Nats expect to be better in 2023, but how much better?

The Nationals won 55 games last season, fewest in club history. They were outscored by an astounding 252 runs. They had the majors’ worst rotation, hit the fewest homers in the National League and gave up the most. They ranked at or near the bottom in most defensive metrics. They also traded a once-in-a-generation, 22-year-old star for prospects.

It was, by any measure, an awful season.

Which means there’s nowhere to go but up, right?

The 2023 Nationals have to be better. The pitching has to be better. The defense has to be better. The lineup has to be … uh, we’ll get back to that topic in a moment.

We don’t know how the next six months are going to play out. There are any number of unpredictable factors that could help or hurt the team’s fortunes. Here’s what we do know: The 2023 Nats are younger. They’re more athletic. They feature more potential pieces to the long-term puzzle than the previous team did.

And that left most everyone in West Palm Beach feeling more optimistic this spring than they were one year ago.

“Obviously we haven’t played a real game yet, so we’ll see what it’s like,” right-hander Josiah Gray said. “But it just seems like everyone’s loose, everyone’s enjoying themselves. A lot of the pieces, if we’re progressing as we want to progress, can be here for a long time and do some damage in this division. It’s just a lot of fun, and I’m just looking forward to this year.”

Gray is an integral part of a rotation that may have more say in how this season compares to 2022 than any other aspect of the roster. Nationals starters went an unfathomable 30-86 with a 5.97 ERA last season. Gray and Patrick Corbin were responsible for a chunk of those troubles, but each enters this season feeling like a turnaround is forthcoming. And the rest of the rotation is brand-new, from the now-healthy future stalwart MacKenzie Gore to veteran additions Trevor Williams and Chad Kuhl.

Yes, the loss of top prospect Cade Cavalli to Tommy John surgery was a terrible blow for the club. But the remaining starters still have every reason to believe they will be better than last year’s starters were.

“Even the championship teams go through five, six, seven, eight, nine,” said Williams, who was himself a fill-in starter for the Mets last season. “It’s just a matter of who’s going to get called upon next and who’s going to fill in that gap while Cade is gone. It’s going to be a fun year to see who takes that ball. There were a lot of guys in minor league camp now that were impressive for the few weeks they were up here. I’m excited for the Nationals this year how we’re going to attack these holes.”

Hand in hand with pitching improvement would be defensive improvement, and the Nationals have ample reason to believe that improvement will be significant. They already saw evidence last season.

Prior to Aug. 15, Nationals pitchers owned a 5.30 ERA while allowing .45 unearned runs to score per game. Then the club promoted newly acquired shortstop CJ Abrams from Triple-A Rochester, and over the rest of the season the staff ERA dropped to 4.26, with only .39 unearned runs scoring per game.

Add a potential defensive whiz at first base in Dominic Smith and competent defenders at second and third bases in Luis Garcia and Jeimer Candelario, and the Nats should convert way more batted balls into outs this season.

“It seems like we’re playing a cleaner brand of baseball this year so far,” reliever Kyle Finnegan said.

So, the Nationals should give up fewer than the 855 runs they surrendered last season, their most since 2009. But will they score more than 603 runs they plated last season, fewest in club history (aside from the shortened 2020 campaign)?

That’s where there’s still some legitimate concern. Even with Juan Soto and Josh Bell from April through July, last year’s lineup struggled. And though Joey Meneses remarkably managed to produce Soto-like numbers in August and September, it still wasn’t enough to turn the entire lineup’s fortunes around.

Who from this current group of hitters is a sure thing? Not Meneses, still an unproven 30-year-old. Not Smith, who had a .643 OPS the last two seasons with the Mets. Not Candelario, who hit .217 with a .272 on-base percentage last season with the Tigers. Not Corey Dickerson, Lane Thomas, Luis Garcia, Keibert Ruiz or Victor Robles, either.

The 2023 Nationals probably aren’t going to hit many home runs. Which means they’re going to have to execute better at the plate in order to score runs. It’s not just enough to get on base. They have to be better at getting them over and then getting them in.

“Our at-bats have been way better, just as far as accepting their walks, moving the baseball, using the middle of the field,” manager Davey Martinez said last week. “That’s something we preached this whole spring. I think the power will come for some of these guys. But if you don’t … we’re trying to say to these guys, stay in the middle of the field, hit doubles. The rest will come.”

Put all of that together, and what does the Nats’ record look like by season’s end? It’s hard to say. Nobody realistically sees this team approaching the .500 mark. Shoot, a .400 winning percentage would equate to 65 wins, an impressive 10-game improvement.

“The parameter is, we’re judged by wins and losses,” Mike Rizzo said. “That’s what this thing is all about. So that will be my barometer. We want to win.”

The longtime general manager, who has likened the current state of the organization to the one he helped mold from a 103-loss disaster in 2009 to a 98-win division champion in 2012, then made sure to issue an important caveat.

“We’re certainly not going to be blinded by our won-loss record only. We understand where we’re at in the process.”

Starting lineups: Nats vs. Yankees in D.C.
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