There are certainly reasons to be optimistic about the 2023 Washington Nationals team if you want to have a positive mindset. After this year’s team finished the 2022 season with an horrific 55-107 record, the worst in Nats’ history, some would say the only direction to go is up. You hope that is the case that 2023 cannot be as bad as the 2022 team. Theres nothing wrong with being hopeful, but wishing upon a shooting star does not always come true unless that star is a huge free agent superstar coming the Nats’ way — and the chances are very remote that happens. So let’s stick to some factual data.
1. Addition by subtraction and knowing your current personnel. You always want to look at players who were negative WAR players, and who you can replace to get better. There were plenty of neg WAR players on this Nats team in 2022.
There are a few issues on this list of players given that two of your top backup catchers are on the list in Riley Adams and Tres Barrera. Maybe general manager Mike Rizzo can find an upgrade from outside of the system to back-up Keibert Ruiz. Also you will notice Josiah Gray is on the list, and clearly he will be back in 2023. Also clearly, Gray must improve to be a positive contributor by showing up in Spring Training with a better repertoire.
But most of the players on that list of the Bottom-13 on the Nats team will not be back in 2023, or in many cases, they are already off of the roster. If you add up the numbers, they are -7.5 in total. If you can just replace them all with just league average (0.0 WAR) players you technically just added back 7.5 wins. Yes, easier said than done.
2. The final starter’s ERA for the team was an atrocious 5.97 for this 2022 season, and the worst in Nats’ history by a wide margin. The starting rotation showed some improvement near the end of the season, and it coincided very closely to the point in time when CJ Abrams played his first game at shortstop on August 15 and the defense improved.
For Patrick Corbin from August 21 to September 20, 2022, he pitched 31 2/3 innings with a 2.84 ERA. Gray’s final start of the season was a one-run performance over 6.0 innings against the Braves, and you hope both have figured out what they need to do to improve in 2023. That is a sliver of hope for 2023.
On top of that, it seems like Stephen Strasburg who is recovering from thoracic outlet surgery will not be penciled in for the 2023 season like he was for 2022. The team made a mistake to count on Strasburg for the 2022 rotation.
Rizzo said he would like to add two starters for the 2023 season. Plus the team has young starters in Cade Cavalli and MacKenzie Gore who must prove themselves in Spring Training. Hopefully there is more quality depth going into 2023 whereby the team does not have force Cavalli and Gore into roles on the Opening Day lineup if they are not ready.
“So you’re talking about adding maybe one or two more starters, ” manager Dave Martinez said. “We’re going into the winter with a lot of different areas that we need to fix.”
“But what I do love is that we get Cade healthy, MacKenzie Gore, who’s going to leave here healthy. They’re going to get a chance to come into Spring Training and compete. You’ve got Josiah, who learned a lot. You have Patrick, who I really felt like over the last six or seven starts he was getting back to what he was.
3. When Ruiz, Abrams, and Joey Meneses were in the same starting line-up, the Nats went 9-7 which is a .583 winning percentage. Of course Ruiz went down in a heap on September 8th in the sixth inning after he took a foul ball to the groin and would miss the remainder of this 2022 season with a testicular contusion. What few remember is that the Washington Nationals were on their best streak of the season when that happened. It seems so long ago when Ruiz was behind home plate, and the Nats looked confident and competent.
“With CJ Abrams, Luis García in the middle, Victor Robles playing centerfield every day, I think we’re definitely going to get better,” Martinez said. “I didn’t think the way [Meneses] hit was a fluke.”
Martinez believes that Meneses can be really good in 2023. Adding back Ruiz to the mix will really help. Meneses had the team’s highest WAR after the trade deadline. It was simply amazing the season the 30 year old rookie had.
4. Help could be on the way from the minor league system. We mentioned Cavalli and Gore as two players who could help in 2023, and there are others who are close. Jake Alu and Carter Kieboom should both be competing for jobs in Spring Training. Kieboom was out all season after UCL surgery on his throwing arm. Regardless, you cannot force either on to the Opening Day roster if they are not ready. Hopefully lessons learned about that.
The incumbent is Ildemaro Vargas who was excellent on defense in his short stint with that Nats to finish the 2022 season. In less than two months, Vargas accumulated a +1.4 WAR, and rated as the team’s top defender. Vargas had slightly below average offensive production. But also consider the Nats No. 1 prospect, Robert Hassell III, could be the answer to upgrade the outfield for the team in the latter part of 2023. We reported that Hassell had a hand/wrist injury but sources tell us he will be ready for Spring Training. It also could explain why Hassell had some struggles in Double-A.
“[Kieboom] is going to compete for a third base job,” Rizzo said. “He knows what he has to do in the off-season to get better to come to Spring Training ready to go.”
5. Free agency should fill some holes. They probably won’t be superstar players, but what this team needs is upgrades especially in the starting rotation. We have no idea who those players will be, but the Nats have options to fill spots on the roster depending on how much they can spend on new players, and which players will take the Nats’ money. It takes two to tango.
While most people think Meneses will play first base for the Nats, maybe he will play some left field and the Nats can find a first baseman. The 2023 Nats’ payroll is projected to be $107 million before they sign any free agents, and that includes tendering contracts to Erick Fedde, Luke Voit and Victor Robles which seems like they most likely would.
If the Nats’ ownership just agreed to increase payroll by $56 million to $163 million, that would return the Nats back to league average on team payrolls which was at $163 million in 2022. The issue is that the Nats are carrying $35 million for Strasburg which is looking like the worst contract in baseball history. Yes, it is sunk cost at this point but this isn’t a $3.5 million deal — this is $35 million a year for literally no production in the past three seasons and $105 million spent.
“In order to compete, we need some pieces. But we’re going to give opportunities to our young players, and what I saw from our younger players, they’re not afraid, and they’re going to go out and compete,” Martinez said.
Again, addition by subtraction is a key. Replace bad players with even league average players and you improve. Add positive WAR players and you improve even more. It is just simple logic here. Nobody is saying you need to sign Aaron Judge or Justin Verlander.
6. The new MLB scheduling system could help the Nats after they struggled to a record level of ineptitude against the NL East, going 17-59 combined against the Braves, Mets, Phillies and Marlins. The Braves, Mets and Phillies all earned postseason berths, but the Nats will no longer face each division rival 19-times in a regular season. The new schedule will feature 13-games against each division rival.
Consider this: the Nats played every other team outside of the NL East to a combined 38-48 record which is a .442 winning percentage, but only a .224 winning percentage against the NL East teams. That’s 24 fewer games against division rivals and assuming that same .442 winning percentage on those 24 games above the .224 winning percentage and that’s five more wins.
“I look back, a lot of games other than these last few we played in our division, we were right there, we competed,” Martinez said. “But we’ve got to get back, and we’ve got to finish some of those games and get to our bullpen and get those guys to hold them down. This division is good. I’ve always said, this division’s going to be tough.”
I almost thought Martinez was going to Knute Rockne’s, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
7. Improved defense will continue to help the Nats. A lot of the blame has to go on management for assembling one of the worst defensive teams, as well as poor shift analytics. On the 2022 defense, they had a -47 Defensive Runs Saved ranking. That means they didn’t save runs as the number is negative. They gave up 47 more runs than the league average defense.
That was an extra .29 runs per game just attributed to bad defense and bad shifts. By the math, that is an extra 4-5 losses right there over a full season. The difference between being 55-107 and 60-102 is what that poor defense might have done at a minimum but it never accounts for the extra wear and tear on a pitching staff and the team overall. It probably cost the team much more than 5 extra losses when you consider the intangibles.
Thanks to the improved defense for the final 46-games of the season, the Nats were second to last in that stat — and not dead last like they were for the first four months of the season. An incredulous -34 runs were just from the shortstop position, and -9 runs they attributed to poor defensive outfield positioning which is another analytics/coaching “fail” for this team.
The decision by Rizzo to put Garcia at shortstop was a failed mission from the start due to his track record in the minor leagues. Not that Alcides Escobar who held down the spot before Garcia was much better, it was just making something bad — worse. Then you had Maikel Franco at third base as a negative defender, making the left side of the infield a real problem.
It was addition by subtraction on defense when Juan Soto was traded as he was a -10 OAA in right field for the Nationals. Most of it felt like it was a lack of effort, and here’s why: Soto improved immediately when he was dealt to San Diego. For the final month of the season, he turned into a league average defender in the month of September after a -2 in August which was his acclimation period to a new home stadium. But can’t you blame some of Soto’s defensive issues on a lack of effort in D.C. on his manager for allowing him to put in less than optimal effort? Surely you could see it in his drop-off from 2021 when Soto was actually above average.
Kieboom was the lowest ranked third baseman in 2021 at a -13 OAA, another Rizzo fail that he was the team’s choice to start. Even if Vargas isn’t hitting, he gives you Gold Glove defense in a league that will never recognize him above Nolan Arenado, but who cares about the recognition, Vargas was so good at the hot corner that his defense will help his pitching staff.
To repeat the same mistakes has been a criticism on Rizzo. While he isn’t saying that Kieboom will start on Opening Day for the Nats, it gets me nervous when Rizzo is supposed to be a scout, and a scout’s eye should tell you that Kieboom should be a second baseman or an outfielder.
You hope the good news is that defense is a focus for the 2023 roster.
8. Say it with me “The farm system has legit talent!” Yes, it took some painful trades to build up an almost barren farm system. It never should have come to that, but since we are trying to look at the positives, let’s look at Hassell, Cavalli, James Wood, Elijah Green, Brady House, Cristhian Vaquero, Armando Cruz, Jeremy De La Rosa, Jarlin Susana, T.J. White, Alu, and so many more. Even Darren Baker has stepped it up to where he could be pushing for the bigs in 2023. Most of these top prospects won’t arrive until 2024-2025, but some could help the team in 2023, and some more in 2024.
Also, the Nats will be drafting at the top of the 2023 MLB draft again next year to add more talent to this farm. They are not guaranteed the No. 1 pick due to the new draft lottery, but they have good odds to be able to choose another player who will rank as an immediate Top-100 prospect in their system.
Add up all of those extra wins from addition by subtraction (7.5), the new schedule (5.0), and better defense (4.5), and you have 17 more wins in theory. That would put the Nats at 72-90 just in that fuzzy math. That does not even include the optimism of returning Ruiz to the lineup.
“I can say it’s not going to take long. I mean, we’ll compete relatively soon,” Martinez said.
Nobody would think the Nats will compete for a Wild Card in 2023. But 2023 is for progression instead of the regression we saw this year. There is no reason to make up excuses about the future ownership is up in the air or that Strasburg was hurt. Every team has injuries, and teams like the Mariners, Rays and Guardians that spent much less than the Nats did in payroll — made the playoffs this year. The Guardians did it with the youngest team in the Majors in 2022.
When Rizzo does his “autopsy” of the 2022 season, he has to look within. What mistakes did he make in roster construction, analytics, and player development, that must be fixed? We gave you what we saw as the glaring issues on this team, and the reasons for optimism here. You don’t have to believe in the fuzzy math but getting better by osmosis does not work. Getting better by a strategic plan works. It all begins with the starting rotation.
“Starting pitcher is the driver to me,” Rizzo said in 2018. “ . . . We’ve built our clubs based on having a guy in the middle of the diamond who gives us a chance to win every day.”
Times had changed — and now it is time to change back.