Are cosmic tumblers turning?

Looking at Dave Martinez‘s face, you usually cannot tell what happened that day. He is an optimist, and also a man of mystery. Humble and caring about others, he recognizes a friendly from dozens of feet away. He is trying to do what few managers have ever done — win a second championship after a rebuild. Most managers don’t survive rebuilds after success. Look at Bruce Bochy and the Giants.

Last week, the Washington Nationals went west for a 9-game road trip that some thought a 4-5 W/L would have been a likely result given that the only easy series was going to be against the Oakland A’s. What if we told you the Nats went 1-2 against the A’s? Right. The Nats would be lucky to go 3-6 facing the San Francisco Giants and the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers. Then if we told you that the first game of the road trip, the Nats would be facing the reigning NL Cy Young winner, Blake Snell, you might think 2-7. Well, the Nats and Trevor Williams beat Snell and the Giants, and the Nats won that series. Then in the Dodgers series, the Nats had an MLB debut with starter Mitchell Parker and won that game, and Jake Irvin and the Nats’ bullpen collared the Dodgers with their first shutout of the season — leading to a Nats’ series win. It was quite the road trip going 5-4.

As the Nats’ manager, Martinez notched his 400th career managerial win yesterday. While that is a measure of success and longevity, how about his current team? Maybe these 2024 Washington Nationals are a little better than some thought, considering Baseball Prospectus had the Nats projected to a 57-105 season, and Vegas at 65.5 wins on their over/under.

Just 18-games into a 162-game marathon of a season, our old friend Sec222 would be looking at these first dozen-and-a-half games as the first 18-game set. There are nine of those sets in a season. We are still in small sample sizes. That carries a word of caution on relying on any stats. Once we get within the third set, you kind of know the team you have — unless you were in 2019 — you wouldn’t look too credible staring 19-31 in the face with any illusions of grandeur. Look, nobody projected Jesse Winker as the 5th best OPS in baseball at 1.067. Even the great Dodgers advanced scouting couldn’t shut him or CJ Abrams down. Abrams is 11th in baseball at 1.014 — and just behind Shohei Ohtani on that list. They are both red hot.

The Washington Nationals starting pitching is bad — overall at 5.25 in ERA. But the numbers are screwed skewed. You have Josiah Gray at a 14.04 ERA and Patrick Corbin at 8.06 at one end — Trevor Williams 3.45, Irvin 3.13, and MacKenzie Gore 2.81 at the other. It feels like the Tip-It game we played back in the 60’s. Martinez has been here before. He was born a year before the Tip-It game made it to market. He has survived longer than that game’s shelf life –and mostly because the 2019 World Series carries an abundant supply of mulligans. Besides, Davey can only play the players he is given. Some feel he is actually an over-achiever.

You can survive on the positive consistency of a 3/5th slice of your rotation, and that is how the Nationals have circumnavigated the 2024 season so far with an 8-10 record and without tipping over the ledge. Not good enough so far, but close enough where they aren’t the 5-13 of 2023. The Diamondbacks last year made it to the World Series with a strong Top-2 pitchers and a run-and-gun offense. The Nats lead the Majors in stolen bases at 1.833 per game with 12 different players recording at least one swiped bag.

But we know it all starts and evolves around the starting pitching. In this season, Corbin and Gray have six combined starts, and were the pitchers of record in five of those games: all losses. For the time being, Parker has replaced Gray due to injury. Corbin needs to find something from within to make him serviceable or else he could be the pitcher who is gone when Gray returns and certainly when Cade Cavalli is ready to return from the IL.

“Starting pitching is the driver to me . . . We’ve built our [rosters] based on having a guy in the middle of the diamond who gives us a chance to win every day.”

— general manager Mike Rizzo said in 2018

We know Martinez is an optimist. He is thinking of ways that he can shock the baseball world in a grander way than the 2023 version of the Cincinnati Reds — a team that improved 20-games year-over-year from 2022. Martinez was a +16 from 2022 to 2023, but when you start at 55-wins, a season with 71 Curly W’s won’t get you to the postseason. Another +16 season might. But based on the current .444 winning percentage, that only equates to a 72-win season at the current pace. Not good enough.

And if Martinez’s boss followed what the Reds did last year, with promoting several top prospects, maybe it is possible. At some point, the Nats are expected to activate RHP starter, Cavalli, the team’s top pitching prospect. But that move isn’t expected until some point in June. Can the team stay above water until then? Are there other solutions? James Wood looks ready and poised to be a superstar. He led all of MLB in Spring Training in total offense. He’s tearing up Triple-A right now. Dylan Crews and Brady House still need time in the minor leagues.

Any help might have to come from within — by making your current players better. There are seven sub-Mendozians on the current roster and two on the IL. The list is too long, and the only one expected to be there was Joey Gallo. He was signed to hit home runs and be a mid-700’s OPS guy. He’s 100 points short of that. Lane Thomas, Joey Meneses, Eddie Rosario, Nick Senzel, Drew Millas, and Nasim Nunez have to at least hit their weight.

In 1924, the Washington Senators won D.C.’s only World Series, and there was a 95-year drought until Martinez’s Nats took the Bumpy Road to beautiful places. Hope Row is the future. What if we told you that the 2024 Nats have the same exact 8-10 record as the 1924 Washington Senators who were picked to be in last place? Ray Kinsella Wyvill wrote Of Three Forlorn Springs in a magnificent literary piece for the ages.

As Wyvill wrote — “No sophisticated fan would believe anything more than a desultory season was ahead.  The 1924 Nationals exceeded the wildest of wild dreams for that season. Fast forward 100 years from the time of Walter Johnson, and it is hard to concoct a scenario where this modern squad will follow suit.”

At least in 2019, the Nationals were picked by Chris Rose on MLB Network as his pick to win the World Series. They were expected to be great. Before that season, the Nats had seen Bryce Harper sprint to free agency, and general manager Mike Rizzo had a simple fix without Harper. He would go with an outfield of Juan Soto, Victor Robles, and Adam Eaton. Rizzo used that Harper money for more pitching. He doubled-down on starting pitching and spent his budget to snag Corbin in free agency after it looked like the lefty was heading to Gotham City. A rotation of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Corbin, and Anibal Sanchez were a quartet of accomplished pitching maestros making beautiful music in a well-tuned synchronized harmony.

The Nats of 2019 were like a scratched record going off the current track by mid-Spring, and Martinez got Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon back from the infirmary and made an improbable run to baseball’s version of the Promised Land. The 2024 version has not been fully written yet. There is a reason they play the games. Expect the unexpected. There is no script. This is the greatest reality show. Cosmic tumblers are clicking into place.

This weekend the Washington Nationals are bringing back over a dozen members of the 2019 World Championship team that will be celebrated nearly five year from when they defeated the Houston Astros in the World Series. Beginning tomorrow these two teams will meet at Nationals Park with many tributes planned.

The current Nats’ players will have an opportunity to see what greatness looks like. Corbin, Robles, and Rainey are the remaining trio from that team. Sean Doolittle and Gerardo Parra, players from that team, are now coaches on the current team. Martinez, Rizzo, and the Lerner ownership group are the constants.

“What we could do a little bit different [for the future] is that we traded away a lot of our prospect capital to win those 5 titles in 8 years from 2012-2019 — and to have even a longer window, and a longer-term of [winning] is to keep those [top prospects] and develop your own and try to be more consistent in the way we move our players [up] and hang onto our players — instead of that ‘go for it’ mode, where you’re trading away 2-or-3 prospects to get a piece to win that year.”

— Rizzo said in an interview with Chris Russo in December 2023

When we posted that quote up on Twitter last year, some said that Rizzo missed the bigger picture. Points made were that if the team drafted and developed better, the farm system would not have gone barren. Yes, the team traded away many key prospects in trades for Doug Fister, Doolittle, and Eaton — but it is hard to argue with winning the 2019 World Series that Doolittle and Eaton were integral parts of. Still, this revelation by Rizzo could prove to be a shift in philosophy that he won’t be emptying his farm for trades.

Many fans are clamoring for Abrams to receive a contract extension. The issue there is that Rizzo might have waited too long. We made this suggestion two calendar years ago. Most disagreed, but several thought it was a great idea. Two cases for extensions were made recently when Bobby Witt Jr. and Jackson Chourio signed new deals. I’ve only suggested two early extensions before. The other was with Turner back in 2016. I would offer Wood a Chourio-type of deal today if I was running things. A Witt deal for Abrams is probably too rich. You might as well just wait because the Witt deal assumes too much risk on the team. But maybe there is a middle ground there.

Yes, money is finite, especially when you consider a baseball budget. But it also sends a message to the players and fans that the Washington Nationals are serious about their future. The time might be now to be bold.

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