The Nationals have undoubtedly been better top to bottom in 2023 than they were in 2022.
At the major league level, they are already on pace for a 15-win improvement from their 55 wins last year. They’ve improved their run differential by more than 100 runs. Their team batting average is more than five percentage points higher, and their team OPS is more than 20 percentage points higher. Their rotation ERA is down by almost a full run, and their WHIP and opponents’ batting average against have also improved.
But with another last-place finish in the National League East coming, their fourth straight since winning the 2019 World Series, the Nats are far from calling this season a success.
“The team's playing better than expected,” said general manager Mike Rizzo. “I don't think that it's a successful season, but it's a very encouraging season. Nobody wants to aim to win 70 games in a season. We want to win 97 games in the season. So that's our goal. That's always been our goal. But this is a good step in the right direction to that. I'm really excited about what's coming down the pike and the players that are going to be the next core group of the championship team that plays in National Park.”
Some of that core group is already playing at Nationals Park.
CJ Abrams, Lane Thomas, Keibert Ruiz, Josiah Gray, MacKenzie Gore and Jake Irvin all took significant steps of improvement this year, some for whom it was their first extended stay in the big leagues. With a lot of focus on developing the minor league farm system, the Nats also wanted to make sure they developed their young players at the major league level.
“Look, we knew what we were up against this year,” said manager Davey Martienz. “We want to develop players at the big league level. I think we've done that. We've done that really well. We got some guys that are actually really starting to play well, starting to play consistently and it's been a grind. But we're seeing some really good results out of these guys. So, we gotta keep going. We gotta keep going. The plan is to be better every day. Come back at the end of this year, reevaluate and come back to spring training and try to tack on some more wins and get to those playoffs. But right now, the focus was to get our young guys better, and we've done that. They are getting better.”
“I think that this season, I've seen a lot of improvement from a lot of players, which is important, especially the young players,” said Rizzo. “What's important to me is just take the next step. … Those players were developed here at the big league level by our coaches. So we're proud of that.”
Of course, the next wave of prospects will play a huge role in taking the major league team to the next level.
The Nationals saw the ascensions of Jake Alu and Jacob Young to make an impact at the big league level. Top prospects Dylan Crews, James Wood, Robert Hassell III, Brady House, Trey Lipscomb, Yohandy Morales and Andrew Pinckney rise the ranks to play together at Double-A Harrisburg.
If the Nationals won’t say it, we should: It’s been a highly successful season for the Nats farm.
“I think that you can see when a player goes from A-ball to the big leagues in one season, you can see the progression there,” Rizzo said. “You can see when you've got several 20-year-olds and 21-year-olds at the Double-A level and playing well with that exciting team there at Harrisburg. I think that you can see several picks from the '23 draft that have performed very, very well in a very short sample size. We have evaluators out evaluating our own system all the time. We really think that there's a lot of players that are going in the right direction. We all know about the elite, high-level type of players. But when you've got seventh-rounders and 24th-rounders and fourth-rounders that are making impacts at the big league level already, I think that shows what we've done as far as depth in the draft and depth in our development system.”
Put all of those aspects together and the organization’s goals become very clear: Continue the development at all levels and put a winning team on the field at Nats Park sooner than most expected.
“The mid goal is to continue this rebuild process in a positive way,” Rizzo said. “To have our good young players take the next step in their progression … We think that we have one of the better, deeper, more impactful systems in the game, which we will use at our big league level in the near future to help us get back to a championship-caliber club.”
So, no, the 2023 season for the Nationals has not been a success overall. But with the steps they have taken this year, they can see that success is not too far away. And they hope the fans see it, too.
“You can see why there's excitement, not only in our organization, but with the fan base,” Rizzo said. “Because they see this timeline coming to fruition. They see the end of this rebuild tunnel, if you will. And we've been through this before, so there's a timeline and there's a blueprint to how this thing works out. And we hope that this rebuild mirrors the last rebuild that we can get to another decade of dominance in the very near future.”