How the rest of the NL East figures into Nats' rebuild

When gauging where the Nationals stand in their rebuilding efforts, the simplest answer is to look at their won-loss record since the process began. They went 65-97 in 2021 while starting to tear down the roster. They bottomed out at 55-107 in 2022 after trading Juan Soto. Then they started the climb back up toward contention with a 71-91 record this season, positioning themselves to take another key step forward that could have them on the fringes of contention in 2024.

And there’s nothing wrong with that approach. Sometimes, it’s important to judge a team against itself, not anybody else.

But we do have to acknowledge an important caveat here: The Nats do not exist in a vacuum. They’re one of five teams in the National League East division, one of 15 teams in the NL. Their success ultimately is dependent in many ways on how those other teams do, whether they’re trying to win the division or finish with one of the three best records in the NL among non-division winners to secure a wild card berth.

The Nationals could be better next season, a lot better, and it may not matter if enough other teams in the NL remain ahead of them in the standings.

Which makes their geographic location a bit of a hindrance to the whole rebuild process. As a member of the NL East, the Nats face some additional challenges they wouldn’t face in another division.

The Braves have been the class of the East for a while, winning six consecutive division titles, 100-plus games each of the last three seasons and of course the World Series in 2021.

The Phillies, after a decade of mediocrity or worse, returned to the postseason in 2022 and won the pennant, then returned to October this year with 90 wins.

The Mets, forever desperate to recapture the kind of glory they haven’t experienced since 1986, boasted baseball’s highest payroll each of the last two years. That was good for 101 wins (and an early exit in the Wild Card Series) in 2022, then only 75 wins and a massive sell-off this season.

The Marlins, long considered the ugly duckling of the otherwise big Northeast city division, were in contention all season and reached the playoffs before bowing out to the Phillies in the Wild Card Series.

That’s what the Nationals find themselves stacked up against as they try to climb back to the top again. And each of those opponents has either already made moves to bolster their chances in 2024 or suggested forthcoming moves to help them do just that.

The Braves don’t need to add a whole lot to a 104-win roster, but general manager Alex Anthopoulos just made the kind of transaction you only make when you’re trying to make a marginal-yet-important improvement: He traded five players to the White Sox for left-handed reliever Aaron Bummer, bolstering what already was a deep bullpen. They’re now reportedly in the market for a veteran starting pitcher, such as Sonny Gray.

The Phillies took care of their most-pressing internal matter over the weekend by re-signing right-hander Aaron Nola to a seven-year, $172 million extension, preventing him from going somewhere else.

Nobody’s exactly sure what the Mets are going to do this winter after conceding defeat this summer and trading both Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. But owner Steve Cohen still has a boatload of money and tons of motivation to fix his beloved franchise.

And the Marlins, after a surprising change at the top of their front office from Kim Ng to Peter Bendix, should be looking to add to their 84-win roster, try to take the next step and actually sustain some success in Miami for the first time, oh, ever.

How do the Nationals fit into that picture? No matter what, they need to address their own needs this winter: a first baseman, a third baseman, a left fielder, a veteran starter. But ultimately, they will be competing against the rest of their division. They could finish with a winning record in 2024 but still finish last in the NL East, which means another October watching the postseason on television.

Eventually, whether in 2024, 2025 or beyond, the Nats have to finish ahead of at least one other team in the division, probably two. And all that does is guarantee a best-of-three Wild Card Series on the road.

The ultimate goal is to finish atop the NL East again, something they haven’t done since 2017. To get there, they need to complete their own rebuild. But they also need to hope the rest of the division takes a step backward before too long.

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