The Washington Nationals certainly surprised many when they finished the 2023 season with a 71-91 record. If you read this without context, you would not know if that is a good or bad surprise. When you go from 55 wins to 71, that is a good surprise. But there was plenty of good, bad, and ugly rolled into the Nats’ season.
There is an opportunity when you look at the players analytically and statistically as to how they can improve because everything in baseball is about making adjustments and continual improvement. Part of the issue is the Nats just need better players, and some of it is that this was a very inexperienced team that was playing with position players that would have been your road lineup on a long bus ride in Spring Training. Let’s face it, they over-achieved and found ways to win games. MASN broadcaster, Bob Carpenter, dubbed them the Scrappy Nats.
Defense was supposed to have been an emphasis this year, and it was much better than 2022 across the board and in every position — but the bar was so low that it was not hard to improve. General Manager Mike Rizzo promised and emphasized that promise that the Nats defense would improve. How it got so bad in 2022 was a stain on him for assembling a horrible roster. Good on him for delivering on his promise in 2023.
Let’s go through the position players on the roster in alphabetical order and do some good, bad, and ugly assessments on these players:
CJ Abrams — B+ on the Sao scale
Abrams was one of the pleasant surprises of 2023, but he certainly disappointed in a few areas. He had a slow start to the season with a poor April, and didn’t really steal any bases for the first two months of the season, what he did from mid-May going forward was to steal 43 bases with 16 homers and a .732 OPS in just 443 at-bats. Do that pace for a full year and you have a 20/50 player rather easily. He is also the one player most agree with should be extended for a long-term deal of at least eight years.
On the good/great side, his 18HR/47SB season put Abrams in rare air for a player 22 years old or younger. There are only five players in that particular club in baseball history since 1900.
There were a couple of bad sides to Abrams season where he finished at a -8.0 OAA which is part of the learning curve for a new shortstop. Derek Jeter and others endured worse — but this is something to look at going forward to see if Abrams can improve.
On the ugly side, it is Abrams’ RISP batting approach where he hit only .194 in those spots, and he had 139 at-bats to add those key runs. If he hits just .300 in those spots, that is 42 hits and 15 more than he produced in actuality. That would essentially make him an 80 RBI man to go with his 83 runs he scored — and by getting on-base more often due to those RISP spots, maybe he scores closer to the 100-runs he will get to eventually with better hitters behind him.
For Abrams, it is working on his defense and decision-making, and on offense it is that plan and approach with RISP opportunities.
Riley Adams — B+ on the Sao scale
Adams is the classic backup catcher. Play him less and he stepped up with solid defense and a solid bat which was good as he batted .273 with an .807 OPS in 44-games. But he broke his hamate bone which was probably bothering him for a while. They usually start to crack and then you take a swing where it goes the rest of the way. Unfortunately, hamate bone recovery takes a while to recover your power making it an ugly situation as to whether the team will stick with Drew Millas as the backup to Keibert Ruiz or go back to Adams.
In a small sample size of 31 at-bats, Adams was clutch in RISP spots and led the team with a 1.066 OPS. Not too shabby.
Jake Alu — C- on the Sao scale
He was a favorite of those who love prospects. Alu was killing it in 2022 in the minor leagues but had his ups and downs in the minors in 2023 and got the call after an injury. Alu had the ability to carpe diem (seize the day) but he got carpe’d and sliced and diced by MLB pitching. He ended up as a utility man, and had some good moments. Just not enough of them. The big leagues is all about taking advantage of the opportunity when you get it. A .226 BA is bad but a .571 OPS is ugly.
I think Sao was kind with his C- ranking of Alu.
Alex Call — C- on the Sao scale, and a C on the Ghost scale
Call entered the season as a bench outfielder, and was thrust into action when Víctor Robles was injured. On the good side, Call’s defense was really really good as he literally won a game with his glove in Atlanta in robbing a ball high off of the wall. He was the team’s top defender in OAA at +9.0, but he was unseeded by Jacob Young who was on a +12.0 pace. Call singlehandedly won two games with the bat that resulted in two of the team’s seven walk-off wins in 2023. The first was a walk-off homer against the Cubs and the second was a bizarre fielder’s choice RBI.
But Call was exposed with the bat and mostly struggled to stay above Mendoza and finished right on the Mendoza line at a .200 batting average. The good news is that he made some of his hits count and he led the team in walks even though he only played 128 games. His .307 OBP makes him a player that coupled with his defense could be an asset if he was a plus baserunner which he is not. He should never attempt to steal a base unless he is given a clear lane to the bag. His 9 steals in 17 attempts is really bad considering the larger bases and new throw-over rules making that a stat uglier than that .200 BA.
Jeimer Candelario — A on the Sao scale
What a breath of fresh air with the acquisition of Candelario as a free agent. Not only was he great with the glove as a third baseman with a +5.0 OAA in only 99 games, his bat was legit good. He was good in RISP spots and in larger sample sizes led the team with a 1.008 OPS in RISP. There is nothing bad or ugly to say about Jeimer except that he K’d too often, but that is acceptable when you post a .823 OPS. He has room to improve if he can come up with a better 2-strike approach.
If you feel that Candy can replicate those numbers, he is a player you want back as he will be a free agent. He can play third base, first base and DH which would be a good reason to keep him as insurance so you aren’t rushing Brady House and Yohandy Morales to the Majors.
Michael Chavis — C+ on the Sao scale, C- on the Ghost scale
Known in the Nats clubhouse as the popcorn guy, he was a solid teammate and a decent fill-in as a bench player. He just did not do enough to impact games off of the bench — but he did everything he could that was asked of him including a backup at 1st base that looked odd for a player of his size.
He just isn’t much more than a good guy who would be classified as the last bench guy on a bad baseball team. Certainly a player that should be DFA’d and offered a minor league deal because you never know.
Jeter Downs — INC
Let’s go with Sao’s writeup on Downs because he just had a small sample size and did the most with the smallest sample size of the season. From Sao, “He only appeared in six major league games and had nine plate appearances, including a memorable walk-off blooper to center for his first Nats hit. The Nats never really found room on their roster for Downs, though, bouncing him a couple times between Triple-A Rochester and the major leagues as needed but rarely putting him in the lineup. There’s really not enough here to grade, although it’s a fun fact for the season that Downs — in a tiny sample size — actually had the highest OPS of any Nats hitter at 1.067 and the team’s best strikeout-to-walk ratio, with four walks to just one strikeout.”
Luis García — B- on the Sao scale, C on the Ghost scale
Again to quote Sao, “García’s middling performance and at-times-questionable work ethic — he drew scorn even from the resident Pollyannas in the MASN booth for apparently being unprepared for a pinch-hitting appearance in one July game, forcing Martinez to put in a different hitter — frustrated the Nats for much of the season. The highs were high, including a team-record six-hit game in late May, but the lows were low, including a .197/.481 scuffle over eighteen games after the All-Star Break before the Nats finally sent him down to Triple-A Rochester.”
I think we have seen enough to know the player that Garcia really is and he ended up once against as a neg WAR contributor. He might make the 2024 roster unless Rizzo decides to upgrade in the trade market. The pickings are slim in free agency. I like the idea of taking Brandon Lowe off of Tampa in a salary dump. Short of that, Garcia will be back, and you hope that he improves. The good was that he finished strong after his demotion he returned in September and slashed .304 /.360/ .507 with an .867 OPS. That is the great news, but could he do that for a full season? If he did, he would be an All-Star.
The bad is that defense. He was a poor -4.0 for the season after a promising April. His September numbers were a -1.0 after his callup, and after he lost weight on his time after his demotion. What he showed in September was that he could make some spectacular plays to his right, but stumbled and lacked the athleticism on balls in the infamous 3.5 hole which is that spot between where a second baseman ranges towards first base.
Can Garcia hit like he did in September and improve on his defense in that 3.5 hole? That is the million dollar question. Figure that Rizzo wants to give the 23 year old another try.
Stone Garrett — A- on the Sao scale
When Garrett was signed as a free agent after Arizona cut him loose, the 27 year old showed that his 2022 numbers weren’t just Arizona inflated numbers and that he was a real ballplayer. Even manager Dave Martinez and the analytics group only wanted to use him as a platoon bat.
Then Garrett got a chance to play every day and the good news is that his presence in the lineup was significant. The Nats were 47-42 in games that Garrett played in for the Nats. That is a winning percentage (86 wins in a full-season) that puts you in the Wild Card.
The Nats struggled in September without Garrett after he broke his leg and had some ankle damage in a freak accident in Yankee Stadium when his cleat got caught in the wall. In fact on August 18, he was batting .279 with an .830 OPS. With Garrett and Candelario in the same lineup with a hot Lane Thomas and Abrams, the Nats were really good. The Nats were an horrific 8-18 in September without Garrett and Candy.
Where Garrett has to improve is on his home stats in Nats Park. He was a much better hitter on the road. He also batted only .136 in 2-strike counts and has to work on a better approach in those situations. He only had nine homers during the season, and needs to hit for more power.
With the leg and ankle injury, we don’t know if Garrett will be ready for the start of Spring Training. Some feel there could be a legit Spring Training competition between top prospect James Wood and Garrett. If Garrett is 100 percent healthy, he will probably be the Opening Day left fielder. It will be up to Wood and Garrett to both force the issue and with Wood’s ability to play center field, you never know if Garrett LF, Wood CF, Thomas RF is the OD configuration or Rizzo goes with Jacob Young in CF, and saves Wood for later on in the season. This will obviously be a major storyline for 2024.
Carter Kieboom — C on the Sao scale, and C- on the Ghost scale
With what you hoped was the third time the charm for Kieboom and a chance with the big league club he went into his same ole same ole pattern of starting red hot and fading. He had some big moments but in the larger sample size of what we saw it was more of the same and his final numbers were a 27-game sample size of flirting with Mendoza and a .207 final batting average.
The good news was that Kieboom’s defense was much improved over his previous stints but still not good on the final tally as he ranks in a full season as a -6.0 OAA player. The question is whether you stick with Kieboom or just turn the page and bring back a player like Candelario until Brady House is fully ready, and then shift Candelario to first base until Yohandy Morales is ready. The team also has Trey Lipscomb as further depth if you have also turned the page on Alu.
Joey Meneses — C+ on the Sao scale, and B- on the Ghost Scale
The man I like to call The Menaces was a breakout star in 2022 in less than 60 days on the roster and nobody thought he would be as good as 2022. His 2023 was a mixed bag of results as his launch angle changed considerably and he was hitting more groundballs and not elevating for home runs as you want from your DH.
But the good news was that Meneses was a run producer with a very strong .363 BA in RISP spots with an .890 OPS. He led the team with 89 RBIs and seemed like the luckiest batter with all of the 45 singles in those RISP spots for a .420 BABIP. Okay, Garrett had a .422 BABIP in RISP spots so you have two players that seemed to find success in those spots that does not seem to be sustainable. We will see.
What do you do Meneses if he can’t find his power stroke? He also needs to work more walks and stay off of those pitches above the zone that was the scouting report on how you get him out. Meneses might make the 2024 Opening Day roster, but thriving as a 32 year old is going to be tough as he might actually go into age regression. On a weak team, he probably makes the roster. On a good team, he will have to prove he belongs.
Drew Millas — A on the Sao scale and B+ on the Ghost scale
Millas was an 11-game sample size of promising numbers for a switch-hitting catcher with some speed. His final BA of .286 and .839 OPS were great if these were full-season stats. He will be in competition with Riley Adams and might get the Opening Day nod as Keibert Ruiz‘s backup due to Adams’ hamate injury.
Millas was a poor .167 in RISP spots but in his defense that was all of a 28 at-bat sample size and his BABIP was a very unlucky .222. We hope to see more of Millas to get an idea of who and what he really is.
Victor Robles — C on the Sao scale
What started as a promising start to Robles’ 2023 with the bat as he batted .299 with a .750 OPS was only in a 36 game sample size. That is the good news. The bad news is that the team was a poor 13-23 in those 36 games — not all Robles fault — but there were Robles blunders and some inexcusable words exchanged with starting pitcher MacKenzie Gore over Robles’ lack of effort on defense that included a point where he ignored positioning from his coaching staff and went an stood a few feet from the warning track as a show of defiance.
Robles spent most of the season on the IL with a back issue, but it sure seemed like the team just wrote him off. Robles and manager Dave Martinez seemed like oil and water for some ugly times. Martinez did not hold back in blaming Robles for some issues. With a $3.3 million team option for 2024, we would be surprised if Robles returns unless it is a sign-and-trade type of deal.
Maybe another team could make Robles into the star that many thought he could be. The problem is that his defense, considered to be Gold Glove quality, just regressed based on poor reads on balls and speed that went from elite to not elite enough to get to balls when he didn’t make a good read.
He is that player when you say the juice just wasn’t worth the squeeze. With both Jacob Young and Alex Call on the roster, and Dylan Crews, James Wood, and Robert Hassell III in the wings, it looks like we won’t see Robles again in a Nats’ uniform.
Keibert Ruiz — B on the Sao scale and a C+ on the Ghost scale
Ruiz was tagged as the catcher of the future by Rizzo and signed a long extension through at least 2030 with the Nats during spring training. Ruiz seemed to hit burnout early in the season and also suffered some scary foul tips into his catcher’s mask.
He had a bat that got him to a .260 BA and a .717 OPS but he also went through some long slumps and finished on a high note going a strong finishing up in the second half, hitting a much-improved .300/.809 over his final 63 games.
The bad was certainly Ruiz inconsistencies with slumps and a poor caught-stealing rate this season with a 15 percent rate. Much of the blame was on the pitchers but Ruiz just had too many weak throws when he had his chances. On the ugly side, Ruiz was the worst ranked pitch-framer on defense. He slowly showed that he was taking more pride in just presenting pitches but there first few months of the season looked like a player who did not care. Maybe part of the problem was the umpiring. The Nats ranked last in umpiring mistakes on strikes called as balls on Nats pitching — a real problem that clearly affected the pitching staff. The robo-ump system can’t get here quick enough.
Dominic Smith — C on the Sao scale
The Nats took a shot on Smith after the Mets were done trying to fix him. A once promising player who looked like he was headed to being an All-Star, Smith lost his way with the bat. The Nats had a fit for him since they needed a first baseman. He turned out to be the best defensive first baseman in Nats’ history. The stats don’t account for scoops and lunges for balls, and Smith saved countless errors plus fielding balls ticketed for the right field corner, often. That’s the great news.
The bad news is that Smith was a dud in clutch spots. He batted .175 in 120 RISP spots, and just failed over and over when the team needed something from their first baseman — a position in baseball where you expect some big offensive production. Smith finished with a .692 OPS which won’t cut it and you can certainly debate the value of his 12 home runs which many have done. He hit home runs in games where the scores were 16-0, 9-0, 6-0, 9-1 and 8-1. That would make five of his 12 homers as garbage time homers, but if we did that for every player, we would find some garbage time homers for every player. The bigger problem is that Smith stunk in higher leverage spots batting just .235 compared to his .285 BA in low lev situations.
Smith not only has to work on more launch angle, but his approach. You should not have that big of a disparity in RISP spots versus hitting .278 in all other spots.
With MLBTR estimating Smith will be paid $4.3 in arbitration, the Nats should save that money and pay it to someone else unless Smith wants to stay with the team with something close to $2.3 million.
Lane Thomas — A- on the Sao scale
He was the team’s MVP for the 2023 season, and Thomas could have been so much more if he could just lay-off chasing pitches out of the zone. He led the team and the league in outfield assists, and was a 2oHR/20SB club member finishing with a team best 28 home runs.
The bad news is that after the team lost Stone Garrett to an injury, Thomas went into a deep slump to finish the season’s final three weeks batting just .124 and a .471 OPS. Thomas probably just hit the point of exhaustion.
It was widely rumored that Thomas was being shopped at the trade deadline, and we reported first that he was not going to be traded. He is controlled for this season as well as 2025, and is in-line for a huge raise in his second year of arbitration and could see a number near $7 million for the 2024 season.
The quote of the year came from Thomas’ wife after he struck-out in a key spot, and then hit a huge grand slam the next day.
That is really the ugly part of the Thomas story of 2023 that he has to stop chasing pitches in key RISP spots. While he batted .248 in RISP spots, he was 20 points below the team average of .268. RISP is where you make it happen. It is like the golf saying, “Drive for show and putt for dough.” Getting hits with bases empty is great but driving in runs is what gets you paid. Thomas will do just fine and he is really entering his prime at 28 years old in the 2024 season.
Ildemaro Vargas — B on the Sao scale
Vargas is an X-factor player who just does whatever is needed. He is one of the team’s best defenders and can literally play every position on the field as he is the emergency catcher too, and has done some pitching in blowout games. He will be back for 2024 after having agreed to a deal already for next season.
He is a contact hitter that is a throwback type of player and is very good at productive outs. That certainly will affect the bottomline at .252/.666 but his numbers go beyond the normal stat lines. The switch-hitter struck out just 20 times all season in 286 plate appearances (6.6%), but the bad news is that much of his contact is weak.
He was the guy leading most of the home run whig celebrations and as Sao wrote, “He earned high praise from Martinez for his leadership, encouraging teammates and, when needed, getting on their case. Every team needs a veteran leader and do-it-all utility player like Vargas, and while his numbers don’t stand out in any way from 2023, it might have been a very different team without him.”
Jacob Young — B+ on the Sao scale
We all heard the farm reports about Young and his speed, defense, and hit tools. He had the final walk-off hit of the Nats season and was a really good .379 hitter in RISP spots. We were skeptical when he arrived because of all of the failed call-ups in the 2023 season — but Young was better than advertised except for maybe the hit tool. We knew he had no power — and neither did Trea Turner when he first arrived. Young was 13-for-13 in steals, and put himself in scoring position about every time he got on-base.
If Young just only hit in Nats Park, he’d be an All-Star, but he was horrible on the road in an almost equal sized sample size. Figure that out, and you might have a future star. His defense in his one month of work was the best on the team. He made plays that made you go WOW! His arm got him two outfield assists across 32 games in center field.
We don’t know what Young will be, and if he can learn to backspin like Turner and Abrams, his power numbers will pick up. Worst case he should be a bench outfielder, and best case is that he hits and forces Rizzo and Martinez to make some tough decisions. Young started his college career as a second baseman but because of his speed was moved to center field. At some point, you may want Young to dust off that infielder’s glove because the team has little depth at second base — but a whole lot of talent in the minor leagues for center field.
The players showed some separation in who should stay and who should go. Every player has room for improvement. The Nats’ manager had some sage advice on how every player can contribute: