2023 MLB Season Preview: Washington Nationals

Image: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

2022 Record: 55-107 (.340 win%, 5th in Division)

2023 Payroll: $78,983,095 (23rd)

2023 Projected Lineup (Steamer):

1. RF Lane Thomas .236 AVG/.309 OBP/.407 SLG, 1.7 fWAR

2. 1B Dominic Smith .255 AVG/.321 OBP/.412 SLG, 0.9 fWAR

3. DH Joey Meneses .255 AVG/.321 OBP/.412 SLG, 1.2 fWAR

4. LF Corey Dickerson .264 AVG/.310 OBP/.411 SLG, 0.6 fWAR

5. 3B Jeimer Candelario .244 AVG/.315 OBP/.406 SLG, 1.6 fWAR

6. 2B Luis García .264 AVG/.304 OBP/.417 SLG, 1.3 fWAR

7. C Keibert Ruiz .265 AVG/.326 OBP/.423 SLG, 2.5 fWAR

8. SS CJ Abrams .265 AVG/.304 OBP/.386 SLG, 2.3 fWAR

9. CF Victor Robles .229 AVG/.292 OBP/.352 SLG, 0.8 fWAR

10. INF/OF Ildemaro Vargas .250 AVG/.293 OBP/.370 SLG, 0.5 fWAR

2023 Projected Starting Rotation:

1. Patrick Corbin, 175.0 IP/4.45 ERA/1.36 WHIP, 1.7 fWAR

2. Josiah Gray, 167.0 IP/4.87 ERA/1.37 WHIP, 1.1 fWAR

3. MacKenzie Gore, 138.0 IP/4.31 ERA/1.39 WHIP, 1.3 fWAR

4. Trevor Williams, 131.0 IP/4.92 ERA/1.40 WHIP, 0.8 fWAR

5. Chad Kuhl, 103.0 IP/5.00 ERA/1.45 WHIP, 0.3 fWAR

2023 Projected Top 4 Relievers:

1. Kyle Finnegan, 66.0 IP/3.79 ERA/1.29 WHIP, 0.5 fWAR

2. Hunter Harvey, 62.0 IP/3.76 ERA/1.25 WHIP, 0.5 fWAR

3. Víctor Arano, 50.0 IP/4.06 ERA/1.31 WHIP, 0.2 fWAR

4. Carl Edwards Jr., 64.0 IP/4.25 ERA/1.36 WHIP, 0.1 fWAR

The Current Outlook of Baseball in D.C.

The first Nationals teams were basement dwellers of the National League for the better part of a decade until the acquisition of a couple generational talents in the amateur draft put them over the top in the beginnings of the 2010s. As the Washington Nationals stacked division titles in this span, D.C. became a baseball town again, and winning was expected in any given year. 

As it stands today, the Nationals are coming off of back-to-back NL East fifth place finishes, with last year’s campaign placing them last in MLB in wins. What once was an annual contender merely three years ago led by the likes of stars Juan Soto, Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, Max Scherzer, Kyle Schwarber and many others is now a completely depleted franchise. 

Their consensus best player never had a single big league at-bat until a few months ago, and almost half of last year’s payroll combined for 0.8 fWAR. How did we get to this point? Will the Nationals ever sniff a playoff berth among a loaded National League East division for the next decade?

Unfortunately for the Nationals, this may not even be the biggest of their problems. As star after star was traded or allowed to walk via free agency, the future ownership of the team has become questioned. When news broke a year ago that Mark Lerner was exploring a sale of the team, this suspicion became a reality. 

However, nothing has changed on the status of the franchise’s ownership since then. It has been speculated that their confinement to their agreement with the Orioles, regarding their poached broadcasting rights, which has hampered the club in extending their franchise cornerstones in recent years, is the reason for this stand-still.

Put simply, this is a make-or-break point for the Nationals. Five years from now we could be looking at a team with a new owner leading a world-series contender, or we could observe an annual bottom-dweller with a thin payroll. Although the most likely outcome lies in between these two extremes, this is a period of apprehension for the Nationals faithful.

2022 Offseason Recap:

Given the Nationals’ tight payroll at this time, the team took a somewhat tactical approach to the 2022 offseason in targeting a mixture of high-upside position players and a few high-floor, seasoned veterans to help guide the youth on the active roster.

The most notable of these high-upside acquisitions is 27 year old first baseman Dominic Smith, a former New York Met. When Dom was taken in the first round of the 2013 Draft, he was thought to be the first baseman of the future for New York. 

Unfortunately for Smith, superstar Pete Alonso burst onto the scene for New York in 2019, and Smith completely fell out of contention for the starting first base job. This came at quite the unfortunate time, as Smith had just recorded his first productive MLB season posting a 134 wRC+ in 89 games. This success continued into the 2020 shortened season, as he slugged his way to a 166 wRC+, good for seventh in MLB, and garnering him MVP votes. 

In the following years, Smith has struggled at the plate, and his playing time cratered. Through the 2021 and 2022 seasons, Smith generated a .233/.298/.345 slashline with only 11 HR in 203 games. This resulted in the Mets non-tendering him, allowing the Nationals to scoop him up.

In my opinion, this move is reminiscent of the acquisition of Josh Bell before the 2021 season. Both players were coming off of disappointing seasons with their past team and in need of a fresh start. For Dom Smith, his one-year deal gives him an opportunity to show the MLB what he can do over a full season with unrestricted playing time, and there’s reason to believe he can break out again in 2023, just like Josh Bell did in 2021.

The next offseason addition with some upside for the Nationals is third baseman Jeimer Candelario. In his first few seasons with the Cubs and Tigers, Candelario’s production had been a mixed bag. In his first five seasons, he had two years with a wRC+ above 100, the Major League average, and three seasons with a wRC+ below 100. This changed in 2020, when Candelario led the Tigers in fWAR, doubles, hits, and other offensive categories, good for a stellar 140 wRC+ and a .872 OPS. This All-Star caliber play returned in the 2021 season, when he led the league in doubles (42) and posted another wRC+ north of 120. 

Unfortunately for Candelario, this good production came to a grinding halt in 2022. In 124 games, his slashline was a paltry .217/.272/.361, and he most notably took a large step back in his plate approach. His 23.3% K% was slightly better than his career norm, but his 6% BB% was 4.4% less than his typical walk rate throughout his career.

With the majority of his games played at Comerica Park in this span, primarily a pitcher’s park, one may come to the conclusion that Candelario got unlucky with his batted ball outcomes. His 2022 .257 BABIP is the greatest evidence for this argument, as this figure is well below his career average .298 mark. Additionally, his xISO ranked in the 52nd percentile, hardly a far cry from his 59th and 55th percentile marks in 2020 and 2021. 

Given his recent performances and his departure from one of the worst ballparks for hitters, I believe that Jeimer Candelario provides the combination of a decent floor and considerable upside which may allow Washington to trade him for future assets if he returns to past form.

The last notable high-upside acquisition made by Washington’s front office was not a free agent, but a claim on the waiver wire. On December 22, 2022, when the Red Sox designated 24 year old shortstop Jeter Downs for assignment, Mike Rizzo gave Nationals fans an early Christmas gift of sorts when he claimed the youngster and placed him on the 40-man roster. 

Downs was most notably a centerpiece of the deal that sent Mookie Betts to the Dodgers before the 2020 season back when he was 21 and coming off a 2019 campaign where he tore up A+ and AA, propelling himself into the middle of top-100 prospect lists everywhere. After he was shipped to Boston however, things took a turn for the worst. 

The 2020 MiLB season was canceled due to Covid-19 concerns, hindering his development as a professional baseball player. When he made his professional debut with the Red Sox in AAA in 2021 he played awful, offering a .190/.272/.333 slashline and a 62 wRC+. This play improved in 2022, but was certainly still a disappointment when he produced a slightly below average 95 wRC+. 

It was at this point when Boston decided to call him up to the big leagues, and it now appears to have been a mistake. In 14 games, he went 6 for 39, with a K% north of 50%. He was completely overmatched during this span, and the Red Sox decided to call it quits a few months later. So the Nationals claimed him on waivers, and here we are.

Fortunately for the Nationals, I still think Downs still has some potential left in him. Looking at the trend of his numbers before and after the Covid year, I can deduce that the loss of 2020 greatly impacted his development. His promotion to AAA and later the major leagues exacerbated this problem, and he suffered because of it. 

If he can be given enough time in Washington’s farm system to marinate for a season or two while making the necessary adjustments to return to his LA self, I think Downs could still turn out to be an average MLB infielder or even better, although unlikely at this point. He is still only 24, and I think there is still time left to alter his career’s path due to the nature that the Red Sox utilized him in.

Another bat making their Nationals debut this season is outfielder Corey Dickerson. Given the young outfield depth the Nationals possess at the Major league level in Victor Robles, Lane Thomas, and Alex Call, the signing of the 33 year old veteran provides valued experience and a higher floor for Washington’s outfield unit. 

Dickerson may not be the fastest or hit for the most power on any given team, but his consistency is what sets him apart from most major-leaguers. In 10 seasons, his wRC has never dipped below 95, or his OPS .698. He’s a career 112 wRC+ player who typically earns between 1 and 1.5 fWAR for his ballclub each season. This may not be the flashiest signing for the Nationals, but Dickerson is a good platoon option who shouldn’t have any trouble contributing on a consistent basis for a team looking to improve its floor. 

The last headliner of the 2022 Nationals free agent class is another former Met, Trevor Williams. When I recommended that the Nationals pursue a high-floor starting pitcher like Ross Stripling in my Offseason Options for the Washington Nationals article, this is exactly the kind of pitcher I had in mind. 

The acquisition of Williams helps stabilize a young rotation in Washington, and he was quietly effective for the Mets last year in a long-relief role. In nearly 90 innings he recorded a 3.21 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, and a 3.88 FIP. Considering how dreadful the Nationals’ rotation was this past season, Williams is a considerable improvement in that department. 

Other moves:

Non-tendered 1B/DH Luke Voit

Non-tendered SP Eric Fedde

Selected P Thad Ward in the Rule 5 Draft

Signed OF Stone Garrett to 1-year deal

Signed RP Erasmo Ramirez to 1-year deal

Signed 1B/DH Matt Adams to MiLB contract

Signed 1B/2B/3B Michael Chavis to MiLB contract

Signed RP Anthony Banda to MiLB contract

2023 Regular Season Preview:

It goes without saying that this Nationals team won’t be competing with the Dodgers, Braves, Astros, or Yankees come October this year. In fact, they likely won’t come close. In a stacked NL East division featuring the juggernaut Braves, Mets, and Phillies, the Nats have their work cut out for them again this season. 

However, with MLB changing the regular-season schedule in the most recent CBA to allow every team to play one another each year, the Nationals will end up playing their 3 toughest division foes a total of 39 times this season, instead of 57 times.

Additionally, this young team can look to leave all of their growing pains in the 2022 season – a throwaway year – as they continue to climb the learning curve in hopes of becoming more productive major-league baseball players. 

Between Josiah Gray, Keibert Ruiz, Luis García, and CJ Abrams, they have partaken in a total of 153 big league games prior to the 2022 regular season. Now that the young core for Washington has gotten their feet wet, the likelihood of improvements from them this season are likely. 

Position Players

Among every player on Washington’s 26-man active roster, Lane Thomas surprisingly finds himself with some of the most service time as a member of the team. When he was traded to D.C. for a fading Jon Lester in the infamous 2021 fire-sale, the most accurate expectation for him at this point was to be a fourth outfielder for the ballclub. 

However, entering the 2023 season, he’s now a lock to play 100+ games, mostly as a right fielder, as the Nationals platoon different bats while getting extended looks at many different outfielders in an effort to find which players fit their mold for the next competitive window.

Since he became a member of the Nats in 2021, Thomas has been a serviceable MLB outfielder, combining for 2.1 fWAR. He doesn’t hit the ball particularly hard, but when he does, he utilizes his elite speed to take extra bases, thus making him a roughly league-average hitter. 

Additionally, this sprint speed (95th percentile per baseball savant) makes him one of the biggest beneficiaries of the adjusted rules this season which promote a more active game on the basepaths. Expect Lane to swipe 15-20 bases next year.

Joining Thomas in a fluid Nationals outfield next season is Victor Robles. Since his major league debut in 2017, Robles has vastly underperformed his top prospect reputation, as he has exceeded the 100 wRC+ benchmark only once in his six MLB seasons so far. 

His elite glove in center field keeps him with the big club for now, but if he continues the poor offensive profile he has maintained over the years through this season, he may be out of a job come next April.

Pivoting to the infield, Luis García projects to be the starter at the keystone for the Nationals this year. While he already has a decent amount of playing time since 2020 (203 games), he is still a youngster with lots of room for growth in the coming seasons. He has flashed potential, namely his 92nd percentile max exit velocity, but he has struggled to routinely hit the ball hard due to a poor plate approach. 

While his strikeout rate (K%) is only slightly below average at 22.3%, he only walks once in a blue moon, exemplified by his walk total of only 11 in 377 PAs last season. Further, among all 246 hitters with at least 350 PAs last season, only 26 hitters swung at pitches more often than he did (53.3%). If Luis can take more pitches than last year and work his way deeper into counts, he will be able to produce better quality at-bats, and more importantly, a better chance at hitting the ball harder with greater frequency. 

Playing alongside Luis García in the middle infield this season, and for many to come will be dynamic 22 year old shortstop CJ Abrams. A former top 10 prospect in all of baseball as recently as last year, Abrams was one of the headliners of the Juan Soto trade last August. After a short stint in AAA upon being traded to Washington, Abrams spent some time with the Major League club to close the season out. 

In his first games with the Nats, it looks like Abrams struggled on paper. However upon further inspection, I believe he showed promise in this short sample with the team. In 44 games Abrams put up a 67 wRC+, .258/.276/.327 slashline, and only nine extra-base- hits. However, his BABIP mark was .301, a figure much smaller than expected for a player with an offensive profile of elite speed and great contact ability. As he began to accumulate games, he improved quickly, posting a 95 wRC+, .303/.309/.394 slashline, in addition to swiping 5 bags in his final 20 games of the season.

Most importantly, his BABIP over this stretch was .333, which is a lot closer to what I would expect from a player like Abrams. I anticipate Abrams to post a BABIP in the .325 to .345 range going forward, allowing him to be an above average hitter at the big league level with elite speed and potentially average defense, which will come with experience. If he can tap into the power department enough to hit 20 home runs a year, he could be a perennial all-star for the duration of his prime.

Anchoring the batting order in the 3rd or 4th spot this season will likely be 30 year old Joey Meneses. After his callup in early August following the trade deadline, the Nationals lineup had a gaping hole in the middle of it where Juan Soto once stood. Despite no big league experience at that point, Joey Meneses was able to completely fill that hole over the remainder of the season. Over the final two months of the regular season, Joey torched the league, ranking 7th in wRC+ (160), 8th in HRs (12), and 18th in RBI (33) among all 91 hitters with at least 200 PAs in that span.

 A career minor-leaguer up until this point, Joey Meneses has finally had his chance to make it in the big leagues, and he has latched onto the opportunity with the Nationals. Although the Nationals attempted to play him in the outfield for about 20 games down the stretch the previous season, the signing of Corey Dickerson has nixed any chance of him being an outfielder this upcoming season. To start the year, he will likely split time between 1B and DH with Dom Smith, still enabling to get ABs every day.

Behind the dish this season for the Nats, and through the next decade as well, is catcher Keibert Ruiz. Fresh off of a $50M, 8 year extension with two club options in 2031 and 2032, Keibert Ruiz is the first sign of the Nationals making a long-term commitment towards their next championship caliber core. 

In 2022, Keibert played about average for a catcher, producing a 90 wRC+ and 1.7 fWAR in 112 games. Considering the going rate for a 1.0 fWAR player is around $7M a year, his extension is a bargain for the Nationals, especially since he is a catcher. Additionally, there’s reason to believe that what we saw last season was Keibert Ruiz’s floor production-wise as a player. 

Due to his elite contact ability, slow speed, and meager power, he was easily countered by the shift. In fact, his pull% of nearly 50% cost him almost as many hits to the shift as any other player last year. I would hardly be surprised if Ruiz is the Nationals best hitter next season, even if he doesn’t tap into more of his power potential. 

The Starting Rotation

Shifting over to the pitching side, the other veteran eating innings with Trevor Williams in an otherwise young rotation is World Series champion Patrick Corbin. The Patrick Corbin we know today is a far cry from the Corbin remembered for his dominant 2019 campaign and postseason heroics, but he still has a purpose for this ballclub this season. 

In 2022, Corbin regressed further than most would have thought possible despite the downward spiral he had already embarked upon since 2020. In 151.2 innings, he pitched to a 6.31 ERA, and a 6-19 record. However, his 4.21 xFIP suggests he wasn’t nearly as bad as his ERA and record entail. 

With the Nationals ranking dead last in team OOA (Outs Above Average) last year at -50, 16 less than the next best team, it’s easy to blame a horrid defense for a large portion of his problems. In fact, the Nationals have never ranked higher than 26th on Baseball Savant’s leaderboard for the metric since 2019, when they were 3rd in all of Major League Baseball. 

This meteoric collapse of Washington’s defense perfectly coincides with Corbin’s “downfall”, and I don’t think this is a coincidence. With CJ Abrams now manning short with excellent range, Luis García playing in his natural position, and Victor Robles patrolling the depths of center field, I believe Corbin has the opportunity to pitch his way to an ERA in the 4.00 to 4.50 range, as long as he defense allows him to. 

The next man up in the rotation is 25 year old right-hander Josiah Gray, who’s in line to make his sophomore season 3rd in the Nationals rotation. For Gray, 2022 had mixed results for him; he pitched to a 5.02 ERA in 148.2 innings, largely due to the poor defense behind him, despite his xERA mark being at a solid 4.25. 

Additionally, Josiah only possessed one pitch last season which was better than league average, his slider. Outside of his plus slider, a pitch generated which generated a stellar -1.4 RV/100 (Run Value per 100 Pitches), he had an average curveball and a 4-seam fastball which could have been considered the worst fastball in baseball, a pitch so ineffective that its RV/100 was 2.1, the 4th worst value for any pitch in baseball last year thrown at least 100 times. 

However, since the Nationals reportedly have invested more resources into player development this winter, it’s been disclosed that he has been working on a cutter this winter, in hopes that it can replace his suboptimal 4-seamer. The early results in spring training are great so far, as Gray has had the second lowest ERA among all qualified starting pitchers in spring training this year (0.55). If this small sample is any indication of how effective Gray will be this year, then he is primed to improve this season. 

Holding down the middle of the rotation for the Nationals is former Padres southpaw Mackenzie Gore. When Gore was included as one of the headliners in the Juan Soto deal in August, his first half performance and prospect pedigree gave the Nationals’ front office reason to believe he still has massive upside, along with a very high floor. After San Diego selected Gore third overall in the 2017 amateur draft as an 18 year-old, he quickly ascended rankings until he found himself to be favored as the best left-handed pitching prospect in the sport in 2019.

Unfortunately for Gore, a combination of mechanical problems, blisters, and the loss of the 2020 season due to Covid delayed his MLB debut until the opener of the 2022 season. In the first half of the season, Gore pitched as advertised, pitching to a 1.50 ERA, 2.20 FIP, and striking out 57 in his first 48 innings. His opponents BABIP was .292, which was nearly the league average BABIP last season, largely proving he wasn’t relying on luck during this span. 

Shortly after this hot start it started to go sideways for Gore, as he gave up 14 ER in his next two starts (both to the Rockies coincidently). This caused San Diego to shut Gore down through the All-Star break in an effort to preserve the rookie’s arm. After undergoing an MRI, it was revealed that he was suffering from elbow inflammation. Gore lucked out that there was no ligament damage, but it caused him to miss the rest of the season even after he was traded to Washington. 

Long-term there should be no repercussions from this event, but he will probably be on an inning limit this season similar to Josiah Gray in 2022. 

When he does take the mound for Washington this year, he has a great chance to be the Nats’ most effective starter. Gore features a 95 mph 4-seamer which he utilizes over 60% of the time, a curveball and slider he mixes in around 15-18% of the time, and a mid 80s changeup he’ll pull the string on a handful of times each outing. 

Because three out of his four pitches in his arsenal have an average or better RV/100, with his plus fastball being his most effective pitch according to the metric at -0.70, Gore has the ability to change the way he attacks hitters as his outings progress, allowing him to work deeper into games and eat innings. Of course the main goal for Mackenzie this year is to have a healthy and successful year, but his effectiveness through the third time through the order will be an important skill to monitor in his development.

The last pitcher filling in the 5th spot of the starting rotation in place of Cade Cavalli will be Chad Kuhl. Signed to a MiLB contract in mid February of this spring, Kuhl was initially planned to be pitching depth for the Nationals in AAA. These plans quickly changed when the news broke that top prospect Cade Cavalli would need UCL reconstruction surgery (Tommy John) following a spring outing. 

Khul last pitched for the Rockies in 2022, where he pitched to the tune of a 5.72 ERA, 5.26 FIP, and 0.5 WAR in 137 innings for the Mile-High city. Although his expected statistics are marginally better than what he actually contributed last season, Kuhl is still the quality of pitcher that you would expect to find without a team in mid February. 

The biggest part of Kuhl’s profile that sticks out to me is his pitch usage in recent years. When Kuhl was at his peak effectiveness in Pittsburgh from 2016 to 2018, his xFIP hovered around 4.30 to 4.60, with his fastball being used around 60% of the in his outings, accompanied by his secondary offerings at about 40% of the time. 

If we fast forward to today, Kuhl’s xFIP has hovered around 4.80 to 5.00 in the last three years, with a heavy decrease in fastball usage at about 40%. If Kuhl can learn to utilize his arsenal more efficiently with the Nats, he could stick around longer than many would have initially expected at the 5th rotation spot. 

The Bullpen

We have now reached the Nationals’ strongest part of the roster, which is the bullpen unit. With how poor the starting rotation for the Nationals was last season combined with their lack of depth, it would hardly be a stretch to say the bullpen was the glue that held the team together in that disappointing season. 

Among all relief corps in Major League Baseball last year, the Nationals’ relievers were tasked to pitch the 7th most innings of any bullpen (638 IP), and to put it simply, they responded. Led by Erasmo Ramirez, Hunter Harvey, Victor Arano, and Kyle Finnegan, the Nationals bullpen held it together, finishing the season with an ERA below four (3.84).

Although the Nationals’ bullpen is largely made up of the same players as last year, there have been a few notable additions to the group which will be traveling north with the team for opening day.

Making his first opening day roster is young flamethrower Mason Thompson. When he was acquired by the Nationals in exchange for Nationals legend Daniel Hudson during the 2021 firesale he was a relatively unknown quantity, and we still don’t know everything about him yet. However, if what he flashed at the big league level last year wasn’t a fluke, then he could have a big role with the Washington Nationals soon. 

In 24 games with the ballclub, he sported a 2.92 ERA, 4.17 FIP, and 15 in 24.2 IP. While the disparity in his ERA and FIP totals suggest some regression is due, it’s hard not to be happy with how he handled a major league bullpen role at 24 years old. 

Command is the biggest blemish in this sample due to his slightly below average 3.28 BB/9. If he can learn how to control his 95.6 mph fastball in his time this season in the Nats ‘pen, he could stick around for the majority of the season while potentially working his way into a later inning role.

The next new face in the bullpen, Thad Ward, will be making his Nationals debut this opening day in a long relief role. After being selected first overall in the Rule 5 draft this December, Ward will be hidden in the back of the Nationals bullpen in an effort to keep him on the active roster for the duration of the season. 

If he is ever sent back to the minor leagues due to poor play or other circumstances in his first year with the club after being a rule 5 selection, he must be offered back to the Boston Red Sox. It’s in the best interest of the Nationals to stash him towards the back of the bullpen only to be used in multi-inning mop-up situations in lopsided games until he becomes more comfortable pitching at the big league level.

As a Red Sox farmhand in 2022, Ward made 13 appearances across 4 different levels, all of them starts. The bulk of his playing time came when he started 7 games for AA Portland. In his 33.1 innings with Portland last year, Ward produced a 2.43 ERA and 3.56 FIP, while also flashing some strikeout upside in his impressive 11.07 K/9 mark last season. 

Ward typically sits 92-92 mph with his fastball, occasionally topping out at 96. Additionally, he tends to lean heavily on his low to mid 80s slider, which he reportedly has a great feel for. He is still working on changeup at this point in time, but it won’t be very necessary this season if he’ll be making the majority of his appearances out of the back of the bullpen in long-relief. 

Ward does possess the upside to be a 5th starter in a big-league rotation in the future, but don’t expect him to leave the bullpen much this season barring the late scratch of a starter here and there as the season progresses.

The last new name to watch in the bullpen this season is Hobie Harris, a player who nobody had on their radar coming into the spring. This isn’t the first time Mike Rizzo has appeared to pull a reliever out of thin air, as he has found Kyle Finnegan, Hunter Harvey, Erasmo Ramirez, Carl Edwards Jr., and other effective relief pitchers in recent years for little to no cost. Heading into the offseason, the Nationals were clearly high on him heading into spring training, as Harris was one of their first MiLB contracts given out in mid November, just after the playoffs had wrapped up.

In 8 Spring Training games donning the Curly W, Harris made 8 appearances, posting a 0.50 ERA and 0.50 WHIP in 10 IP. Although this was indeed a small sample for Harris, the Nats were clearly impressed enough with what he showcased to give him a spot on the opening day roster. Will the career minor-leaguer continue to be effective after his big league debut with the Nationals? It’s anyone’s guess, but precedent shows he has a pretty good shot this season.

Player to Watch #1: DH Joey Meneses

The most well-known player on the Nationals at this point in time, Joey Meneses, has a lot to prove this season. After putting himself on the map on a global scale with a multi-homer night for team Mexico against the United States in the recent World Baseball Classic, Meneses looks to back up his reputation as a big-league slugger with the Nationals in 2023. 

Will he pick up where he left off when the 2022 regular season ended last October, probably not. But he could still play himself into a long-term role with the Nationals through the duration of their rebuild, or entice another MLB team desperate for more offense to ship a quality prospect to them in return for his bat. It’s anyone’s guess what Meneses will do in 2023, but regardless, it’s bound to be interesting.

Player to Watch #2: SS CJ Abrams

Another Nationals hitter with a lot to prove in 2023 is the young shortstop CJ Abrams. For many, this season is the make-or-break season to determine if he will return the long term value he was advertised to have for years as a blue-chip prospect in San Diego’s system. While I don’t believe this season is in that tier of importance for Abrams yet, it would certainly be very concerning for the blueprint of the next contender in D.C. if he flops this year. 

Fortunately, I believe we witnessed his floor as a player in his short cup of coffee with the Nationals last year. If all else fails, he will make the games that much more interesting with his elite speed, incredible range, and great hit tool. When asked this spring about how many bases he wants to steal this season with the adjusted rules, he replied, “As many as possible.”

Player to Watch #3: OF Robert Hassell III

It wouldn’t be a Nationals write-up without looking towards the future! The next most developed piece in the return from the Juan Soto deal is 21 year-old outfielder Robert Hassell III. The 8th overall pick for the Padres in the 2020 MLB Draft, Hassell is reminiscent of a player you might find in baseball games from the mid 20th century. 

He doesn’t have any extremely loud tools other than his contact ability, but he can field, run, throw, and hit for power better than most minor league players at his age. His name is also Robert Hassell II. He’s a complete ballplayer, and he provides a considerably high floor as a prospect. 

From statistics and media that I’ve looked at regarding Hassell, I almost see a Christian Yelich-type player before he left Miami and unlocked the rest of his power ability. Hassell isn’t afraid to hit the ball the other way, demonstrated by his impressive 43.8 Oppo% in AA last year. I’m not the only fan of his, as MLB Pipeline has him slotted in as the 35th best prospect in the sport in their most recent rankings update.

This season Hassell will start at AA Harrisburg with the chance to make an appearance with the Washington Nationals in September, barring any setbacks or injuries. If he can make it to Washington this year, Nationals fans will have another opportunity to peek further into the future regarding what the next Nationals contender could look like, as their top prospects slowly start to graduate en route to becoming everyday big-leaguers.

Position Group to Watch: Middle Infielders

The position group at the major league level that is the most “set” for the next Washington Nationals playoff team would probably be the middle infield. Don’t get me wrong, Luis García or CJ Abrams might not have a future with this organization, but the Nats front office has a lot more holes to fill first if they want to replace the young duo. 

For this reason, CJ and Luis would be the most relevant cluster of players to the future of the Nationals. They are both 22 years old manning the middle infield for a professional baseball team with their whole careers ahead of them. They both may not be superstars yet, but they should both provide ample opportunities this summer to entertain the Nationals fanbase.

2023 Record Prediction: 64 – 98

The loss of Cade Cavalli for the duration of the 2023 season stings, but I’m still optimistic that the Nationals can avoid losing 100 games this upcoming season. The biggest catalyst for my optimistic prediction is the restructuring of MLB’s schedule this year. Prior to this season, the Nationals had to play each NL East foe 19 teams a year, but this total has since been decreased to 13. 

This is a big break in favor of the Nationals, and I expect them to be able to win 2 to 4 more games than they would have before. Additionally, with the additions of Trevor Williams, Mackenzie Gore, and a reinvented Josiah Gray to the MLB’s worst 2022 starting rotation according to ERA (5.97), I’m optimistic that the Nationals have made up a decent amount of ground in the starting pitching department. 

They will have far from the best rotation in the National league, but as it stands right now, their opening day starting rotation is leaps and bounds better than last year’s. Ultimately, a large amount of the rotation’s success rides on the effectiveness of the defense behind them, but the Nationals have raised their team’s floor by 10 games since last season.

Categories: 2023 Season Preview, Articles, Season Analysis

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