Is it fair to judge Nationals on wins and losses again?

From the moment they traded Max Scherzer, Trea Turner and six others in July 2021, the Nationals stopped paying attention to their won-loss record.

Managers, general managers and players can say all they want about competing every single day and believing they’re going to win far more than they lose, but deep down everyone associated with the Nats knew at that moment the organizational priority no longer involved winning percentage at the major league level.

That continued through the 2022 season, which also saw the club deal Juan Soto in the biggest trade of them all, and then through the 2023 season, even though the Nationals’ win total ultimately did improve by a healthy amount from 55 to 71.

Now, as the rebuild enters its third full season, with several core players already on the roster and several more coming soon, it’s fair to ask for the first time in a long time: Should the Nats be judged primarily by their record?

“I think we’re at a point right now where it’s wins and losses,” right-hander Josiah Gray said. “We want to improve on last year.”

Gray, perhaps more than anyone else on the roster, has reason to want to see the Nationals’ progress finally reflected in the standings. One of the players acquired in that Scherzer-Turner blockbuster with the Dodgers, he made his D.C. debut three days later and has since grown alongside the club, from the league leader in walks and homers in 2022 to an All-Star in 2023 to the first Opening Day assignment of his career Thursday in Cincinnati.

During Gray’s time here, the Nats have resided in fourth or fifth place in the National League East for all but 10 days. And all 10 of those days came in early April, long before there’s reason to pay any attention to standings.

So you can’t blame him, or anyone else who has played for this team at any point in the last 2 1/2 years, for wanting to experience positive results. Not just the promise of positive results some nebulous day in the future. But positive results right now.

“We exceeded expectations last year,” Gray said, “but I think this year with the core group we have on the field now, with the guys coming up that are knocking on the door, it’s going to be really important for us to go in every day and feel like we have a chance to win. … I think it comes down to wins and losses. And I think we’re prepared to go out there and put our best foot forward every day.”

The team that takes the field Thursday at Great American Ball Park will include some legitimate young talent. But it will also include a fair number of past-their-prime veterans who were brought in on low-salary contracts to help fill the roster holes that couldn’t yet be filled by more in-house young talent.

This is not, let’s be clear, a team built to win. Yet.

The difference between this version of the Nationals, though, and its most recent predecessor, is the looming presence of even more talented young players who are nearly ready to join the existing group and perhaps actually put them in position to win.

The Opening Day roster won’t include James Wood, Dylan Crews, Cade Cavalli, Jackson Rutledge, Robert Hassell III or Brady House. But the roster the Nats put out there come September may well include all of them. They certainly expect it to include many of them.

Every team’s roster looks different for Game 162 than it did for Game 1, but this roster more than almost any other figures to look dramatically different. Which is why it’s probably best to view the Nationals’ 2024 season in two parts: The team they start with, and the team they finish with.

That sentiment will be impossible to ignore this afternoon, when the major league club plays its final exhibition of the spring against a team of the organization’s prospects who are getting their first opportunity to play at Nationals Park. Is it wrong to root for the prospects to perform better than the big leaguers today?

“What I do know is when I look across that field, we’ve got some good players coming,” manager Davey Martinez said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun here. We’re going to win a lot of games here in the near future.”

Everything this franchise has done since July 2021 has been about the future. Short-term success was never prioritized over long-term potential.

That’s still probably true as the 2024 season opens. But it may not be true when the 2024 season ends. And boy will that be a breath of fresh air for everyone who has endured the last 2 1/2 years.

“I want to win more games than we did last year, and the year before and all that stuff,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “We want to win every time we go out there. I think that the season will be dictated by win-loss record, of course, but also by the progress and the direction this franchise is going towards the end of the season.”

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