There is something about that No. 19 in Washington Nationals’ lore. Something seemed to change with this team after their April 19 game. They went to the freezing temperatures of Minnesota, and did the opposite — and heated up. The team is 10-7 since then, and if you remove that 16-1 blowout game, the other six losses were by an average of exactly 2-runs per game. This team has only been out of one game in that entire span.
The weak links are just a few tweaks in the short-term. The team, per the stats, is playing with an offense marred by a power outage, a questionable front of their bullpen, an under-achieving outfield defense (CF/RF), and a No. 5 starter who had a 9.41 ERA before an IL stint.
Now for the great news: It is all fixable, and most of it by coaching — and some of it by adding better players. This is much easier when you have payroll flexibility, and a very strong farm system. It also helps that in a rebuild you have time with coaching up players.
A Mike Rizzo built team is constructed on a foundation of great starting pitching. This is rotation is not great yet, but they are ranked the 16th best in baseball with a 4.48 ERA. A dozen teams go to the postseason, and 16th best won’t cut it which is fine. This is fine because they have time and now have a core of MacKenzie Gore and Josiah Gray to build upon once Cade Cavalli returns mid-to-late Spring next year from his UCL injury.
If the team selects the best pitcher in the draft, Paul Skenes, with the №2 pick, they might be in a spot to bypass going after big name free agent pitchers in this upcoming offseason. Of course the Pirates could take Skenes, and the Nats would then really need to add a true ace to anchor their rotation.
Aces in free agency don’t come cheap. It’s supply and demand economics.
Sure, the team has placeholders with Patrick Corbin and Trevor Williams under contract through next year. And we have to figure out if Jake Irvin is a keeper. There is no TBD in the farm system for the No. 1 starter spot. Certainly you could find some good pitching names like Jake Bennett who needs to be promoted to see what he can do in High-A and then Double-A. I think I’ve seen enough of Jarlin Susana to know he is destined for the bullpen, and Jackson Rutledge will either be a back of the rotation starter or a bullpen arm himself. There are interesting names like Jackson Tetreault, Mitchell Parker, Kyle Luckham, Dustin Saenz, Rodney Theophile, Andry Lara, Alex Troop, and of course Cole Henry. There are others too.
The power outage saw some light in Arizona. It did improve to where the Nats are only the fourth worst team in OPS, and just points behind the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. The issue is not entirely about hitting the ball hard, it is about creating backspin and more launch angle. Joey Meneses has a launch angle of just 5.30° this season on average. Last year, Meneses averaged 9.50° on his launch angle. While his average exit velo is down by just 2.0 mph this year, some of that could change as the weather warms up. Just too many balls are being hit into the ground. Yes, singles are up but XBH are down. Is this on coaching or is it more about personnel?
On defense, the Nats are tied for 21st in team defense in OAA. The good news is they are trending in the right direction with improving shortstop defense and even in center field. They could easily be in the Top-10 if Lane Thomas could start catching balls at the wall, and Victor Robles made better reads going back on balls. Thomas also seems to give up on balls towards the CF gap too, and some of that is based on better communication with his center fielder. Sometimes it is about coaching up players to improve. The infield defense is led by Jeimer Candelario and Dom Smith has saved many errors by his solid work gloving balls at first base. The team has turned 39 double plays on defense to lead all of baseball.
This isn’t fantasy baseball where we can trade today and put Sandy Alcantara at the top of the rotation, Mookie Betts in right field, and Paul Goldschmidt at first base and fix everything. This draft will really change the fortunes of this team for the better, and if the farm system can create some real superstars, which it should, this team is going to be excellent in the future. But most would not mind spending in free agency and getting better sooner than later. Aaron Nola and Matt Chapman are intriguing names to watch. But so are internal names like top prospects Robert Hassell III and James Wood who could be the outfield help the Nats’ desperately need to improve defense and offense.
Current ownership has made it clear that they are committed to the future of this team and winning. Sure, you can be for sale and still try to win. This offseason will really test what principal owner Mark Lerner is all about. He said all the right things at the start of the season, and his words must hold true.
“We are all in, and we feel great about it. We feel Mike [Rizzo’s] plan for this team has got it covered.”— Mark Lerner before Opening Day 2023
Going forward, we will see where all of this goes. Sample sizes are still small, and patience is sometimes needed to see how improvement takes place. Overall though, you have to be more optimistic about the future of this team.