The Nationals Highlight the Teams Under the Most Pressure in the Playoffs
Whether they are big favorites or plucky underdogs, each team faces huge pressure each time they take the field in October. Jake Devin breaks down which teams face the least and most pressure.
The playoffs are brutally intense for everyone involved. Each team, whether they are big favorites, plucky underdogs, an established dynasty, or a recent expansion team faces huge pressure each time they take the field in October. The marathon regular season gives way to a small-sample, breathtaking sprint to the finish in which any slip up could be the difference between ultimate success and bitter failure.
That being said, some players and teams face more pressure than others. All teams face pressure in the postseason, but certain teams can ill-afford an early exit, while some teams are more just happy to be there.
For some, these high stakes are even higher than most. Let’s take a look at which teams have the most to lose, and will face the most scrutiny if they fall short in the coming weeks.
Teams Under the Most Pressure
More than any other team, the Nationals might be running out of time. They’ve been one of the best teams of this decade. In 2009 and 2010, they picked at the top of the draft twice, chose a historically good prospect each time, and have since developed into a perennial contender. They won 98 games in 2012, 96 games in 2014, 95 games in 2016, and 97 more this season. During a period of time in which there was relative parity and various upstarts like the Pirates and Orioles had as much success as stalwarts like the Yankees and Red Sox, the Nationals were uncommonly dynastic.
Except, they never won much more than a division title. In fact, the team with one of the best overall records in baseball since 2012 has won just five playoff games and zero playoff series over that span. The Nationals have been the quintessential early-exiter, the team that has built up your expectations every year just to tear them down when it matters most.
Teams this good aren’t supposed to bow out in the NLDS every year, but here we are, and the Nationals chances at a title could be running out. It’s no secret that Bryce Harper is eyeing free agency after 2018. So too will be Daniel Murphy and Gio Gonzalez. Some of the Nationals’ other stars, like Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and the currently-injured Adam Eaton, are under contract into the future, but all are veterans and unlikely to improve, with age-related decline a more likely scenario.
That’s not to say the Nationals will be completely fried if Harper walks next year. The Nationals do have young talent, in current MVP candidate Anthony Rendon, star speedster Trea Turner, and the uber-talented Victor Robles. There’s enough here that the impending loss of key free agents wouldn’t doom Washington to the kind of rebuild that other superpowers of yesteryear have succumbed to, like the Phillies, and now the Tigers.
But it’s obvious that the time is now. The Nationals are a win-now team, and have been a win-now team for a few years. They are an excellent team, but their time as an excellent team may be running short. The pressure is on them to make a run. Another division series exit will put all the chips on the table for next year, with Harper’s exit looming ever larger.
Yet with a first round date with the defending champs, the Nationals have a brutal road to the NL Pennant. Another disappointment in the division series seems just as likely as a breakthrough to the NLCS. If the Nats fall early again, it will be hard to shake the notion that the Nationals are one year away from squandering a long period of success.
They can exorcise the demons of multiple division series losses, or they could add another crushing disapointment to the ledger. Those are the stakes for the Nationals, who will be under as much pressure as anyone to perform this postseason.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers are in a similar situation to the Nationals. They too have been one of baseball’s best teams for a good chunk of the past decade. They too have suffered numerous playoff defeats, making the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season this year but never having advanced past the NLCS.
Los Angeles, however, faces the added scrutiny of being the most expensive team in the league. The Dodgers have consistently run payrolls in excess of $250 million, dwarfing the budgets of even the Yankees and Red Sox. They are the so-called “Moneyball with money” team, the franchise that can pour loads of money into free agent contracts, take on onerous deals from other teams, invest heavily in the draft and international prospects, and employ the most cutting-edge scouting and analytics teams.
The Dodgers have been successful, but they have yet to break through and win even a pennant. 2017 seemed like the year it might finally happen, when the Dodgers tore through the rest of the league for most of the summer. But a late-season malaise dented the Dodgers’ mystique; they enter October not only with great expectations, but with a newfound vulnerabilty.
Even with their unprecedented swoon, though, the Dodgers still have the best record in MLB. They still have the highest payroll. They still will have the highest expectations in October. A loss would add fuel to the fire, as there would be whispers that their incredible losing streak dented the team’s chemistry and confidence, or whispers about Clayton Kershaw’s October bonafides.
The narratives about Kershaw’s playoff struggles are tired, but the Dodgers really do need to win eventually, or risk becoming the team that spends it all to simply fall short every year. Coming in as the #1 seed in the bracket, the pressure has never been higher on LA to convert.
Teams Under the Least Pressure
Who has the least pressure on them? Typically surprise teams do, as they are the teams for whom expectations were the lowest. That being said, it’s tough to say a surprise team like the Yankees fits the bill. The Yankees may have arrived earlier than expected, but they still play in the cauldron of New York, and will be heavily scrutinized whenever they bow out.
No, the team that will be probably be loosest as the tournament narrows to eight teams is the Arizona Diamondbacks. The club was left for dead after a disastrous 2016 that saw a $200 million investment in Zack Greinke and a prospect-laden trade for Shelby Miller go horribly awry. Arizona ousted their manager and general manager and looked rudderless, saddled with a roster that lost a whole lot of games and a poor farm system.
That the D-Backs are a legitimate threat to win it all is a shock, and beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. No one pegged Arizona to make it the final eight, yet here they are, facing off with the division rival Dodgers, who will carry the burden of immense expectations. If Arizona bows out to LA in the division series, then they will already have had a magnificent season. If they pull of the upset, they become the Cinderella of the playoffs.
They will surely be disappointed if they fall short, but no other playoff team entered 2017 with lower expectations, and no other team surpassed those expectations like Arizona. They can enter the pressure-packed atmosphere of October baseball knowing they’ve already come farther than anyone expected, and with the hope of doing even more.