Nationals 2023 Preview: Long road back begins now

Very few people thought the Washington Nationals — even with the likes of Josh Bell and Juan Soto in the lineup — would contend for a playoff spot last spring. And many had them finishing under .500 (I had projected 69-93).

But very few had the 2022 season in mind when they finished with a 55-107 record where they never reached .500, even for a day after dropping their opener (2-3, 4-5, and 6-7 was the best they could do). Also, they traded their generational talent Juan Soto a few years before the All-Star hit free agency.

If 2020 (26-34 and last in the NL East) was a disappointment and 2021 (67-95 plus the late-July fire sale of Max Scherzer and Trea Turner) was disturbing, 2022 had the feeling of a thud.

As the 2023 season nears, the road back to respectability is underway. There will be bumps, potholes, even some potential wrong turns. But one feels that the worst is behind this team and organization in this latest cycle and they’ll be booming before the next bust.

For starters, the opening day lineup will look vastly different from last year with Lane Thomas, Keibert Ruiz and Victor Robles being the only players to return to the roster from the nine who started against the New York Mets last April 7 (I hate labor strife but last year’s lockout at least meant we weren’t starting the season in March, a month where it’s winter for the first 20 or so days).

Washington Nationals’ Lane Thomas (28) bats against the Detroit Tigers in a spring training baseball game, Wednesday, March 8, 2023, in Lakeland, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Thomas was second on the team in hits and runs scored last year, and is the likely leadoff hitter in 2023. He was one of five the team used in 2022 (55 starts batting No. 1 was second to Cesar Hernandez) and that quintet hit a combined .228 (29th in MLB) with 56 walks (20th), a major reason why the club that ranked 11th in the majors in batting average last season finished 26th in runs scored.

Thomas also finished second on the team last year in homers with 17, although an asterisk is in use as the Nats leading total was Soto’s 21 before he was traded.

Joey Meneses (13 homers in 56 games last year) tries to prove his rookie season wasn’t a one-hit wonder, while offseason pickups Corey Dickerson (21 homers per 162 games played in his career) and Jeimer Candelario (AL-best 42 doubles in 2021) were brought in to provide power for the middle of the order. Candelario is also key to solidifying a third base position that has seen plenty of instability and ineffectiveness since Anthony Rendon left via free agency three years ago.

Defensively, this team looks to be much better in 2023 (last year’s team committed 104 errors, the second most in MLB to Pittsburgh) as it’s built strongly up the middle. Keibert Ruiz has the makings of an All-Star catcher and is signed by the team long-term, while CJ Abrams is ready to shine at shortstop, and second baseman Luis Garcia is playing his natural position.

And whatever offensive or base running issues Robles may have, the Nats center fielder has a great glove and arm.

Pitching was a problem in 2022, specifically starting pitching: the Nats’ rotation’s 5.97 earned run average was the worst in the majors and their 4.78 innings per outing ranked 28th.

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Patrick Corbin throws during the first inning of a spring training baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023, in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

While Stephen Strasburg’s status isn’t even in the equation after he was shut down before even leaving for Spring Training (he’s tossed just 31.1 innings since throwing 36.1 in October 2019 on his way to being voted World Series MVP), Patrick Corbin’s ability to bounce back from consecutive subpar seasons (leading the National League in losses in 2021 and 2022-first since Phil Niekro from 1978-80) is expected. Josiah Gray also lead the NL in a less than ideal category, coughing up 38 home runs, but the 25-year-old posted an MLB-best 0.55 ERA in Spring Training (pumping the brakes on the fact that it’s still in exhibition action).

The most intriguing piece of the rotation might be MacKenzie Gore, who as a rookie for San Diego in 2022 had an ERA of 1.50 over his first nine Major League starts, but was 0-3 with an ERA of 11.05 over his last seven outings.

The bullpen actually held its own last season, posting a winning record (25-21) while ranking 15th in ERA despite tossing the sixth most innings per game. Kyle Finnegan (11 saves in 2022) along with Erasmo Ramirez and Carl Edwards Jr. each pitched in more than 55 games last year and will be relied on again for the heavy lifting in 2023.

The schedule begins with a pair of home series against 2022 playoff teams — the Atlanta Braves and Tampa Bay Rays. That’s less than ideal for a team that hasn’t entered May over .500 since Dusty Baker was name-dropping Jimi Hendrix and Bill Walsh back in 2017. In three of the team’s four non-pandemic seasons under Manager Dave Martinez, they’ve entered May with 16 losses, and even the pandemic campaign saw the team end the first month of the shortened season (July) 3-4.

Notable early-season games in D.C. include April 18-19 against the Orioles, May 12-15 against the New York Mets (80% chance we’ll see Max Scherzer), May 23-25 against Juan Soto and San Diego, and June 2-4 against Philadelphia for those who forgot what Trea Turner and Bryce Harper looked like. Barring rainouts, this year’s Nationals will have played 59 games when the Phillies leave town, and we’ll have a better idea how well the rebuild is going.

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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