In the history of baseball, few teams have crashed harder following a World Series run than the Nationals. The wild card darlings of the 2019 season, who overcame the Dodgers, Cardinals, and cheating Astros to win a championship have seen the castle quickly crumble, finishing dead last in the NL East the last three years, including a dismal, by-far-worst-in-MLB 55-107 mark in 2022. Juan Soto is gone, Stephen Strasburg is hurt (again), and it seems a lengthy rebuild is on the horizon.
At least the 2019 flag will fly forever.
Expectations for 2023
Washington is all-in on the rebuild efforts, and the projection models think it could be the worst roster in the NL this upcoming year, which isn’t a stretch given 2022. FanGraphs projects a 65-97 record in a loaded NL East, while PECOTA sees 71 wins on the horizon. ZiPS has the most dim view, forecasting 64 wins as a point estimate.
There is some young talent here to dream on thanks to the Soto trade last summer, but this roster has no chance for the foreseeable future. With the new CBA changing the order of the first picks in the draft into a lottery, there’s not even much excitement to be had in seeing whether the Nationals end up with MLB’s worst record again.
Via Roster Resource:
- Lane Thomas - RF
- Corey Dickerson - LF
- Joey Meneses - DH
- Jeimer Candelario - 3B
- Keibert Ruiz - C
- Dominic Smith - 1B
- CJ Abrams - SS
- Victor Robles - CF
- Luis Garcia - 2B
Riley Adams (C)
Ildemaro Vargas (UTIL)
Alex Call (OF)
Stone Garrett (OF)
Patrick Corbin (LHP)
Josiah Gray (RHP)
Trevor Williams (RHP)
MacKenzie Gore (LHP)
Chad Kuhl (RHP)
Kyle Finnegan (RHP)
Carl Edwards Jr. (RHP)
Hunter Harvey (RHP)
Erasmo Ramirez (RHP)
Alex Colome (RHP)
Mason Thompson (RHP)
Paolo Espino (RHP)
Thad Ward (RHP)
It’s difficult to find much reason for optimism. While the lineup lacks everything except for speed and the bullpen may be the worst in the NL, a few positions (C, SS, 3B) aren’t flat-out horrible... kinda.
The club did just sign catcher Keibert Ruiz to a Braves-like, eight-year contract extension to buy out his arbitration years and early free agency. The 24-year-old backstop grades out well defensively and should be a young pillar to build around. Shortstop CJ Abrams really struggled after debuting last summer, but the former top prospect has the tools to emerge.
Ultimately, this is a team that is really going to struggle.
The pitching staff is so muddled that it’s hard to say whether it belongs as the team’s biggest strength or biggest weakness, because everything is kind of one morass of really bad stuff. On the plus side, rotation-wise, Patrick Corbin was arguably the worst starter in baseball last year on a results basis with a 6.31 ERA across 31 starts, but a FIP and xFIP in the mid-4s suggest he is due for better fate moving forward. MacKenzie Gore, one of the key pieces from the Soto trade, has a chance to break out. Josiah Gray, one of the pieces from the Max Scherzer deal, has a severe home run problem but the stuff isn’t awful. Trevor Williams hasn’t been a full-time starter for a couple years, but he should be fine towards the back of the rotation. It doesn’t look like an utter disaster from just reading a list of names.
The bullpen is, position-by-position, the least-weak projected unit on this roster, the only position outside the bottom five in projected value. That’s mostly based on expectations that Kyle Finnegan will be a Good Reliever, while Carl Edwards Jr. and Hunter Harvey are fine. That’s not good, but it’s marginally better than a bunch of other rebuilding teams.
The lineup is not good. It ranked in the bottom five (90 wRC+) following Soto’s departure. Most positions are among the worst in MLB projections-wise.
The bullpen was 22nd in WAR a season ago and doesn’t project to be any better, though that might actually be a positive for this group.
And the rotation, which I (very kindly) labeled as a possible strength if a few things break the right way, was dead last in WAR last season at -1.2, nearly five wins worse than anyone else, and is again, projected to be dead last in MLB. There may not be much upside there at all beyond Gore, and there’s little in the way of useful depth, unless you count on Stephen Strasburg returning at some point.
Special mention goes out to the Nationals’ non-plan at second base, where Luis Garcia projects to be the nearly-uncontested starter (Ildemaro Vargas exists) despite 0.0 fWAR in 377 PAs last year, and -1.1 fWAR in 763 career PAs. Once thought to be a fine defender with hit-over-power skills, Garcia’s career has gone terribly to date, as he hasn’t actually made contact all that often to go with one of the worst walk rates in the game, and his defense has been unplayably horrendous as well. Still, the Nats appear to just be handing him the job yet again.
I don’t see a path to this team not losing 95+ in 2023. It might be the worst roster in the sport along with Colorado.
Reinforcements from the Farm
The Nationals placed 11th in Keith Law’s recent organization rankings, headlined by a couple of guys (James Wood and Robert Hassell III) who came over in the Soto deal. Elijah Green, the fifth pick of the 2022 draft class, is a toolsy outfielder with a ton of projection, and 2021 first rounder Brady House has a lot of power potential.
At some point, the Nationals probably had hope that Hassell and top pitching prospect Cade Cavalli could help the 2023 team. Cavalli debuted last year and made a lone start but will now need Tommy John Surgery, which is a further blow to this terrible roster. Hassell stopped hitting after being traded, and then broke his hamate bone in the Arizona Fall League, so it’s just been a disaster all-around for the Nats. Their best chance for a meaningful farm system contributor might be Cole Henry, who was promoted to Triple-A at the tail end of last year and has been effective in the minors, though is constantly waylaid by arm problems.
This all being said, the strength of Washington’s farm system largely resides in the lower levels of the minors with ETAs of 2025 or 2026. This is an organization that will need to really take advantage of the next couple drafts to expedite the rebuild.
Braves history/outlook against Washington
These two clubs know each other well, and it seems the Braves and Nationals have mostly zigzagged over the last 15 years when it comes to one or the other being competitive. The Braves have gone a combined 28-10 against the Nats over the last two seasons (14-5 both years) and should have no issue continuing the winning in 2023. The Braves will open the season in D.C. on March 30. They then won’t see them at all until hosting them in June. After that, it’s another Nats-hiatus until the Braves play them seven times in the final ten games of the season, including a four-game set in Washington, and then a three-game series in Atlanta to close the book on the 162-game marathon. Yes, this does mean the Braves will both start and end the regular season against the Nationals.