The DNA of this 2024 Nats team

When we analyzed the 2024 season over the winter, the slivers of optimism were from taking the team’s post-All-Star break record of 35-37 in 2023 — and what was right and what was wrong. How could you add four wins to that to be a playoff team? Basically, it was some addition by subtraction and adding real value.

What was right in 2023 was Lane Thomas, CJ Abrams, and Jacob Young and their run-and-gun offense in the second half that was the same strategy the 2023 Arizona Diamondbacks took to the World Series. Build a better defense, upgrade with a stud starting pitcher, a third baseman, and get a first baseman of impact — and then wait for your top prospects, James Wood and Dylan Crews to impact the roster.

That all sounded simple in theory, but you had to upgrade the starting rotation, right?!? The starting pitching had MacKenzie Gore and Jake Irvin as promising pieces. Josiah Gray had a good April and May, but a poor second half. His FIP was a reminder that he was luckier than good. Patrick Corbin was an inconsistent mess with a 5.20 ERA, and Trevor Williams hit the wall in June when he began the month with a 3.91 ERA, and finished the season at a 5.55. Too many pitchers in that 2023 season were handled poorly in terms of analytics.

Looking back, it seemed like Williams had to be the guy to replace — but what if you got him to June and replaced him with Cade Cavalli who was starting the 2024 season on the IL with his TJ recovery? Those were some ideas, and it seemed like Corbin was the one to put in the bullpen and sign a good veteran in free agency. That never happened — and the team probably was never willing to demote Corbin, regardless.

At the opening of Spring Training camp on that first Wednesday, general manager Mike Rizzo faced the music as the Washington Nationals officially opened up their Spring Training facility for player check-ins. Rizzo spoke to reporters and knew he would be asked about the lack of signings to his MLB roster — and in particular not adding a new starting pitcher.

“It’s never the plan going in. It’s just kind of how things filled out during the offseason. I just couldn’t find that starting pitcher that was going to impact us at this time, for not only the right amount of years — but the right salary at this time.”

— Rizzo said to the media at the opening of Spring Training camp

Well, Rizzo probably knew he had Zach Davies in the mix on that day when he faced the media and said that he didn’t expect to add any more players on MLB deals. He had spent under $10 million on new acquisitions during the offseason to that point — a pittance compared to an average year since 2011. Davies faded and was a late cut, and the Opening Day rotation was going to be a carbon copy of the September rotation.

Preseason projections

The evaluators were underwhelmed with the additions to the roster. The new faces in camp included many NRIs, but nobody looked like they could move the needle much. Nick Senzel and Joey Gallo were given MLB deals. Both had their own sets of issues. Jesse Winker was given an NRI deal. As camp opened and games were played, it was the top prospect, Wood, who was impressing everyone. That was until Eddie Rosario was signed to a deal on March 8. That felt like a message that whatever Wood did, would not matter as far as making the Opening Day roster. Wood would go on to lead all of MLB in Spring Training stats in the key offensive categories. Rizzo kept up the charade that if a prospect “knocked the door down” he could make the Opening Day roster. Well, Wood knocked the door down — he smashed the door down — and didn’t make the roster. But Rizzo also made it clear that he wasn’t going to block prospects — and so far — has held his word on that, so far.

“We’re not going to block guys — but if we’re fortunate enough that we have this influx of guys knocking on the big league door, then that’ll be a good day for us here. Players, they tell me when they’re ready by their play on the field. We’ve never had a problem with moving players quickly to the big leagues if they can perform up there. And we’ll have no qualms about putting them there now.”

“Our goal is never to win 71 games. Our goal is to win a division, to win a world championship, and I feel that we took a step in the right direction last year toward doing that.”

We’re going to try and facilitate another roster that allows us to take another step forward and get into the action with a terrific division that we have to deal with. We understand the challenges in front of us, and I think we’re a capable group. You’ve seen in the past what we’ve done, and I think that we’re going to be able to do it in the future.”

— Rizzo said at the Winter Meetings

True to his word when Thomas returned from the 10-day IL, there was a choice of sending Young back to Triple-A or doing a DFA of the team’s two weakest links of Victor Robles or Rosario, and Rizzo chose to keep Young and sent Robles packing. But the team never called up Wood who was en fuego at Triple-A. They waited too long, and he injured his hamstring and has not played since May 23. That is 3 1/2 weeks for minor hamstring tightness. What?!?

Then a real blow happened with Trevor Williams who has been the team’s best pitcher, and he’s been lost since May 30 with forearm inflammation. Joey Gallo got on a 16-game heater, and he really blew out his hammy and will be lost for a while. DJ Herz replaced Williams in the starting rotation, much like Mitchell Parker did when Josiah Gray went down after his second start of the season, and both lefties have been revelations. By Game Score stats, they have turned in the two best pitching performances of the season for the Nats.

Maybe it was pure luck that Rizzo could not find that starting pitcher who could impact the roster because what he got from Parker and Herz has been something special. Yes, Corbin is still a problem. He’s pitching worse than last year with his 5.84 ERA. But now Rizzo and manager Dave Martinez have to hope Williams can make it back soon, and both Gray and Cavalli are pitching. Gray has two more rehab starts to make in the minor leagues, then management has a tough decision to make as to what they do at that point. Gray has three years of minor league options remaining. But can he be better than Corbin? That’s the 23.33 million dollar question.

“Everyone needs starting pitching in the whole sport. We’re no different. You can never have enough of it, and we’re in search of it.”

— Rizzo explained at the Winter Meetings in early December

So yes, the Nats are still in search of starting pitching. The addition of Sean Doolittle to the coaching staff seems like the miracle the team needed. Everyone but Corbin and Gray had improved in the starting rotation. If you calculate numbers for just Williams, Irvin, Parker, Gore and Herz, they have a combined 2.96 ERA. It is a 3.14 ERA if you remove Williams.

On May 10, the Nats were 1-game above .500 and looking good in Boston. Robles came off of the IL and dropped a routine flyball in the outfield and also had two inexplicable baserunning blunders that defined so much of his Nats’ career. In an instant, the team started to spiral out of control. Much of the team went into a funk that lasted until June 6 when the team had sunk to 8-games under .500. Robles signed with Seattle on June 4. Maybe everything around Robles was a coincidence. The good news is that the team chemistry seems to be gelling, and it shows as the Gore-Senzel dugout squabble on Friday actually seemed to fire everyone up!

Photos by Andrew Lang for TalkNats

With Robles gone, the outfielders ditched the V-formation after a win for the winner’s circle as the center fielder extends his arms to wait for a group hug. Whatever works. They have done it 8-of-9 games during this impressive run since the Braves series on June 7.

So where does the team go from here? That is a fair question. As Wadlez wrote last night, “At this point.. it’s time to let preconceived notions of the season aside and make moves for a playoff effort.. this team deserves it.. That means Wood ASAP.. open minded deadline. No one expected the internal pitching to have the results they’ve displayed so far.. if the FO did they likely wouldn’t have treated this as a final rebuild season.”

While it is still too early to decide on the trade deadline, it isn’t too early to discuss it. The team needs Wood to do what he did during Spring Training and his 2024 Triple-A campaign. But the team has other needs they just don’t have stashed away in the minor leagues. Martinez could also use a true bullpen fireman, and a stud first baseman. Nobody wants to trade top prospects for any of that — so Rizzo can do what he did in 2019 and look for salary dump players and see if he can find the second coming of Daniel Hudson.

And I agree with Wadlez on getting Wood up soon — but he has not swung a bat in a game since May 23. My thoughts are: Get Wood up as your right fielder and shift Thomas to left field to improve his defense. Realistically, there aren’t many more tweaks to the lineup that can be made before the All-Star break. Martinez has already mentioned calling up Harold Ramirez who was just signed to a minor league deal. Is he any better than Alex Call?

Maybe the team adds Crews at some point in late August. First base and catcher are the two black holes on the team, and the catcher position will only improve by coaching up the players on the roster. Realistically the team might have to wait for the offseason to add a first baseman, and if you want to dream, the best first baseman in the draft keeps getting linked to the Nats with Nick Kurtz. You could expect Kurtz to immediately go into the Top-100 prospects. And prospect rankings aren’t everything. Young for instance never was close to the Top-100, and he has some of the loudest tools you will see as basically he is Trea Turner without the power — and with better defense.

“These guys put the work in. They really did everything they needed to do for us to say: ‘Hey, wait a minute. Let’s call this guy up. I think he can help.’ … And now they’re here and they’re continuing to do what they did down there before we brought them up.”

— Martinez said after yesterday’s game

Who could have predicted on Father’s Day that the rookie, Young, would do something like Ryan Zimmerman and hit his biggest home run since Zim walked-off on the Yankees on Father’s Day in 2006. Today, per FanGraphs, Young is the most valuable position player on this Nats’ team. Gold Glove defense, blazing speed, and clutch hitting has propelled what has made Young such an asset. Truth be told, that was Young’s first and only career home run so far.

Then you have the do-it-all Ildemaro Vargas. The glue who holds it all together. A switch-hitter who can play anywhere on the diamond. Of course he came up with the idea on Friday for the Uncle Sam hat for home run and player-of-the-game celebrations. Who else than IV? His smile and energy is infectious. He’s rubbed off so positively on so many teammates like Luis Garcia Jr. who has gone from a DFA candidate to the fourth most valuable position player on the team — and positive defense!

This team is now just 1-game from .500 and tied for the final Wild Card spot with 10-games to reach the midway point in the season. And BBRef has the team at 12.3 percent odds of making the playoffs. The team was much lower in 2019 on Father’s Day, at 11.1 percent so keep that in mind. There is so much parity in the NL, that all but two teams are in the mix.

Odds are stacked against most of the teams in the NL, but when the dust settles, six teams are going to the playoffs. The Phillies and Dodgers look like locks even though both have dealt with injuries. But no team in the NL have the near-ready top prospects to call-up like Washington.

We have written over-and-over that Defense Matters and when the starting pitching was showing their improvements, the issue really was the offense, and we said it many times. The same issues that persisted in April and May are still an issue today — but the team has been winning close games recently due to the exceptional pitching. Martinez has put together better lineups recently and has taken Rosario out of the field and put him at DH against left-handed starting pitching only.

These next two weeks are huge with games against the Diamondbacks and Padres. The Nats are the hottest team in baseball in the previous nine games at 8-1. Now it is a matter of getting back above .500, and winning series.

Yes, mind blown.

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