After miserable season, Nats have much work to do

NEW YORK – There is no way to sugarcoat a 55-107 season, no silver lining to setting a club record for losses, no justifying the worst record in baseball.

This was, undoubtedly, the worst of the Nationals’ 18 seasons since they arrived in the District in 2005. They lost more games than the awful 2008-09 teams. The rotation’s 5.97 ERA was far worse than the dreadful 2006 (5.37) or 2020 (5.38) starters’ numbers. Their 17-59 record and .224 winning percentage against the National League East was not only the worst in club history, it was the worst in major league history since divisional play began in 1969.

Oh, and they also traded away a 22-year-old generational star, not because they didn’t want him, but because they believed it was the only way they could restock a farm system that was barren because of their own inability to draft and develop future big leaguers over much of the last decade.

How could the Nationals try to claim the 2022 season was successful? They can’t.

What they can do, and what they are trying to do, is believe this rock-bottom season was a necessary step toward something better in the future. That by losing to this extent now and refocusing efforts on rebuilding that barren farm system, they will be in a better position to win again sooner than they would be if they didn’t take this drastic step backward.

“This is something that you don’t like to do,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “We’ve done it many, many years ago and then produced 10 years of successful baseball after that. So that’s our hope. That’s the blueprint, and that’s the plan we have moving forward.”

It’s going to take some time until anyone knows if this plan worked, if it was all worth it. The 2023 Nationals, while hopefully better, almost certainly won’t be better enough to contend for their first postseason berth since the magical 2019 season.

They will head into next season with a few potential cornerstones to their next contender. CJ Abrams needs experience, but the 22-year-old clearly has the skill set to be a dynamic, all-around shortstop. Keibert Ruiz, despite an unfortunate early end to his first full big league season, looks like a franchise catcher. Lane Thomas, Luis García and 30-year-old rookie slugger Joey Meneses all opened eyes over the last two months and could be long-term pieces, though each still needs to prove it over a full season.

Ultimately, though, any shot at significant progress in 2023 – and, by extension, the potential to actually compete in 2024 – must come from a rotation that bears no resemblance to the one folks around here got used to from 2012-19, when Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Patrick Corbin led the way year in and year out.

“I think it all starts with starting pitching,” manager Davey Martinez said. “The teams in our division, their starting pitching is really, really, really good. … If we don’t have starting pitching, it’ll be tough.”

It remains to be seen how much, if any, money the Nationals can spend this winter to address areas of need. (More on that in a moment.) It’s hard to see how they would be in a position to spend big on rotation help, though, which puts a whole lot of focus on the development of three young starters the organization hopes will anchor the staff in 2023 and for years to come: Cade Cavalli, MacKenzie Gore and Josiah Gray.

The problem? Not one of them is a proven commodity yet.

Cavalli, one of the top-rated pitching prospects in baseball this season, finally made his major league debut Aug. 30 against the Reds, then got beat around for seven runs in 4 1/3 innings, then landed on the 15-day injured list with right shoulder inflammation, then had to be shut down again when discomfort returned as he ramped up his throwing program. The big right-hander has resumed throwing again, says he feels good and expects to throw off a mound at home in Oklahoma soon. But he’ll report to spring training as a big unknown.

Gore, likewise one of the top-rated pitching prospects in baseball, looked the part in his first nine starts for the Padres, going 4-1 with a 1.50 ERA and 57 strikeouts in 48 innings. But the rookie left-hander struggled after that, going 0-3 with an 11.05 ERA and only 15 strikeouts over his next 22 innings, then landed on the IL with elbow inflammation. After the Nats acquired him in the Juan Soto blockbuster trade, Gore completed a rehab program that included four starts for Triple-A Rochester. But he never made it back to pitch in a big league game, and so he, too, is something of a question mark entering 2023.

Gray did make it through his first full season healthy, racking up 148 2/3 innings in 28 starts. But those were some awfully erratic starts, with three double-digit strikeout performances to his name but five outings in which he allowed six or more runs also on the ledger. His 66 walks were most in the National League, and his 38 homers surrendered were most in the majors and a new club record.

“They’re three extremely talented young pitchers that had a huge upside,” Rizzo said. “We’re going to give them every opportunity to continue their progression and performance next year. And we’re going to be counting on them and others in our minor league system to take the mantle and become the next rotation of a championship-caliber club. And we’re going to supplement them with not only players from within our system, but players from outside of our system.

“And we understand that starting pitching has to be better than it is right now. We also understand that we’ve got a good group of young arms that we’re going to count on and we’re going to have to count on in the near future.”

If there’s one area the Nationals don’t particularly need to address this winter, it’s the one area they almost always have needed to address in previous years: the bullpen. This year’s group wound up becoming a legitimate strength, delivering a 3.11 ERA (sixth-best in the majors) and 1.167 WHIP over its last 78 games. And with Kyle Finnegan, Carl Edwards Jr., Hunter Harvey, Mason Thompson, Andres Machado and Jordan Weems all under club control, it has a chance to remain a strength next season.

“We keep that bullpen intact, I don’t think this is a fluke for any of those guys,” Martinez said. “I think you’ll see them get better.”

If there is any money to be spent this winter, Martinez hopes it goes to a veteran starter or two who could help take pressure off the young trio. There’s also a case to made for adding an experienced power bat to play a corner outfield position or first base (depending on where Meneses ends up in the field), addressing the Nationals’ notable slugging problem: They hit only 136 home runs this season, fewest in the NL.

But will there be any money to spend? That may depend on the answer to the biggest question of all that looms over the entire franchise: Will the Nationals be sold this winter, or will the Lerners still own the team by the time pitchers and catchers report to West Palm Beach in mid-February?

“Well, of course it could change if they sell the team. I think that would change,” Rizzo said. “So I’m going to control what I can control. We’re in business as usual. We’re going to go through the end of the regular season and do our postseason work and try to explore every way to get better. We’ll get our marching orders and our direction from above when we get them. We’ll employ those directions. But until then, it’s business as usual, like we’ve done every year.” 

They may have conducted business every year, but they’ve never had a year quite like this one before. Business may be anything but usual this winter.

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