Happy Opening Day, Everyone!
Let’s all get ready for the 2022 Washington Nationals’ season as they begin rebuilding into an annual contender.
That’s the first, and probably the hardest reality to confront for fans who as recently as last April thought the Nationals could contend for the postseason. From 2012 through last July, the Nationals were a pitching-dependent, veteran-led team with multiple power threats.
But that trade-deadline purge last July 30th transformed the Nats into a group of talented prospects, coalescing around one dominant hitter, Juan Soto, with the one remaining dominant pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, on the injured list.
Coming out of the lockout, the addition of free-agent designated hitter Nelson Cruz gives Nats a group of talented prospects and a few veteran role players coalescing around two dominant hitters.
Strasburg will not pitch in a big league game until at least May. We’ll get to the rest of the pitching staff in a bit.
Can manager Davey Martinez stack a lineup around Soto and Cruz that can score enough runs to be competitive? How often will Soto step in with one out and nobody on?
Fans clearly have high expectations for Soto this season. He’s probably your sports book’s favorite to be National League MVP. That would look a lot like Bryce Harper in 2015, when he had 42 homers, 99 RBIs and a 1.109 OPS for a second-place club.
Soto has already won a batting championship (.351 in the 60-game 2020 season) and finished second at .313 last season, so he clearly has the tools to contend for another batting title, and with Cruz and his .873 career OPS behind him in the 3-hole, will likely have opportunities to swing the bat.
Clearly, the MVP voters will have their own set of criteria, but they’ll be paying a lot more attention to Soto if the Nats can even smell second place in September.
Cruz should provide a significant power threat behind Soto, but his future and those of most of the other veterans on the roster will be determined by where the Nats sit in July. We can’t let ourselves get all broken hearted if general manager Mike Rizzo flips him for a few prospects.
Cèsar Hernàndez and Dee Strange-Gordon, both veterans. Could be a leadoff platoon, if either can manage to get on base. Both are capable base-runners, and Gordon has 333 steals in a career that began in 2011. But Gordon did not play in the majors in 2021 and Hernendez managed only a .308 OBP and had more strikeouts (135) than hits (132) last season with Cleveland and the White Sox.
First baseman Josh Bell, Lane Thomas, who won the starting left field job, and young catcher Kiebert Ruiz will fill out the middle of the order behind Soto and Cruz. Bell’s full season .261/.347/.476 in 2021 was almost as good as his career best .277/.367/.569 in 2019 with Pittsburgh. Is there room for growth here? Hard to know with the youngsters’ limited experience what kind of consistency to expect from them.
Alcides Escobar is a fine veteran shortstop who likely won’t make too many errors (never more than 20 in a season) and last season had his best year at the plate .288/.340/.404. since 2012. He won’t be the weak link.
Maikel Franco, another veteran, non-roster invitee to make the team, sits atop the depth chart at third base. We remember him as a mediocre Phillie mostly, possibly for a decent shortened 2020 in Kansas City (career high .778 OPS), but most recently for a forgettable 2021 (.210/.253/.355) in Baltimore.
Victor Robles and his stellar center field defense are back in the major leagues to start 2022, but he’s also back at the bottom of the order where Martinez (we hope) will patiently wait for him to regain his hitting stroke from a truly terrible .203/.310/.295 in 2021. Robles can keep his job by playing his usual caliber of defense, but he can also lose it again if he makes too many base-running blunders.
Now we come to the pitching. Again, Strasburg is likely on the shelf until May at the earliest. Joe Ross, the consensus No. 2 starter is out until at least June following elbow surgery.
That leaves lefty Patrick Corbin with the Opening Day start. Since the 2019 postseason, when Corbin made two clutch, scoreless relief appearances in the World Series, in 42 starts, he’s pitched to an ERA of 5.50, allowing 277 hits in 237 1⁄3 innings. He’ll need to regain his wipeout slider pretty quickly and throw it effectively to be the Nats’ top starter this season.
Behind him are Josiah Gray, Erick Fedde, and Anibal Sanchez, who made the team after bouncing back from a four-inning, 12-hit, 10-earned run performance against St. Louis this spring with 2 1⁄3 scoreless innings against Houston.
Fedde took on a starter’s full workload last season, with 27 starts, and he did a great job of picking up the pace on strikeouts, while walking only 48 batters in 133 innings. But he still gives up too many hits (144) and his .275 OBA just doesn’t strike fear into the heart of many lineups.
Joan Adon is the fifth starter. He made his major-league debut against Boston last season in game 162, striking out nine in 5 1⁄3 innings, allowing two runs on six hits.
On to the bullpen, which could be the team’s strength this season. But the big news is that the Nats do not have a designated closer. Lefty Sean Doolittle, veteran Steve Chisek, and 2021 holdovers Tanner Rainey and Kyle Finnegan will all get chances, likely based on eighth and ninth-inning matchups.
Will Harris is back from injury, and Paulo Espino, Andres Machado, Austin Voth, and Mason Thompson will all settle into roles and responsibilities, and they should see plenty of action early on as the whole staff shakes out following a short Spring Training.
You can believe Mike Rizzo when he said, “we’re trying to win every game we play.” Everyone will, no doubt, give his best effort. But everyone’s best effort is not equal, and Makiel Franco’s best effort may be better than a healthy Carter Kieboom’s, but most people can agree not as good as a healthy Anthony Rendon’s.
So that’s where the Nats are with all but a few key players this season.
Soto and Cruz will have the opportunity to show their superstar stuff, and possibly keep the team near .500, but Soto may not have that protection all season. With his plate discipline, he could win another batting title even if Cruz were traded away at the deadline.
Soto’s homers and RBIs might drop off after such a trade, though, and an MVP award or a triple crown seems unlikely unless the Nats contend all season and hold on to Cruz.
Overall, offensively, the Nats can certainly be exciting to watch this season, and the veteran infielders, at least seem to have tools to contribute to a cohesive defense. Robles, Thomas, and Soto should provide good outfield defense
But a starting staff that is already dealing with injuries and an abbreviated spring ramp-up looks like it will struggle to get batters out consistently.
The bullpen can win some games for the Nats this season, but durability and consistency will tell the tale there.
Prediction: 72-90, last place in the NL East.