Washington Nationals 2023 Season Preview
My VSiN colleague Tim Murray is a Washington Nationals fan. As the wheels fell off in 2021 and the car flew into a ravine in 2022, Tim would constantly remind himself how fun 2019 was. It truly was. The Nationals had endured Game 5 NLDS heartbreak in 2012, 2016 and 2017, only to get over that hurdle and eventually win it all during that 2019 playoff run.
Those days feel like an eternity ago. The Nationals went 26-34 during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, 65-97 in 2021 and finished 55-107 in 2022. Trea Turner and Max Scherzer were traded in ‘21 and Juan Soto was traded in ‘22, effectively kickstarting what will be a long and painstaking rebuild. If this past season was any indication, maybe we all underestimated the level of pain.
Only the inaugural Montreal Expos of 1969 had more losses in franchise history. That was an expansion team that finished under .500 for a decade before going 95-65 in 1979, but missed the playoffs because only the division winners played in the LCS. The Expos actually lost three of four to the eventual World Series champion Pirates in the final week of the season that year and fell short in the division race by two games.
Anyway, 2019 is a little closer than 1979, but it might as well be the same length of time apart with the outlook for the team this season.
Explanations of the stats used in this preview can be found in my “MLB Stats to Know” article.
2023 Washington Nationals Odds
(odds from DraftKings as of Mar. 15)
World Series: +40000
NL Pennant: +20000
NL East: +20000
Win Total: 60.5 (-105/-115)
Make Playoffs: Yes +2500 / No -10000
Washington Nationals Offense
There’s a scene in Major League where a couple of workers are on their lunch break and one looks up from the Indians roster in the newspaper and says, “Who are these f-in’ guys?” It seems fitting for the composition of this year’s Nationals roster. There are some interesting prospects in CJ Abrams and Keibert Ruiz, but there are also a lot of journeymen and busts that the Nationals are hoping can net trade returns or be diamonds in the rough.
Ruiz and starting pitcher Josiah Gray were the main parts of the Scherzer/Turner deal with the Dodgers. Abrams was a big part of the Soto trade. Other pieces are still in the minor leagues and the hope is that their development paths will cross at the MLB level sooner rather than later. In the meantime, the Nationals are a hodgepodge of trade pieces and free agents that may or may not have a future with the organization.
Let’s start with the ones who will in Ruiz and Abrams. For his first full season as a Major Leaguer, Ruiz was rather impressive. He only posted a 90 wRC+, but the rigors of learning how to catch in that high-stress environment often hurt offensive profiles. He certainly wasn’t overmatched with an 11.5% K%. He didn’t have much contact authority, but he did a pretty good job controlling the running game and showed flashes in the second half with the bat. He actually got an eight-year, $50 million contract during Spring Training.
Abrams needs to be a big hit because he has the chance to be a dynamic player. After the trade, he only batted .258/.276/.327 with a .265 wOBA in 163 plate appearances for the Nationals. He’s a very toolsy guy and has an elite speed tool, so if he can get on base, the new rules will benefit him a lot. He was San Diego’s top prospect and the 11th-ranked prospect in baseball per FanGraphs going into 2022. He won’t turn 23 until after the season, so there is a lot of room for patience here. He also got rushed to the big leagues, so growing pains are to be expected and will likely continue.
I don’t think we’ll see Robert Hassell III or James Wood this season, but that all depends on how quickly the Nationals want to accelerate their development in hopes of getting back to contention. With where the Braves are at and the money that the Mets are spending, I wouldn’t be in any hurry.
Soto and Josh Bell were actually not the top two guys in wRC+ last season. Joey Meneses was No. 1 with a 156 wRC+ over his 240 plate appearances. He hit 13 homers in that span and ran a .371 BABIP, so I really don’t think a guy who spent over 10 years in the minors is suddenly going to be an elite hitter at the MLB level. That said, he was (and is) a great story and he’s been a good hitter at every level and in every organization to this point. He made an elite rate of hard contact and gets a chance to play every day in this lineup. Maybe he’s just a true late-bloomer.
Lane Thomas is a holdover from last season that hit 17 homers, but was a replacement-level player across the board. Victor Robles is another one, but he didn’t even get that far, as he posted his third straight horrific offensive season and didn’t get on base enough to validate his speed. He’s a decent outfielder, anyway. Luis Garcia is another homegrown one, but an infielder who had a 93 wRC+ with virtually zero plate discipline.
Dominic Smith, one of three notable free agents, also gets a chance to play almost every day, if his body lets him. He’s batted various injuries and survived multiple promotions and demotions to find a spot where he’ll get a chance to play a lot. He’s exactly league average with a 100 wRC+ in 1,373 plate appearances over parts of six seasons. The problem is that he’s a left-handed bat with a 98 wRC+ against righties, so he’ll have to prove his case for playing time in what will likely be a platoon capacity.
Jeimer Candelario and Corey Dickerson are others that have experienced some measure of success at the MLB level. Dickerson is purely a platoon player who only bats against righties, but his best days are a long way away, as he’s been a below average hitter and a regular IL resident over the last three seasons. Candelario is coming off of his second-worst season as a pro, but had a nice 120 wRC+ in 2021. In these guys, the Nats are just looking for guys that they can trade at the Deadline for some prospects.
Man, I spent a lot of time on what will be one of the worst offenses in baseball. The Nationals were 22nd in wRC+ with about two-thirds of a season from Soto and Bell. This will be a bottom-five offense without those two. It will be interesting to see if Carter Kieboom or Jeter Downs can recoup some of their prospect status this season, whether that’s in Triple-A or at the MLB level.
Washington Nationals Pitching
On the whole, this probably won’t be a very good pitching staff, but there is a lot to track as the season goes along. The aforementioned Gray is the de facto ace of the staff, but there is some young upside in 2020 first-round pick Cade Cavalli and MacKenzie Gore, another main piece of the Soto trade. I guess there’s also intrigue from a betting standpoint to see if Patrick Corbin continues to be the world’s greatest fade.
Unfortunately, Cavalli experienced forearm discomfort and it looks like Tommy John surgery could be the end result. Now the Nationals have plenty of reasons to give innings to Joan Adon, Chad Kuhl or Wily Peralta. Cavalli was definitely a guy with some upside and one of the pitching prospects the Nationals had some measure of developmental success with, but it looks like everything will be on hold.
Gray finished his first full MLB season with 148.2 innings over 28 starts. He had a 5.02 ERA and a 5.86 FIP, so the basic stats weren’t very good. He gave up an obscene amount of home runs (38) and had a double-digit walk rate (10.2%). He also got worse as the season went along in some respects. What concerns me is that the Nationals haven’t had much success developing in-house pitching talent.
Guys like Gio Gonzalez and Scherzer were really good prior to signing with Washington. Tanner Roark flamed out rather quickly. Stephen Strasburg was one of the most highly-touted pitching prospects of all-time and just hasn’t stayed healthy. Maybe Cavalli can break the string when he gets healthy, but looking back over the last 15 years, the Nationals struggled with guys like Lucas Giolito, Drew Storen (who had a nice career as a reliever), Erick Fedde and Wil Crowe.
They’ve ridden a lot of free agents, like Anibal Sanchez or Corbin, who is a shell of what he was back in 2019. I’m worried about their ability to develop starting pitching from within and that’s where guys like Gray and Cavalli come in. That’s where a guy like Gore comes in. He’s had control issues and major problems staying healthy. The upside is there, but all of the pieces need to come together. Whether it’s fair or not, Washington doesn’t have a lot of developmental wins with starting pitchers and I’d feel a lot more confident if they did.
Can they harness Gore, who threw 70 innings for the Padres last season with a 4.50 ERA and a 4.11 FIP, and turn him into a legitimate middle-of-the-rotation or better starter? The raw stuff is great, but it comes down to sequencing and refinement. It comes down to pitch selection and use of all the technology that is out there and available. Because the 2022 season is about Gore, Gray and the position player prospects in the system. It sure as hell isn’t about wins and losses.
Relying on Corbin to figure something out after a couple of throwaway seasons won’t get the Nationals far. Hoping Trevor Williams can be a viable innings eater or a valuable trade piece in July won’t get them far. The Nationals lost 107 games last season and the average age of their pitchers per Baseball-Reference was 29.7 years old. They were on the plus side of 30 for five seasons prior. If you’re going to rebuild, you need to be able to get contributions from youngsters.
Back in 2012, the Nationals had an average pitcher age of 27. That was the first of eight straight winning seasons that culminated in the World Series victory of 2019. There are three potential starters under 26 in this rotation and now it’s up to the Nationals to develop them.
The bullpen won’t have many leads to protect and it projects to be a below average group. Maybe Alex Colome finds his footing after a couple of awful seasons to net a nice prospect in four months. This group was actually 15th in ERA last season, but 25th in FIP. Hunter Harvey was solid over 39.1 innings, as were Kyle Finnegan and swingman Erasmo Ramirez. Depth is a concern.
A good sign of bad starting pitching is a lack of winning streaks. The Nationals never won more than three games in a row last season. Their best month was an 11-16 showing in June. They were beaten by five or more runs 39 times out of their 107 losses. They were 17-59 in NL East action and 30-70 against teams .500 or better. There weren’t any good signs in the standings for them.
Washington was outscored by 1.6 runs per game and worse at home than on the road. The Braves (6.1), Mets (5.5) and Phillies (6.7) outscored the Nationals 348-194. Everybody else outscored them by 98 runs combined. Maybe the new schedule will help a little.
Player to Watch
SP MacKenzie Gore: Let’s dig a little deeper into Gore. He threw 87 innings across three levels last season after throwing 50.1 innings across four levels in 2021. He missed all of 2020, as most prospects did. It’s tough to not really know what we have to work with in him, especially because each minor league is dramatically different. He had three awful appearances covering 9.2 innings last season that accounted for 22 of the 35 runs he allowed. One was at Coors Field and the other two were at home. He didn’t pitch at the MLB level after July 25, so he goes into this season as a wild card.
In his innings, he ranked in the 4th percentile in exit velo, 6th in Hard Hit% and, maybe the most glaring, 4th in Chase Rate. Hitters didn’t expand the zone. He has always been erratic, but you get the chases in the minor leagues on pitchers that hitters at the MLB level lay off. When he did go 0-1, he allowed a .282 wOBA in 166 PA. When he went 1-0, he allowed a .370 wOBA in 120 PA. It’s not quite that simple and most guys have those splits, but he’ll allow hard contact in any count if he can’t get guys to chase pitches.
Washington Nationals Season Win Total Pick
I’m a broken record with this, but I don’t like to invest in extreme high or low win totals and this one is extremely low. If you were to ask me if I thought the Nationals would lose 100 games, I would say yes. I do think there’s a lot of young talent in the org and an expedited development plan for some youngsters would help the lineup and the rotation. But, I also think the ceiling for this team is not losing more than 95 games. The floor could be much lower than that, especially if the young guys don’t take any leaps.
Can we make any money betting on or against this team? They’re going to be a large underdog a lot. I think it might be possible to spotlight some starts where Gray or Williams have a chance. On the whole, I don’t think I’ll be invested on or against the Nationals much this season. As for this pick, it’s just for article purposes, but I do think a market with the team to finish with the most losses might be a worthwhile investment as far as Washington is concerned.
Lean: Under 60.5