On April 7th, the Washington Nationals began their season against the New York Mets. They lost the series relatively convincingly.
Thirty-five days, or just over a month, later, the Nationals once again lost a series to the Mets, also pretty convincingly. Time really is a flat circle sometimes and is a sign of the times for the Nats.
Anyway, with the latest series against the Houston Astros in the rearview mirror, it feels like a good time to look at what we’ve learned about this 2022 Nationals team in the early stages of the season. Some of them will be good, most of them will be bad, and a couple of them will be ugly.
The Nationals will not make the postseason
Let’s start slow with an obvious one. In order for the Nationals to have had any chance at making the postseason, they needed a lot of things to go in their favor.
Among other things, they needed Patrick Corbin to have a bounceback campaign. They needed Nelson Cruz to keep staving off Father Time and be a force in their lineup. And they needed their young pitchers in both the rotation and bullpen to step up and provide quality innings.
Very few of those are happening currently, and while there’s plenty of time for some of those players to turn things around, plenty will still end up falling short of what was required for this team to really make noise at the business end of the season. And that’s ok.
This roster wasn’t likely to be getting there anyway, but this first month only secures it.
Bell becoming an attractive trade chip
This is a bit of a double-edged sword as Josh Bell is having an outstanding start to the season at the plate for the Nationals, well and truly putting his slow start to 2021 behind him.
In his first 147 plate appearances of the year, the imposing first baseman is slashing a dominant .336/.428/.488 with four home runs and 21 RBIs, good for a 160 wRC+ which ranks 15th in the majors. His 12.2% walk rate is also higher than his 11.6% strikeout rate, further showing how locked in he is.
It’s awesome to see him rebound, and he’s been one of the few bright spots for the team so far. However, this hot start makes him much more likely to be traded at the deadline, instead of sticking around on an extension agreed upon mid-season.
Had Bell produced at a similar level to last season, or had another slow start, any potential prospect return would’ve been pretty limited for a first baseman who’s not hitting all too well.
However, if he can keep up his performance level, or at least close to it, he looks every bit the difference-making bat that a contender would love to add to their lineup midseason.
That immediately changes the calculus for the Nationals and may make him their most valuable trade chip at the deadline, potentially even someone who could net a significant prospect or two. So it might be a bitter pill to swallow seeing a well-liked player like Bell be traded away, but if he keeps hitting at or near his current pace, it gets ever more likely.
Rotation the weak link
Oh how the Nationals will wish for the halcyon days of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and similar names in their prime forming one of the best rotations in baseball.
This season though, the tone was set early when the team confirmed Patrick Corbin as their Opening Day starter. Yes, the same Patrick Corbin who was the worst starting pitcher in the majors last season, going 9-16 with a league-leading 5.82 ERA and the second-most home runs surrendered with 37.
While Corbin has done a bit better of late, he still sports a 6.28 ERA on the season. But that isn’t even the worst ERA among the team’s starters this year. Joan Adon has had plenty of rookie struggles and his 7.03 ERA show it, while Aaron Sanchez is at 7.58 in his four starts.
All told, the rotation as a whole holds an ugly 5.66 ERA, the second-worst in the majors, better than just the Cincinnati Reds who are having an historically bad start to the season in almost every facet of the game. So being ahead of only them is hardly a ringing endorsement.
That’s not a recipe for success, especially for the Nationals who are already putting a lot of pressure on their offense to carry their team.
Help may be on the way in due course. Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross are close to starting their rehab assignments. Cade Cavalli figures to make his big league debut at some point this season, perhaps Cole Henry too if he continues to impress and a spot opens up.
None of those players are guarantees to be productive though. Who knows how Strasburg and Ross will be coming off of pretty significant injuries, and there’s almost no certainty when it comes to how rookie pitchers adapt to the game at the highest level against experienced competition.
The lumps will likely continue from the rotation this year, even if brighter days may be ahead.
What happened to The Little Things™?!
Manager Dave Martinez has plenty of catchphrases. Go 1-0 today. Stay in the Fight. Just got to throw strikes. He loves a cliché.
One of his most-used clichés at the start of 2019 though was “the little things” in baseball.
It was all about playing sound, fundamental baseball. Making the play that’s in front of you on the field. Be smart on the basepaths. Don’t issue unnecessary walks. Stay within yourself at the plate. All that kind of stuff that winning teams usually build their teams off of.
This season though, the Nationals have abandoned that and, at times, look all over the place. They’ve made the joint-most errors in the majors. According to FanGraphs, they are in the bottom half in both baserunning and Defensive Runs Saved. Their pitching staff has the second-highest BB/9 in the majors. All the basics Martinez preaches are out of the window.
As the skipper now says, they can’t keep giving teams 28, 29, or 30 outs to work with instead of the usual 27, and it’s started to snowball with more and more errors as a result.
“It definitely adds, it really does,” Martinez said during this past series with the Mets. “These guys are really playing hard, and like I said, the competitive nature of a player is to want to win, and they’re going to go out there and do everything they can.
“But sometimes they get caught up in the moment where they think they can do things, but in all reality, you’ve got to be you. You can’t force the envelope. We got to be smart about our decision-making, so they understand that.”
As the season goes on, and the roster gradually gets younger with more veterans moving on and prospects coming up to the majors, this issue might only grow, so the Nationals will need to get on top of it quickly so they bring up their young players into the right situation.
Ownership ripple effect
Going a bit higher up from the major league field, one of the biggest news stories about the Nationals this year was that the Lerner family has “begun the process of exploring potential changes in the club’s ownership structure,” per Barry Svrluga of The Washington Post.
Having bought the team from Major League Baseball in 2006, the Lerners are the only ownership group that Nationals fans have ever known. After some bleak early years, they invested heavily in the team throughout the 2010s, a team that would finally go on to bring a title back to D.C. for the first time since 1924.
In the long-term, it’s too early to know how potential new ownership or new investors in the franchise will affect the team. The best-case scenario is that it’s someone with local ties who is willing to invest just as heavily in the roster as the Lerners did when the team was built to contend. Worst case, another billionaire who constantly pleads poor in a billion-dollar industry.
In the meantime though, the news helps make a little more sense of some of the team’s financial decisions when it comes to their roster since the pandemic.
As Svrluga says in his story on the news, “… the coronavirus pandemic put tremendous strain on the commercial real estate business. In 2016, Forbes placed Ted Lerner’s net worth at $5.5 billion. In 2020, it had decreased to $3.7 billion. Forbes places his current worth at $4.4 billion.”
Yes, the Nationals weren’t exactly spending freely in the offseason right after the team won the World Series — set to have the biggest percentage drop in Opening Day salary of any reigning World Series champion this millennium — but the payroll has continued to drop.
On Opening Day this season, Washington sported a $135 million payroll, the lowest since 2013. While some may say this is due to the rebuild, that wouldn’t have stopped them from adding further veterans on one-year deals to flip at the trade deadline for prospects.
Expect more conservative payrolls in the interim while the Lerners try to sell the team or find new investment — which may also mean no Juan Soto extension until it's resolved too.