in 2012, but this year’s unit stands out among the pack.

While their starters’ ERA ranks third among Nats playoff teams, narrowing down the scope to the team’s top four starters paints a much clearer picture. By comparing the playoff rotations of previous seasons to the Nats’ projected one for 2017 (Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark), this year’s starters stand out among the pack.

Comparing Playoff Rotations

Year Top 4 SPs' ERA Top 4 SPs' QS Top 4 SPs' WAR
Year Top 4 SPs' ERA Top 4 SPs' QS Top 4 SPs' WAR
2012 Nats 3.30 75 13.8
2014 Nats 2.94 83 15.2
2016 Nats 3.38 73 15.8
2017 Nats (proj. totals) 2.96 84 23.6
Projected totals are prorated over 162 games.

Just look at that WAR! Every playoff rotation that the Nats have thrown out there has always had a caveat. The 2012 and 2016 units were without Strasburg, while the 2014 one didn’t include WAR leader Roark due to Matt Williams’ decision to relegate him to the bullpen for the postseason.

This year’s squad, however, boasts a clean bill of health heading into the final stretch. Scherzer and Gonzalez are both legitimate Cy Young candidates, and Strasburg would likely be in that conversation as well if he hadn’t missed time with injury issues. Even Roark’s been putting together a strong second half (3.19 ERA in 62 IP), giving the Nats a complete and deep playoff rotation.

As for the bullpen, Washington’s relief woes were well-documented leading up to the trade deadline. Nevertheless, since acquiring Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler, the later innings have been much more secure.

It’d be tough to outmatch last year’s late-inning trio of Mark Melancon, Blake Treinen and Shawn Kelley, but the Drew Storen/Tyler Clippard/Aaron Barrett combo of 2014 and Storen/Clippard/Craig Stammen of 2012 didn’t do much to move the needle.

There certainly isn’t an argument for this year’s bullpen to rank among the best in team history, but the trade deadline makeover has made it a serviceable enough relief corps where the team can rely on it to hold close leads in the later innings.

“This is a very competitive group,” GM Mike Rizzo said to the Sports Junkies on 106.7 The Fan last week. “We go out and our mindset is to win each and every game, of course in the playoffs things will ratchet up and tensions will be higher and each pitch is more magnified and that’s the way we like it.”

The 2017 Nats have four hitters that will receive MVP votes, three Cy Young candidates, shaky defense and a top-heavy bullpen. Put that all together and — coupled with the Dodgers’ epic slide — you might very well have the favorites for the NL pennant and best team in franchise history.