After a season of progress, next key step looms for Nats

A collective sigh of relief emanated from the visitors’ dugout in Atlanta late Friday night when Kyle Finnegan recorded the final out of a 10-6 victory over the Braves, the out that ensured the Nationals would finish the 2023 season with at least 70 wins.

That number had been on everyone’s minds for a while. One month earlier, with the team playing its best baseball in years, it looked like a stone-cold lock. By the time the final week of September arrived, it was suddenly in doubt.

A late-season regression turned what could’ve been a remarkable turnaround – a club record, 20-game improvement from the previous year – into something less rousing. Even so, win No. 70 (and then win No. 71 in Sunday’s finale) was significant for an organization that was an abysmal 55-107 last season.

“Every win is important,” manager Davey Martinez said. “But to get to 70 – when, honestly, when we started the season, we didn’t know what to expect – it feels good.”

It also raised the bar for next season. Another 16-game improvement would turn this 71-win last place club into an 87-win wild card contender.

That, of course, is anything but a given. Which the players inside that clubhouse understand.

“It’s a matter of coming back to spring training knowing we have to take that step forward,” right-hander Josiah Gray said. “Unfortunately, this game isn’t going to roll over and say: ‘Hey, we’re going to let the Nats win more games than they did last year.’ We have to come in ready to work, and everyone get incrementally better.”

For the first time since they embarked on their rebuild some 26 months ago, the Nationals are viewed both internally and around the baseball world as on the rise. They’ve begun to establish a core group of young players who will lead the way out of last place in the NL East. They’ve overhauled one of the sport’s worst farm systems into one that now boasts several elite prospects and several more who profile as quality major league players in the near future.

But none of that guarantees success at the big league level. So, how do you turn a 71-win team into an 87-win team?

“Play better,” general manager Mike Rizzo said with matter of fact, before adding some other key points. “A year more of experience. A year more of performance. And add to a roster in places that you need to get better at.”

Delve into each of those sentiments, and you see where improvement is possible.

On a basic level, the Nationals need to play better baseball. They improved defensively from 2022, but metrics still rated them as one of the worst-fielding teams in the sport this season. Only five teams ran into more outs on the bases than they did, and only one team surrendered more stolen bases than they did. They hit the fewest home runs in the NL and gave up the most.

More experience, though, should make a difference. Gray and Keibert Ruiz have now completed two full big league seasons. CJ Abrams and MacKenzie Gore have now completed their first. Lane Thomas and Joey Meneses have seen what it takes to be everyday major league regulars for the first time.

With experience should come improved performance. Abrams was a far better player at the end of the season than he was at the start. Gray, who was an All-Star in the first half but slipped in July and August, finished strong by implementing some key adjustments. Ruiz, Gore and Thomas all enjoyed impressive stretches of success but also endured through slumps and now must learn how to limit those down cycles.

“I think the more you play this game, the stronger you get mentally, and learn how to deal with struggles,” said Thomas, who appeared in a career-high 155 games. “I think that’s the plus. Having to play every day, you’ve got to show up every day, too. I think that’s part of playing every day: Trying to figure out how to get out of that quick. The longer you stay in it, the harder it is to get out of it.”

And then there are the roster additions yet to come. These could come in two forms: offseason additions from outside the organization, and in-season additions from within the organization.

While not offering specifics about the plan to pursue free agents or when to promote top prospects, Rizzo made it clear he intends to bolster the roster in whatever manner he’s allowed to.

“They’ve made progress, they’ve made a step forward and that young core group of guys that we have on the big league club is going to be part of that next championship-caliber roster,” the GM said. “It’s now: What is going to supplement those guys, from the minor leagues, externally, via free agency and the trade market? We have to put all of this puzzle together and try and come up with a team that can compete with teams like the Braves and the rest of the National League.”

Rizzo has always been careful not to put any timetable on the Nationals rebuild. He won’t say if he expects his team to be ready to win again in 2024 or 2025 or 2026.

But there’s a fairly common belief within all corners of the organization how this process ideally should unfold. This season represented an important step forward, the team climbing out of the absolute basement of the league, identifying core young pieces of the future and showing real improvement in the standings. Progress next season will be tougher but is paramount, with those core players growing and top prospects like Dylan Crews, James Wood, Cade Cavalli, Brady House and Trey Lipscomb arriving on the scene and establishing themselves as part of that core.

And then, if that all comes together as planned, the Nationals believe they should be in a position next winter to make the big moves that could elevate an upstart, almost-.500 club into a legitimate contender.

That’s the broad view from the top of the front office. Back down in the clubhouse, there’s genuine optimism about the progress that was made in 2023, and the potential for even more in 2024.

“Obviously we’re going to have a lot of high expectations for ourselves next year,” Gray said. “Because we know we’re right on the cusp of being back in contention.”

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