Should the Nationals fear the Mets?

The knee-jerk reaction answer to the question posed in the headline, in light of the New York Mets‘ acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes and last night’s 2-1 win over the Washington Nationals, is a resounding YES! The lazy answer is something along the lines of, “No, the Nationals have the best team in the National League East. They will figure things out.” I am not prone to knee-jerk reactions, nor am I lazy when it comes to writing about baseball.

The more likely answer falls somewhere between a resounding yes and an emphatic no. Let’s say this — the Washington Nationals should probably be more than a little afraid that the New York Mets will usurp their position atop the division.

After the Mets’ 2-1 walkoff win last night, the Amazins are just a two games behind the Nationals. The Nationals were expected to have this division well wrapped up by the end of the first half, but injuries and inconsistent starting pitching have kept them stuck in neutral all year. Every 8-2 stretch seems to be followed by a 4-6 stretch that allows the Mets, their crop of young power arms, and their pitiful offense to stay within a stone’s throw of the Nationals.

As I wrote yesterday, the Nationals seem to be getting healthy at the right time. Getting Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon, Denard Span, and Stephen Strasburg back in a short time frame is as good as any blockbuster series of moves a team has made in the history of baseball. The Nationals also have arguably the best one-two punch in the eighth and ninth innings with Drew Storen and Jonathan Papelbon. Injuries, more than anything else, have been at the heart of the Nationals’ grind to the top of the division. Essentially half of the projected Opening Day lineup has combined to miss nearly two-thirds of the season. Bryce Harper has played most of his games with Yunel Escobar, Danny Espinosa, Tyler Moore, and Clint Robinson serving as protection. The sum of those parts is not Murderer’s Row.

The Mets grabbed headlines with the acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes, but what does he really bring to the team? Cespedes is one of the most impressive raw talents in the game, and this year has seemingly begun putting it all together. With the Detroit Tigers before the trade, he was on pace to exceed his career highs in every offensive category, and his .293 batting average should be viewed as a major breakthrough from his career average entering the year of .263. He did all that, however as a part of a Tigers’ lineup that had a threat at every single slot in the lineup.

It will remain to be seen just how much of an impact Cespedes can have hitting in a lineup that features Lucas Duda, a washed up Curtis Granderson, and Juan Uribe. Cespedes is a hacker. He’s walked only 19 times this year. That approach works when J.D. Martinez and Miguel Cabrera surround you in a lineup, but with the Mets, expect Cespedes to see plenty of curveballs, sliders, and changeups off the plate.

Cespedes is a great addition for the Mets. Adding an outfield bat was an absolute necessity if this team had any hopes of unseating the Nationals, especially with Michael Cuddyer heading to the disabled list. His bat, however, is not the real reason the Nationals should fear the Mets. The starting rotation of Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Bartolo Colon, and Jonathon Niese is the real reason the Mets have more than a puncher’s chance of knocking out Washington. The Mets will never be out of a game with any of these pitchers taking the ball every fifth day. Adding Cespedes could give them just enough offense to begin capitalizing on the rotation’s 3.39 ERA at more than a 50-50 clip.

Two games is far from an insurmountable lead. One week-long slump can turn a two-game lead into a two-game deficit. The Washington Nationals should still be considered the favorites in the National League East, but the New York Mets cannot be counted out for the rest of the season. The Nationals have the superior team overall, and if they take care of business, the cream will rise to the top. If they falter, even slightly, the division will be there for the Mets’ taking. The Nationals do not necessarily need to fear the Mets, but they must be very aware of their presence as real contenders.

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