Are the playoffs possible for the 2024 Nats?!?

Do you want to see how the Washington Nationals can be a playoff team next year? Look no further than the Miami Marlins as the way back to the postseason. A fun fact: The Marlins have the third best record in the National League and only trail the Atlanta Braves and Arizona Diamondbacks. In a season of more parity, it is important to look at how the Marlins are building towards a playoff run with their GM, Kim Ng, and MLB’s seventh smallest payroll at just $91 million. By the way, the Marlins also have the second worst attendance in the Majors, only ahead of the pathetic Oakland A’s. How did Ng build a winner from last year’s team that went 69-93?

Ng went for team balance, and a new managerial philosophy by moving on from Don Mattingly and being more progressive with Skip Schumaker. Last year, she made her biggest free agent acquisition with Jorge Soler at $13.5 million a year after he starred for the Braves in the 2021 World Series. Balance was taking their strength of starting pitching and improving the offense which Soler did — but Ng needed more, and she somehow traded for the reigning AL Batting Champ, Luis Arraez, for RHP Pablo Lopez who was approaching free agency. It was a like a page out of Tampa’s playbook. That also saved Miami cash too in the swap. Two weeks ago Arraez was batting over .400, and he is wreaking havoc at the top of Miami’s lineup along with Soler slashing a .919 OPS.

Truthfully, the team balance is not exactly great, but it is better than prior years. Yes, the Marlins have the sixth worst run scoring offense in baseball and are just behind the Nats if you can believe that. But the Fish are 18-5 in one-run games because they have the 12th best starting pitching, late offense, and a very good back of their bullpen. They say in one-run games that the manager is also a factor. Their pythagorean says they are extremely lucky and should be near the bottom of the NL East at 33-39. They have a negative run differential at -24. But here’s the thing, when the Marlins get blown-out in games, they really get blown-out. They are a -46 in blow-out games. If you subtract that, they are actually +22 in run differential in the closer games which backs how they are winning.

Maybe the Marlins are not sustainable — but the 2012 Baltimore Orioles did the same and made the playoffs by going 29-9 in one-run games. Of course they did not go far in the postseason. It is hard to do when you don’t spend money. However, expect the Marlins to be buyers at the trade deadline. That could fix some of their weaknesses. The issue is that with their poor attendance and low revenue, Ng won’t have the big bucks to take on much payroll at the trade deadline. If she operated with the same payroll parameters as the big market teams, the Marlins might have a fighting chance. While BBRef projects them at over 40 percent odds to make the postseason, they have about the same shot of winning the World Series as the Nats at 0.3 percent. Well, we certainly know that sports miracles can happen. The Marlins have been playing without Jazz Chisholm Jr. for almost half the season due to injury, and he makes things happen on offense.

So how does this apply to the Washington Nationals? Clearly the Nats need balance, but better overall in each area. The Nats have the fourth worst bullpen ERA at 4.79, seventh worst scoring offense at 4.14 runs per game, but the 19th best starter’s ERA at 4.52. Once again, it will be about addition by subtraction.

The Nats top-3 starting pitchers in ERA has been Josiah Gray, MacKenzie Gore, and Trevor Williams. The three have combined for an average ERA of 3.78. If the Nats just averaged 3.78 they would be the 5th best in the Majors. Cade Cavalli should return from the IL in 2024 from his UCL tear in his pitching elbow, and maybe just maybe the Nats draft Paul Skenes. Maybe Williams and his 4.50 ERA is just a placeholder, and Nats’ general manager who I assume will return as GM needs to find one free agent pitch upgrade kind of like he did in 2012 when he signed Edwin Jackson and his 4.03 ERA to be the worst on his staff. Remember, Stephen Strasburg was in his “shutdown” season and was the 3rd best ERA on that staff behind Gio Gonzalez‘s 2.89 and Jordan Zimmermann‘s 2.94. That was a great starting staff by the way.

Find a 4.03 ERA in free agency to pair with Gray and Gore, and dream what could happen with Skenes and Cavalli. Addition by subtraction removes Patrick Corbin and eventually Williams and at some point in 2024 your starting rotation is Skenes, Gore, Gray, Free Agent, and Cavalli. Average 3.78 and you have the best starting rotation in the NL East in 2024. Right, right, nobody knows if the Nats can draft Skenes and how many innings he can pitch in 2024. He should pitch between 122-130 pitches this season for LSU depending if they make it to the final of the College World Series. With a 20 percent increase Skenes should be capped at 150-160 innings in 2024. Cavalli will probably be held to a strict limit of 80-120 innings in 2024. What that means is Corbin, Williams, Jake Irvin, and maybe even Jackson Rutledge and Jake Bennett could get MLB starts in 2024. Corbin and Williams will be in their final years of their contracts in 2024.

The 2024 bullpen is what Rizzo really has to improve. The team has lost 16 games out of the bullpen and also has 16 blown saves. Shockingly, there are three teams that have lost more games out of their bullpens. Eleventh best in the Majors is 11 bullpen losses. That is a +5 at this point in the season and +12 over a full season. That is where the Nats can pick up their greatest impact is improving the bullpen.

Most difficult could be fixing the offense. If you bring back Lane Thomas, Victor Robles, Luis Garcia, CJ Abrams, and Keibert Ruiz as starters, you have to fill-in at one corner outfield spot, third base, first base, and designated hitter. The team should try to trade Jeimer Candelario at the trade deadline, and wait and see on Dom Smith and Joey Meneses. Left fielder Corey Dickerson will head to free agency after the season, and the team can sign one to two key offensive free agents.

Here’s the thing with Meneses, his power is practically non-existent with only two homers, but he is tied for the team lead with Thomas for RBIs because Meneses is batting an unbelievable .441 in RISP spots and all but three of his RBIs have come from non-RISP situations.

Perhaps the biggest acquistion would be to look within at top prospect James Wood (.919 OPS in 2023) and ease him in at left field and see what he can do. We know he has the power. The second round pick will be 21.5 years old on the next opening day. Look at Matt Chapman as the team’s biggest target in free agency for third base for Gold Glove defense and .800 OPS offense. He should be a 5.0+ WAR addition. Maybe you can get Rhys Hoskins coming off of an injury on a one-year deal to DH, and figure out if Meneses can improve his defense at first base. Smith’s .659 OPS won’t cut it.

  1. Lane Thomas RF (.822 OPS)
  2. Luis Garcia 2B (.706 OPS)
  3. Matt Chapman 3B (.800 OPS)
  4. James Wood LF (.919 OPS)
  5. Rhys Hoskins DH (.846 career OPS)
  6. Joey Meneses 1B (.729 OPS)
  7. Keibert Ruiz C (.694 OPS)
  8. Victor Robles CF (.740 OPS)
  9. CJ Abrams SS (.624 OPS)

Yes, I probably just increased the Nats payroll to $180 million, but it will be the final season to carry Corbin’s contract. Strasburg will only be owed $70 million beyond 2024. You build it and they will come. Revenues should increase by tens of millions of dollars in additional attendance revenue, and winning will bring the advertisers back. We are not talking about huge payroll expenditures. Get a middle rotation starter or stick with what you have. But you need a closer upgrade in the bullpen, and two more bats at the very least. Chapman would fit perfectly, and when Brady House is ready, Rizzo can figure out where to play him.

What I did here is build you a playoff team around drafting Skenes. If the Nats draft Dylan Crews, this model certainly changes and you won’t be signing Hoskins because you will want that cash for a top of the rotation starting pitcher. Crews would make the roster in September of 2024, and you might be looking at 2025 for the year of making the playoffs.

But we can certainly dream about a starting rotation of:

  1. Paul Skenes RHP
  2. MacKenzie Gore LHP
  3. Josiah Gray RHP
  4. Free Agent SP
  5. Cade Cavalli RHP

That could be like your 2012 starting rotation of Stras, Gio, JZim, Ross Detwiler, and Jackson. Remember, those three aces won the NL East in 2012 and 2014 before Ted Lerner gifted the Nats with Max Scherzer for 2015 in the Where’s My Ring season. Let’s see what the younger Lerner and Rizzo can create in 2024.

“Guys come and go, and fans fall in love with somebody else, somebody new. It’s tough, but they do — and they got to understand that it’s part of the game — an unfortunate part of the game, but we got to keep going.”

— Manager Dave Martinez said two years ago. Could he be one of the guys to come and go?

Will the Nats take a page out of Ng’s book and shakeup the coaching staff and get more progressive? We will see. This could be interesting times ahead.

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