When we try to project a 2023 roster for the Washington Nationals, much of it will depend on the ownership and payroll budget for the team — and how they want general manager Mike Rizzo to approach free agency. If the team is eager to spend, you begin with the starting pitching.
Fortunately, the Nationals have some names to pencil in for the 2023 starters with Keibert Ruiz at catcher, CJ Abrams and Luis Garcia as the middle-infielders, and a complicated mix at starting pitcher. Victor Robles and Lane Thomas should take two outfielders’ spots, and Joey Meneses figures to be either the first baseman or left fielder.
“It all starts with starting pitching,” manager Dave Martinez said in October. “Our starting pitching needs to get better, that’s for sure.”
A 5.97 starter’s ERA for the team must get better. With Erick Fedde non-tendered, it looks like Patrick Corbin and Josiah Gray are the only locks for the 2023 rotation and you would expect MacKenzie Gore and Cade Cavalli to be in the mix too. All of that leaves one to two spots open in the starting rotation, just two starting position spots open at third base, and the spot that Meneses does not take in left field or first base.
The team’s MVP if you go by the full season total on FanGraph’s WAR for players still on the roster is Ruiz. He will be the №1 catcher going forward and team control through the year 2027. Filling in behind him could go to Riley Adams or Israel Pineda.
This is where things get complicated. If you trust FanGraphs on their FIP-based WAR, Patrick Corbin is the team’s top pitcher, but the bar is so low that it probably does not matter because a 5.97 team starters’ ERA will never work. Yes, great defense makes a pitcher look better, but analytics through positioning will also greatly affect a pitcher.
“We’re going into the winter with a lot of different areas that we need to fix,” Martinez said last month. “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.”
This assumes that the team will only try to find a new №1 pitcher from free agency and not two new pitchers.
“So you’re talking about adding maybe one or two more starters, ” Martinez said last month.
That would put Paolo Espino and Cory Abbott into depth spots for this team, and yes, FanGraphs projects 70 innings for Joan Adon and another 90 for Strasburg too. Starting both Gore and Cavalli on the 2023 Opening Day roster could limit their team control, while some additional time in the minors might extend their control through the 2028 season and beyond.
Of note, Gray is now throwing a 2-seam sinker, and the hope is that Gray can make a sinker a key pitch in his arsenal. The great pitchers make adjustments and Gray must evolve to improve.
As to finding a №1 pitcher on the free agent market, there will be tons of competition for a top pitcher. Here is the pool of pitchers and many are either tied by club options or player options. We have named quite a few and this year’s №1 won’t be an ace, just merely be the best pitcher on this team like a Ross Stripling, Michael Wacha, Johnny Cueto, and even Jordan Lyles looks like he could be the type of pitcher that Rizzo could add. Personally, I would take two of those names so Gray, Gore, and/or Cavalli would not be rushed.
With the change of Abrams to shortstop over Garcia in August, the runs scored by the opposing team had changed significantly. Looking at Abrams 44 games with the Nats, the opposing team scored 4.36 runs per game versus 7.375 runs per game with Garcia at shortstop. That is a difference of over 3-runs per game! Take that small sample size for what it’s worth, and use the eye test — and it is easy to see how well Abrams had performed versus his predecessor. Garcia, as a shortstop, had the lowest rated defender per Statcast’s OAA in all of baseball by a large margin in a partial season. Defense matters.
The 2023 second baseman projects to be Garcia unless the Nats get bold in free agency and upgrade at shortstop and shift Abrams to second base. Chances are that won’t happen.
The annual question is whether the Nats should go forward with Victor Robles? The Nats tendered Robles a contract for 2023, and he will most likely be the CF until top prospect Robert Hassell III is ready. Hassell was promoted to Double-A and he just turned 21. Could Hassell be ready at any time during the 2023 season? What we do know is that Hassell had been playing with a broken hamate bone for a while, and he had surgery in October with Dr. Sheridan to remove the broken bone.
FanGraphs has their first projection out today with the Nats at a 69-93 record which seems a little aggressive.
Over @FanGraphs they have their first 2023 projections out and the #Nats are third from last at 69-93 for their record and a .426 winning %. Of course, this is all before free agency changes rosters, and this will change many more times. They have the #Nats team WAR at +27.6. pic.twitter.com/KZk0FIWzBK
— Talk Nats (@TalkNats) November 28, 2022
FanGraphs thinks these Nats starters can improve to a 4.56 ERA? I would like to see that. Adding players during free agency is never a sure thing as the competition will be high for key players. For starting pitchers, the bar is set so low that a pitcher that is a free agent with a 4.20 ERA could be the best pitcher on this staff. In 2022 for starting pitchers on the Nats with at least three starts, Anibal Sanchez turned in the lowest ERA at 4.28.
This team has very few “sure things” for the 2023 season, and they need stars producing at WAR values of 3+ and the only place they will find those players in the near-term is in free agency or some surprisingly good seasons by current players.
On roster construction, it is addition by subtraction as you replace the negative-WAR players. Interestingly, Ildemaro Vargas and Joey Meneses have both been productive in their Nats’ debuts — but the sample sizes are small. Few expect Vargas to be more than a bench player. He is signed for the 2023 season.
If the team could add those front of the rotation pitcher, externally or internally, this team could quickly return to be competitive with a greatly improved defense and offense, and a pitching staff that can compete beyond 2023. With adding Jeimer Candelario into the equation, the CBT payroll at $109.6 million that includes all of the MLBTR estimates for the arbitration-eligible players, the team should have money to spend. How much? We don’t know.
We are six days to the Winter Meetings. Let the fun commence.