“Often, bumpy roads lead to beautiful places, and this is a beautiful place.”
Those were the famous words of Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez after an NLCS victory against the St. Louis Cardinals en route to their 2019 World Series title.
The bumpy road Martinez was referencing was the journey from 19-31 in late May that went to and all the way through October. And as anyone associated with the Nationals will agree, that really was the most beautiful of places.
However, less than three years later, they appear to be on a slightly different bumpy path.
Gone are the viejos that brought the good vibes and were at the heart of 2019’s magical run. Gone are the team’s MVP finalist third baseman and Cy Young-winning ace. Even the former face of the franchise whose number will be retired later this year is gone.
In their place is a mix of young, largely unproven players looking to make their mark in the major leagues, some players left over from the last two seasons when the Nats were finding holes in their roster before they could patch them up, and several veterans on one-year deals who appear to be nearing the end of their big league careers.
At least there’s the distinct pleasure of watching the best hitter in all of baseball, Juan Soto.
Despite the vast roster turnover since that title, publicly, the team’s General Manager, Mike Rizzo, recently expressed confidence in this new group of Nationals to stay competitive.
“Our expectations are to perform admirably, to win,” Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN’s Sports Junkies on Wednesday. “We want to be one of the 12 teams in the playoffs, and that’s what we’re looking to be, and we want to surprise people.
“We want to shock some people, and get in the tournament, and once we’re in the tournament, you never know what happens.”
While that may be what the Nationals are saying publicly, internally, the front office’s plan this offseason doesn’t indicate anywhere near as much confidence in this current group.
Actions speak louder than words, and the franchise’s lack of investment this winter speaks volumes.
The most the Nationals spent on a free agent this offseason was the $15 million guaranteed they gave to Nelson Cruz. No other player the front office brought in this winter got more than $4 million.
That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the current roster, especially when the Opening Day payroll projects to only be around $131 million, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.
Excluding 2020 for obvious reasons, it would be the Nats’ lowest Opening Day payroll since 2013.
Ever since the team ascended to contention in 2012, the Lerners have always shown a willingness to run a payroll that at least competes with others at the top of the sport. If the front office genuinely thought they were competitive, the money would’ve been there to spend.
Instead, a front office that hates to lose more than most has constructed a roster that is lacking a solid foundation and will likely make for some pretty ugly baseball this year.
The lineup is heavily reliant on a 41-year-old Cruz and a clean-up hitter in Josh Bell who, despite finishing strong in 2021, has questions about if he can sustain that production over a full year. And they’ll still need to find other contributors elsewhere in the lineup.
Despite those question marks, the lineup is supposed to be this team’s main strength in 2022.
On the mound, amid the injuries and inconsistencies, there might not be a sure thing in either the rotation or bullpen. When Steve Cishek, who turns 36 this summer, figures to be the most reliable arm, it says a lot about the state of the pitching staff as a whole.
Squint harder than you’ve squinted before, and if everything that could realistically go right, does go right, they’re just about pushing the envelope of a .500 team, which is on the periphery of the expanded playoff picture.
In all likelihood, a fair share of those things will go wrong and leave them plenty short.
In their preseason standings projections, FanGraphs has the Nationals at 70.5-91.5 with a 0.1% percent chance to win the division and a 1.1% chance to get a Wild Card spot. PECOTA projects them to be 70.1-91.9 with a 0.0% chance to win the division and a 1.1% chance at a Wild Card spot.
Projections are generally pretty conservative too, as evidenced by only one projection of a team losing 100 games this year, the Baltimore Orioles in PECOTA’s projection.
The reality of this roster is that the Nationals are going to be trying to fight off their first 100-loss season since 2009, back when John Lannan was the team’s top starter and when Adam Dunn frequently roamed the Nats Park outfield.
It’s a roster that was built to be stripped of everything not nailed down if and when the losses start racking up, all while attempting to discover whether they are able to carve out a strong foundation to return to contention before their superstar right fielder may depart.
So, while the Nationals are trying to speak competing this season into existence, they know deep down that 2022 is a pretty poorly disguised development season.
This year will be focused on whether Keibert Ruiz can make strides towards being the All-Star backstop the front office truly believes he can become, not whether Alcides Escobar can bloop a two-out single to left field before Maikel Franco strikes out to strand him at first.
And it’s focused on molding Josiah Gray into a dependable top-half of the rotation starter, not on Austin Voth or Andres Machado allowing a go-ahead three-run homer in the seventh inning.
Bumpy roads do indeed lead to beautiful places, just ask the 2019 Nationals. The 2022 Nationals, however, probably need to strap in for more than their fair share of bumps this year before they eventually arrive at what they hope will be another beautiful place...