The Winter Meetings are just three days away. There are certainly reasons for trepidation with the 2023 Washington Nationals team with regards to the ownership situation, spending levels, and the current roster. FanGraphs today has the Nats projected for a 69-93 record which is +14 wins from the 2022 season. Maybe a little too optimistic versus our 65-97 record that we have.
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. There’s 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. At this point, the Nats have signed a bounceback candidate, Jeimer Candelario, as their first free agent signing.
Even though you might think that adding Candelario is the only thing that general manager Mike Rizzo has done, that is not accurate. He purged the system of a lot of neg-WAR players already. So yes, there are reasons that 2023 should be better than 2022.
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, and we look at the bottom 20. Most have been DFA’d or non-tendered. They appear with a red line through their names on this chart. The yellow line through their names are players removed from the 40-man roster and could be back to Triple-A Rochester. The players with the yellow highlight are 40-man players on the bubble, and the green highlights are players who remain even though Riley Adams and Josiah Gray must show marked improvement in 2023.
— Talk Nats (@TalkNats) December 1, 2022
One question that you might wonder is the improvement for CJ Abrams, Gray, and Adams as well as could the Nats replace Adams with the backup catcher? One name I would throw out is Tucker Barnhart who leaves Detroit after a poor season and almost had an identical OPS to Adams .554 vs. .555. But Barnhart who bats lefty was only a -0.2 WAR in 2022 and mainly because of his great defense would be a sizable upgrade over Adams.
If you remove all of the players not highlighted in green on that chart, you remove -8.2 in total. If you can just replace them all with just league average (0.0 WAR) players you technically just added back 8.2 wins. Yes, easier said than done as some players will finish in the negative.
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, but it was near 6.50 before the trade deadline. 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.
With the change to Abrams at shortstop over Luis García 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! 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.
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 and manager Dave Martinez said they would like to add one or 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, ” 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.
Let’s face it, the bar is so low that you have to find free agent pitchers who can give length and pitch to better than a 4.20 ERA. There are plenty of them available in free agency. An improved Nats defense should greatly help too.
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.
“[Kieboom] is going to compete for a third base job,” Rizzo said in October. “He knows what he has to do in the off-season to get better to come to Spring Training ready to go.”
The incumbent is Ildemaro Vargas who was excellent on defense in his short stint with that Nats to finish the 2022 season, but he looks like a bench infielder for 2023. Candelario should compete for a corner infield spot. 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 with a hot August and a slumping September.
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 as he finished the 2022 season in Double-A Harrisburg. We reported that Hassell had a hand/wrist injury and hamate surgery, and sources tell us he will be ready for Spring Training. It also could explain why Hassell had some struggles in Double-A and a total zapping of his power. In a recent podcast interview, Hassell spoke about the hamate injury:
“I think the hand was bothering me for half a year or so, and I do I think that affected my power … I think the power is going to surprise a lot of people [going forward]. I do,” Hassell said.
On the pitching side, four additional names that don’t get as much press are RHP Zach Brzykcy, LHP Matt Cronin, LHP Jose Ferrer, and RHP Patrick Murphy could all factor in for the pitching staff in 2023. Murphy of course was on the Nats’ roster and was DFA’d and could be back with Rochester Triple-A.
5. Free agency needs to fill holes. The Nats probably won’t be signing superstar players, but what this team needs is upgrades especially in the starting rotation and another big bat. 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.
So far Candelario and Stone Garrett have been signed as free agents on MLB deals. While most people think Meneses will play first base for the Nats, maybe he will play some left field and the Nats can put Candelario there as he has played their in the past.
The 2023 Nats’ payroll is projected to be just under $110 million today before they sign more free agents, and working out arbitration-eligible contracts for players like Victor Robles.
If the Nats’ ownership just agreed to increase payroll by $53 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. Last year, Candelario was a negative OAA at third base in 2022, and Rizzo and Martinez needs to decide if they want to go that route. The good news is that Candelario has been a good defender at his limited time at first base.
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 should get you 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, and yet, here we go again that Kieboom will get a shot at third base. Maybe the surgically repaired UCL will help. Maybe not. It will be a wait and see in Spring Training.
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 2024-2026, but some could help the team in 2023, and some more in 2024.
— Talk Nats (@TalkNats) November 30, 2022
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 (8.2), the new schedule (5.0), and better defense (4.5), and you have 17 more wins in theory. That would put the Nats at 73-89 just in that fuzzy math. That does not even include the optimism of returning Ruiz to the lineup. But no way would I place a bet on the Nats winning 73 games unless we saw some legitimate free agent upgrades.
“I can say it’s not going to take long. I mean, we’ll compete relatively soon,” Martinez said.
Nobody should 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.
Here are today’s projections from FanGraphs on the current roster and projected WAR on how they got to thinking the Nats could be a 69-93 team in 2023. Some of these projections look rather bullish like Strasburg and a Gray turnaround in the pitching, and on offense to have Abrams go from neg-WAR to the best on the team is aggressive. Once again FanGraphs is bullish on Kieboom expecting a +1.2 WAR. They’ve done this every year since 2020. So yes, we could probably knock out 4.0 WAR and think this is a 97 loss team.
With Rizzo’s offseason “autopsy” of the 2022 season, he hopefully looked within. He is beefing up the analytics and player development department even more. But 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.