Looks can be deceiving for these 2023 Washington Nationals. The team currently has a 68-win season, and that would generally be considered to be a failure for several teams — but for a rebuilding team that only won 55-games last year — this is a significant improvement. The Nats have exceeded even the most optimistic computer generated projections of 65-67 wins from FanGraphs modeling, while Vegas set their over/under for 58.5 wins at several sportsbooks. And guess what, the Nats have nine more games to play this season (weather permitting) to better that record.
What is the significance of a 69-win, 70-win, or even a 73-win season? There is some needed context here that in this Rebuild 2.0, it is the climb up the standings showing year-over-year improvement that is a key to the next steps in the rebuilding process.
A 69-win season would match the 2010 record which is significant in team history because that was the year team owner, Ted Lerner, opened up spending. The team needed a star outfielder who could be a team leader, and bring a pedigree of winning. Jayson Werth was that player. He was the team’s first 9-figure contract ever paid by the team, and at the time, one of the largest contracts in baseball history. Werth helped transform the clubhouse and nutrition programs with the team as well as he brought a winning culture. In his first season, the team finished just 1-game under .500 — and with that came the optimism that 2012 was going to be a winning season with a few more tweaks — and it was!
A 70-win season would exceed the 2010 win total and would also be a 15-game win improvement over last season. This should be enough for current owner, Mark Lerner, to increase payroll to sign a much-needed starting pitcher to seed as the team’s No. 1 starter. By adding just a few upgrades to this roster could make a 2024 Nats’ team a legitimate contender for a Wild Card team in the same way the Cubs, Diamondbacks, Marlins, and Reds are this season. Look where each of those teams were last year at 74, 74, 69, and 62 wins respectively.
The Cubs went the route of spending big on free agents, but they went with short-term deals that paid dividends like adding Cody Bellinger as well as a two-year deal for Marcus Stroman that began last year. Internally, their 2014 fifth round pick, Justin Steele, stepped up to ace status this season for them. The Cubs went 19-10 in games that Steele started this year. The Diamondbacks made some tweaks to the roster, and added their top prospect, Corbin Carroll, to their 2023 Opening Day roster. The Marlins made a key trade bringing over Luis Arráez who won the 2022 AL Batting Crown. The Reds added several top prospects to their roster over the course of the season and Elly De La Cruz added a spark to the team mid-season.
A 73-win season guarantees that the team will not lose 90-or-more games. It also gets you almost to that same point where the Cubs and Diamondbacks were last year. Any team could look at tweaks and personnel changes that would have won them more games.
For the Nats, it is all about a poor starting pitching staff and bullpen that ranks in the bottom 25 percent of MLB teams respectively by ERA. The team’s left field production, second base production, and first base offense must improve. The Nats are 21st in runs scored while being 13th in batting average. The issue is the lack of power where the Nats are 23rd.
League average is 4.63 runs scored per game. The Nats are at 4.31. That is the equivalent to scoring just one more run every three games or basically two more runs a week. By position, the Nats rank 26th in first base offensive production and 28th in second base offensive production. The team is 25th in left field production and last without Stone Garrett. Since Jeimer Candelario was traded, the Nats rank 20th in third base production.
Where do we go from here?
The clear answer is addition by subtraction by getting rid of players who have not performed. Secondly, you have to add better players to the roster either from the farm system and/or new acquisitions. The team could upgrade left field and third base from the farm system when general manager Mike Rizzo feels that a combination of outfielders James Wood and Dylan Crews are ready, as well as third baseman Brady House. At some point the team will get Garrett back from rehabbing his broken leg.
The team has no internal answer for second base. They need to look outside of the organization. The first base answer could also come internally if everything goes right with the player development of infielder Yohandy Morales who was drafted this year as a third baseman. With House looking like the heir apparent, maybe a position switch for Morales is needed.
Another upgrade can come from a change at coaching which is certainly a touchy subject on manager Dave Martinez‘s staff. Pitching coach Jim Hickey and Darnell Coles have had mixed results with their players. A second half slide from most of the pitching staff was unfortunate, and the lack of power overall from the offensive side is troubling.
What would I do?
The first thing I would do is look around to see if there were better coaches available for hire. New White Sox GM, Chris Getz, was recently promoted this month, and he wisely is rumored to be hiring Brian Bannister who I have been asking for years to get to the Nats. He is a brilliant and progressive pitching mind in player development with the Giants.
You only make replacements if you can upgrade. Makes sense right? Common sense. That goes for players also. There is clear addition by subtraction by cutting ties with players. Most of the neg WAR players are gone. A few remain. What do you do with Trevor Williams? Yes, there were four pitchers worse than Williams this year — how many will be around with their current teams next year? The Nats’ manager just raved about what a great guy he is yesterday when announcing that the team would skip his next start. He has a 5.55 ERA. Most players with that type of record were DFA’d already by teams. Clearly, the Nats are not going to do that. Obvious move then is to move him into the bullpen.
On the starting rotation, Cade Cavalli, who is recovering from UCL elbow surgery said he expects to be back in June 2024. That could be good potentially. Right now it looks like Jake Irvin, MacKenzie Gore, and Josiah Gray are locks for the 2024 starting rotation with Patrick Corbin as a placeholder until Cavalli is ready. The depth starters are Jackson Rutledge and DJ Herz. Dare I say Joan Adon too? He needs work — a lot of work.
So we named four starting pitchers for the 2024 Opening Day roster, who is the 5th? You have to hope for a significant free agent signing like Blake Snell as the splash this Nats’ team needs. I would not weaken the farm system and trade anyone and would be looking only at free agency at this point. In a perfect world, I would be greedy and looking for two new starting pitchers to send Corbin to the bullpen — but we know in reality the Nats are not going to do that initially.
Positionally, Rizzo knows what he is going to do with promotions. You could look at bringing in a player with positional flexibility like Candelario who can play third base, first base and DH, but the team also needs a second baseman long-term. The problem is that the pickings are slim at second base in free agency.
The team is going to have to also improve with their returning roster by working on continual improvement. That means Irvin, Gore, and Gray in particular need to work on stamina to handle the workload in 2024 plus work on their pitches. Each should be in pitching labs on the shape of their pitches, and Irvin could work on a changeup. Gore on getting back to success of his 2023 4-seam fastball when he was with the Padres as well as adding possibly a cutter to his repertoire. Gray made significant strides but has to work on mechanics and a putaway pitch — possibly getting back to that vertical hammer Nola-esque curveball we have seen him throw before.
With shortstop CJ Abrams, he already said he will be working in the offseason to add a little more strength — just a little. Outfielder Lane Thomas just needs to work on situational approach, and same with catcher Keibert Ruiz.
We will look at all of this in dozens of articles to come. These are initial thoughts.