Nationals Preview: Constructing the next contender in 2022

For the first time in over a decade, the opening day expectations for the Washington Nationals are, how shall we say it? Relaxed? Reduced? Somewhat different?

After making the playoffs five times from 2012-19 and having the World Series nucleus mostly intact for the two seasons following their title, the 2022 edition will have a rather different flavor.

Nationals’ Opening Day:

It’s not the days of Nook Logan’s base-running blunders, the O missing from Ryan Zimmerman’s home jersey, or sausage pellets raining on fans, but it’s safe to say that putting down the mortgage money on a postseason berth (even with the expanded field) might not be the wisest thing to do.

The building toward the next postseason run began last summer with the shedding of veterans and their salaries and phase two starts Thursday when the Nats host the New York Mets (weather permitting).

For starters, you will need to purchase a scorecard or at least print a roster off your computer. Six of the eight starting position players on opening day last year are not with the team, and that doesn’t include pitcher Max Scherzer or multiple bench players like Carter Kieboom or Luis Garcia.

The fans and the media aren’t the only ones noticing a vastly different clubhouse in 2022.

“Yeah it’s definitely weird but I mean it’s part of baseball,” said pitcher Erick Fedde, who in the last year has gone from one of the young kids to one of the veteran voices. “There are so many times where you see a guy for the last time in your life when he gets sent down or traded.”

But while this team won’t be the oldest in the majors as they were the last three years, the Nationals won’t be as young as the pre-contention clubs of 10-15 years ago.

“I think we have an awesome mix of veteran guys with a lot of experience and a lot of younger guys,” once and former reliever Sean Doolittle said. “It’s really good to have that mix because you get the hunger and the fire and the energy from the younger guys and balance that with the experience of the older guys — it keeps us young.”

Nelson Cruz is 41 years old, and this will be his seventh big league team. He likes the world he’s stepping into on South Capitol Street. “Great group of guys: young and veterans. We’re all pretty tight and pull for each other and that’s what you’re looking for. You want to have the good teammates, you know?”

Cruz has hit over 30 home runs in seven non-pandemic seasons. He was brought in to provide lineup protection for All Star Juan Soto who led the majors last year with 145 walks (the next four-most walked in the lineup combined for 156 free passes).

Cruz wrapped up spring training with the bang of a grand slam against the Mets Tuesday, and even though Grapefruit League stats are fool’s gold, the veteran is pleased with how he’s swinging the bat.

“I’m where I want to be. I worked on different stuff (at the plate) in Spring Training, things that I believe will help me for the season,” Cruz said. “But also it’s nice to know that everything’s be put on that are clicking.”

How much the lineup clicks will depend on other offseason pickups like César Hernandez, who might not have the typical leadoff-hitter look (more than double the strikeouts to walks in each of the last three years) but will be expected to be the team’s table-setter.

Josh Bell recovered from a slow start to drive in 88 runs last year, closer to his ceiling of 116 in 2019. Catcher Keibert Ruiz will be expected to make strides while the third base eyesore of the last two seasons has been patched up by ex-Brave Maikel Franco.

And then there’s Victor Robles at the bottom of the order. The former phenom is only 24 years old, but saw his 2021 go from leading off the lineup to winding up in AAA.

While the last-place Nationals still finished with the fourth best batting average in MLB last year, team ERA ballooned to 4.80 which ranked 24th in the big leagues. If this team is going to find its way out of the NL East cellar in 2022, they’re going to need much better pitching.

And the team’s best pitcher over the last seven years (Max Scherzer) was traded at the deadline last summer, while their second best pitcher (Stephen Strasburg) has tossed only 26.2 innings due to injuries over the last two years.

That means Patrick Corbin will become the first man not named Max or Stephen starting opening day for Washington since Livan Hernandez took the mound in 2011.

“You’re excited, obviously. It’s gonna feel like a playoff game out there,” Corbin said. “I’m prepared to go out there and just be myself and I know what I’m capable of doing. Like I said it’s going to be fun.”

Corbin was the final piece of the World Series-winning rotation in 2019, going 14-7 with a 3.25 ERA during the regular season and winning Game Seven of the World Series in relief. But the last two years have been a nightmare: 11-23 with a 5.49 ERA while leading the league in losses and earned runs allowed in 2021. What will the key be for the lefthander to get back on the right track?

“Just locating my fastball, getting back to that and simplifying things. Being back to controlling my slider,” Corbin said. “I think my slider has always been right, it’s just the command of the fastball, falling behind guys, things like that.”

Strasburg is on the shelf until at least May, so pitching behind Corbin will be Josiah Gray (he’s slated to pitch against Scherzer, the very guy who was traded to the Dodgers for Gray last July). Fedde, Joan Adon, plus once-and-current National Anibal Sanchez round out the rotation in pencil, but one thinks we’ll see prime prospect Cade Cavalli at some point this summer.

A shortened spring training delivered with it quite a bit of anxiety surrounding the team’s arms. It takes a certain amount of throwing to be able to handle the amount of innings during a regular season.

And 16 exhibitions is not ideal: think of a pitcher’s arm as a cake that’s baking in the oven. It’s not ready until it’s ready. That means perhaps additional pressure on the bullpen as the starters get their arms into form. That also means usage of relievers will be looked at under a microscope as one doesn’t want to burn the bullpen in April.

“I think we brought some extra guys so that we have the depth. With camp shortened everybody’s kind of dealing with the same thing,” Doolittle said. “I think we have some different matchups and different looks that we can slice the back half of the game up and we can get it done so that’s gonna be April for pretty much every team here this season. But I think we’re in a good spot.”

The Nationals begin the 2022 season with seven straight games against NL East foes, from hosting the preseason favorite New York Mets and continuing by visiting defending World Series champions Atlanta.

Starting slow has become synonymous with the Davey Martinez era (they were 10-12 last April 30, 12-16 in 2019, and 13-16 in 2018) and this team doesn’t have the margin of error that a Scherzer in the rotation or an Anthony Rendon in the lineup can provide.

“It really does take a special team to come back from being down in a hole and I think any team would prefer to be in front of the 8-ball I guess in that sense to start the season,” Fedde said. “Hopefully we can break that trend and get off to a hot start this year.”

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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