Looking back on a disappointing yet memorable Nats season

While speaking to reporters in New York a few days ago to wrap up the 2022 regular season, general manager Mike Rizzo said this year was a “disappointment” for the Nationals.

That should be a given after the Nats finished with the worst record in the major leagues at 55-107, setting a new club record for the most losses in a single season.

When we look back on the 2022 Nationals season, we probably won’t do so fondly. There was a lot of bad. But there was also some good. Put them both together and you get a memorable season for better or worse.

Looking at some of the final results, it is mostly bad. As bad as we’ve ever seen in Washington baseball.

At no point during the regular season did the Nationals reach the .500 mark. Their longest winning streak was only three games, which they accomplished five times. Their longest losing streak was nine games from July 7-16. They never swept a series and were swept 12 times. They were shut out 12 times and only shut out their opponents four times. They were walked off five times and only walked off twice, both not coming until September. And they by far had the worst run differential in the majors at -252.

The Nats went 17-59 against the National League East, losing a team-record 16 games to the Phillies. They went 38-48 against everyone else.

When we talk about this season in the future, of course we’ll refer to it as “The Year the Nats Traded Juan Soto.” It was a franchise-altering move, one that was given the greenlight by an ownership group that announced just four months earlier it’s exploring bringing on potential new investors or selling the team outright.

But with the inclusion of Josh Bell, it was a move that netted the organization six players, including five top prospects that are now the face of the Nationals’ rebuild.

That’s a positive for the franchise. CJ Abrams and MacKenzie Gore were with the Nationals for most of the season’s second half, although the left-hander was unable to make his debut with the team while rehabbing an elbow injury.

Robert Hassell III earned a promotion from High-A Wilmington to Double-A Harrisburg. James Wood led Single-A Fredericksburg to its first playoff appearance and was named one of the franchise’s minor league Hitters of the Year. Jarlin Susana earned a promotion to Fredericksburg from rookie ball and started a playoff game for the FredNats.

This influx of young talent helped elevate a Nationals farm that desperately needed it. They joined No. 5 overall pick Elijah Green as the new top prospects in the system. Green also headlined a draft class that had many players make impressive jumps to Single-A before the season’s end.

And from that system, we finally saw Cade Cavalli, touted as the Nats’ No. 1 prospect for a couple of years, make his major league debut. It wasn’t perfect and he only made one appearance due to shoulder soreness, but seeing Cavalli finally make the big leagues and head into the offseason healthy is an important step for this team’s future.

Which brings us back to the major league roster. Before Cavalli made his debut, Evan Lee and Jackson Tetreault made theirs. But like Cavalli, both young pitchers had their seasons cut short due to injuries: a left flexor strain for Lee and a stress fracture of the right scapula for Tetreault.

That was a common theme this year: injuries to pitchers. Cavalli, Gore, Tetreault, Lee, Tanner Rainey, Stephen Strasburg, Sean Doolittle, Will Harris and Joe Ross all finished the season on the injured list. Eight other pitchers made IL stints throughout the season. Even in the minor leagues, top prospect Cole Henry had his season end early with an injury that required thoracic outlet syndrome surgery.

Not a great trend for an organization that builds around its pitching.

For Strasburg, the former No. 1 overall pick and World Series MVP, his future is in question. The right-hander was only able to make one start this year, giving up seven runs in 4 ⅔ innings on June 9 in Miami. And Rizzo said in his meeting with the media that Strasburg’s season next year is uncertain.

The 34-year-old is 1-4 with a 6.89 ERA in 31 ⅓ innings over just eight starts since becoming a postseason hero in 2019.

Speaking of heroes, there was a big celebration of one in June, a major bright spot this season. Ryan Zimmerman became the first player to have his number retired by the Nationals. A crowd of 42,730 gathered at Nationals Park – the largest attendance this season by about 5,000 people – to hear from former players and Mr. National himself as his No. 11 was placed on the facade above the home dugout forever.

That was one of the few bright spots for the rest of the season. The mega trade with the Padres took place a month and a half later, and even though we got to watch Soto win the Home Run Derby at Dodger Stadium in a Nationals uniform, it was becoming more obvious that he wouldn’t be wearing one much longer.

But Soto and Bell’s departure opened the door for some new faces to impress over the last two months. Abrams and Joey Meneses took this team by storm.

Abrams, who just turned 22 on Monday, flashed his impressive range at shortstop, making some slick moves that the Nats didn’t see from that position for much of the year. His bat eventually caught up, too, ranking first among National League rookies with a .314 batting average since Sept. 3. But even he couldn’t avoid the injury bug, as he missed the last game of the season after hurting his shoulder in the nightcap of Tuesday’s doubleheader against the Mets.

Meanwhile, Meneses proved he has the stuff to be a major league player. After 10 minor league seasons, the 30-year-old finally made his big league debut and worked his way into the NL Rookie of the Year conversation. In 56 games, he had 21 multi-hit efforts and hit .324 with 14 doubles, 13 home runs, 34 RBIs, 15 walks and 33 runs scored. His 72 hits through his first 56 games are the most by any rookie in franchise history.

Lane Thomas was voted as the Player of the Year, Erasmo Ramírez was named as the Pitcher of the Year and Nelson Cruz was given the Good Guy Award by the local media.

Thomas led the Nationals with 17 home runs. Ramírez led all National League relievers with 80 ⅔ innings pitched that was accompanied by a 2.46 ERA across those outings. Cruz finished with 10 homers and a .650 OPS.

If you had those in your preseason pools, you’re lying.

You also probably didn’t have Josiah Gray leading the majors in home runs allowed (38, a new club record) and the NL in walks (66). Some of you may have predicted another rough season for Patrick Corbin, but probably not 19 losses, 210 hits and 107 earned runs, all the most in the major leagues. Nor did you probably predict he would finish with a 6.31 ERA.

Now comes an offseason full of questions.

How healthy are the pitchers, both young (Cavalli and Gore) and old (Strasburg and Doolittle)? Is Meneses the real deal or just a good story? Will Abrams and Luis García be able to solidify the middle of the infield? Will the bullpen, easily the team’s strongest component this year, stay strong next year? Can Corbin return to his 2019 form as his manager and general manager believe?

Beyond the Nationals, do Cruz, who didn’t play since Sept. 13 due to a left eye infection, and Aníbal Sánchez, who quietly became the Nats’ strongest starter by season’s end, have anything left in their respective tanks? Are there any pending free agents or possible trade chips that make sense for the 2023 roster?

We already know there is no question about a lockout this offseason, thankfully.

Some of these questions will be answered by the time the team reconvenes in West Palm Beach for spring training in mid-February, led by Davey Martinez and Rizzo, who each had options in their contracts picked up in July. The two will be leading the Nationals for the sixth consecutive season, hopefully one that looks different than this one.

But perhaps the biggest question this offseason surrounds ownership and whether or not the team will be sold. Once that’s resolved, this organization can start taking significant strides back to contention.

Stay tuned, as it should be an interesting four months.

Although this year was one you probably want to forget, enough happened to affect the franchise in the long-term that we’ll have to keep coming back to 2022.

Amy Jennings and I have more to wrap up the 2022 season on the MASN All Access Podcast. You can listen to or watch our end-of-season episode now.

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