The Mets are the biggest threat to the Nats hopes for a NL East title. That hasn't officially changed yet. But with Harvey now done for the year, they can't afford another pitching injury. To that end, both Matz and Sydergaard are battling bone spurs while DeGrom has already missed a couple games this year, and their other pitcher is 43 years old and I think 550 pounds. Add to this the various ailments that their starting catcher, first baseman, third-baseman, and now CF have had and the Mets are hanging onto relevance. It's going to take a post-trade Cespedes like performance or complete good luck with injuries going forward to keep them in the division mix*.
We never expect complete good luck so that brings us to the logical conclusion that the Marlins, not the Mets, are likely to be the main threat to the Nationals for the rest of the year. Or will they? First off let's do a StrengthOfSchedule check. If Miami has a particularly hard schedule to end the year, it'd be tough for me to see them doing well. Understanding that this is all flexible - the Marlins have a slight edge on the Nats, while the Mets have a big edge. That's not all that important other than it allows me not to write the Marlins off at the get go.
Ok so who are the Marlins? Offensively it looks a bit confusing. They have only one hole in the line-up with Hechavarria, and are 5th in the NL in OPS+, leading the Nats. Yet they are tied for 10th** in the league in runs scored. It's not a fluke of rank. While they are clearly above the bottom 4 in the NL, they fit right into the below average spot they currently sit in and should be higher based on their stats. It's not really situational hitting, they are only slightly worse with RISP. What it appears to be is an extreme lack of home run hitting. Three players (Stanton, Ozuna, and Bour) account for 52 home runs. The rest of the team, bench included, account for 25. Outside of the middle of the line-up the team becomes very station to station and while they can hit singles with the best of them (most in the majors! Almost 10% more than next NL team) if you get hits 30% of the time you get outs 70% of the time. It's hard to piece together single after single after single.
They are also not particularly aggressive on the basepaths or particularly patient*** All this adds to the problem. Still they should have, given even luck, scored more runs. Let's say that happens. Is that a worry? Not really. The Marlins record is already a few games better than it should be by Pythag. Essentially "other luck" has compensated for "bad luck scoring runs". They are at where they should be and where they should be translates to an 86-87 win team.
Ok that record shouldn't catch a healthy Nats team. Could they get better though? Maybe. Stanton could easily hit better. His .233 BA is by far the worst of his career and well under his average. And it looks like that better 2nd half will come based on how he finished the first half. He was at .193 in mid June and since then has been on fire .329 / .396 / .683. He can almost carry a team.
A lot of the other players are youngish (26 or younger) with not much experience so it's hard to say with any certainty that they would get better or worse. I will say batting averages are likely to fall a bit. There are a lot of high BABIPs here. But overall big changes in production I don't want to predict. I can't even do it for Realmuto, a catcher with a very high BABIP, given he's on pace for 15+ SB this year. On the flip side though I'm not going to assume that the low BABIP for Hechavarria is going to change either. That guy has never been a great hitter and might not be able to make good contact. OK maybe his hit type and hit speed numbers suggest it will go up but I don't want to start to nitpick the others let's just assume we take all these guys (Hechavarria, Yelich, Ozuna, Realmuto, Dietrich) as is, what about the other guys?
At 28, I'd like to say Bour has a history but he doesn't. He has only 170 major league games before this year. He has always been a solid hitter and is like the only starter not getting a decent BABIP boost. This could easily be the real Justin. Martin Prado - the BA should fall here. This we can be pretty sure of. History and statistics agree. But he's still a .280-.290 type of hitter so it's not likely he'll turn into a bad hitter.
I guess what I'd say is that the Marlins offense has potential to be better - if Stanton goes off and the team maintains or manages the likely downs in BAs with ups elsewhere (better HR/FB rate, Hechavarria hitting better, a surprise player performance), but I'd far more expect an offense that was similar to the first half, regardless of what Stanton does. Likely more runs scored - because of the bad luck in that previously - but not a change in the offense or more wins.
Before I go into pitching I'll note that the Marlins have a terrible bench. Just awful. It relies completely now on a definitely playing over his head Ichiro and has nothing else. Absolutely nothing.
OK so what about the other side - how's the pitching? It's ... fair!
The rotation is a problem. Fernandez is one of the best pitchers in the league. There's no argument there. But after that it's hard to see anyone reliable. Wei-Yin Chen was brought in to provide a sub 4.00 ERA stability but his AL ERAs weren't really reflective of his pitching and while he should be better than this he shouldn't be much better. He's a 4-5 type right now. Tom Koehler has pretty much been nothing but that level his whole career. Conley is better, and he's young enough that he could be a nice rotation piece for a few years, but he doesn't have the control or the power to make you think he's anything more.
Wait you say. That's only four. That's right! and that's it. There are other starters but no one worth mentioning. Justin Nicolino is a successful minor leaguer but strikes out so few batters there's little confidence he can make it in the majors and so far he hasn't. Jarred Cosart was once a big prospect but he hasn't progressed since reaching the majors in 2013 leaving him a less than effective starter (and just god awful this year). After that you might remember Kendrys Flores. He pitched against the Nats and held them scoreless for 3 innings. But 3 innings - he got hurt and he's working his way back. I'd still expect to see him this year though because there is literally nothing else left.
Looking at their system - it's been a bad year for upper minors starting pitching for the Marlins. There is no help in AAA or AA and I'd argue you get into Low A before you see a real prospect that you like where they are this year. This is a team that needs a trade and knows it.
Of course they did make a trade - for Fernando Rodney and it's kind of an odd deal. If you don't like the Marlins SP arms (and you shouldn't) you do like their relief arms. Barraclough is a nice live arm. Wittgren has been effective. Ellington is good. Former SP prospect Austin Brice has taken to a relief role in AA. They might need a LH reliever but Rodney was probably unnecessary, and definitely a bad use of what little tradeable prospects exist in this barren system.
You might be wondering how the Marlins find themselves allowing the 7th best team R/G in the NL with a pretty awful rotation and a good but nothing special bullpen. Well there is a lot of BAD pitching in the NL. The Nats have the best R/G a good 0.70 points ahead of the Marlins. There are still 4 teams worse that 0.70 pts behind the Marlins. Three teams are allowing over 5 R/G. Of course the Rockies (5.32) but the D-backs (5.07) and the Reds (5.96!.... FIVE POINT NINE SIX!)
We ask the same question - could the pitching get better? I suppose it could get better internally. All the pitchers COULD pitch a little better or Flores could come in and be real good. But to make a big impact all of them would have to do it or Flores would have to be real good. It's not the likely scenario. More likely is more of the same, a middling rotation not giving a decent pen many leads to hold. A big improvement could be had through trade. Arms like Hill, Ordorizzi, and Pomeranz are likely on the market, but the Marlins have little to offer.
Oh I guess I should mention here - the Marlins are pretty good defensively. It's an up the middle thing as Hechavarria, Realmuto and Ozuna are all top-notch defenders and anchor solid guys around the field.
So the point of going through this exercise was to figure out if the Marlins were a legit threat or not. I'm going to lay down an answer of "no". Not as they are right now. The hitting, which is good but not great, can't get much better than it is. It's likely that any surge by Stanton will be balanced by a team drop in BABIP. Without the hitting being great the Marlins are going to be held back by the starting pitching, which is not good and can't get much better than it is either. There are no great pitchers, or even good ones, underperforming, and no prospects on the horizon. This doesn't mean craziness can't happen. But assuming things play out as they relatively should the Marlins shouldn't be much better than a mid 80s wins team. If you want to see that as a threat that's fine. I don't
Of course this is a answer that only holds up assuming nothing happens at the trade deadline. If it does then we'll have to re-evaluate, just like the Mets forced a re-evaluation last year. But it's hard to see the Marlins getting that SP they desperately need given what they have to give in return. Most likely they'll only be able to fix the bench, which will help but won't have a big impact.
I'll keep my eyes more on the Mets than the Marlins. Just looking at the teams I can't see the Nats going under the low 90s in wins. I can't see the Marlins getting there. But I can see the Mets doing so. Yes, it'll take complete luck with injuries like I said, but until that next run of missed games happens, I'm going to keep the Mets as the main threat to the Nats and let the Marlins float out there 4 to 6 games over until they prove to me that I'm wrong or they change up their team.
*Or I suppose completely bad luck with injuries for the Nats along with the Marlins not playing well either.
**Or 11th - B Ref seemed to go on break as well for the ASG so some things aren't matching up there.
*** which is how a similarly singly team like the Giants score a bunch of runs.