New year brings new expectations for Nats

Yesterday, Mark Zuckerman rang in the new year with hopes for the Nationals in 2022. Things the team would like to see come to fruition this season. Best-case scenarios for the players, coaches and front office staff.

The fact of the matter is 2022 is going to be a year unlike we've seen on South Capitol Street in over a decade.

Exactly 10 years ago, expectations were sky high for the Nationals. They ended the 2012 season with the club's first National League East division title, starting years of a "World Series or bust" mentality.

Although there was heartbreak along the way, that organizational goal was realized with a championship in 2019. But three years later, things have changed.

With last summer's sell-off, the expectations for the Nationals have to be adjusted. This will be the first full year of the rebuild and important milestones have to be reached to justify this new direction. Unfortunately, that does not include a playoff appearance, however great an accomplishment that would be.

This is not meant to be a negative way for Nats fans to start the new year. These might be harsh realities, but the Nationals can still be successful this year without raising any banners.

Yes, manager Davey Martinez's squad is going to try to go 1-0 every day. But they are likely to lose their season series against their NL East rivals, with the division getting increasingly competitive. And they're likely to lose more games than not.

So what should we expect this year?

Let's start with the international signing period. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, teams are allowed to sign young international players starting on Jan. 15, instead of the usual July 2 opening.

The Nationals are already reportedly expected to sign Cristian Vaquero, the top international prospect according to multiple publications. They should also be expected to sign a handful of other prospects, adding new talent to their farm system through the means they acquired the likes of Juan Soto and Victor Robles.

With a new focus on the minor league system, any additions to the farm, especially via a sometimes overlooked resource, is welcomed. (And let's not overreact to Soto's younger brother, Elian, who is reportedly expected to sign with the Mets.)

Then there will be another important way to add young talent: the draft. With the No. 5 overall pick, the expectation should be that the Nationals add a premier young talent. Whether that is a pitcher or position player doesn't matter. It's about taking the best player available. General manager Mike Rizzo has a history of selecting pitchers in the first round, but with this opportunity to pick so high in the draft, Rizzo should select the highest player on his board.

Speaking of the farm system, let's shift our expectations to that important aspect of the organization. In the first full season of the rebuild, some may expect certain prospects to make large leaps in their development.

Thumbnail image for Cavalli-Throws-Blue-Harrisburg-Sidebar.jpgThat might make sense for top-ranked prospects, such as Cade Cavalli. After he flew up the minor league system in 2021, it's reasonable to expect him to make his major league debut in 2022.

For other prospects, however, just slight improvements would be welcomed. For Jackson Rutledge, a healthy full season would be seen as advancement. And for Brady House, just gaining experience in his first full season as a pro will help.

Part of that is wishful thinking, but not too far-fetched to expect.

As for the big league team, it should still be expected to compete day in and day out. But not much should be expected of them on the scoreboard and in the standings.

The young staples on the team should continue to show what they can do. The veterans, particularly those on expiring contracts such as Josh Bell, César Hernández, and possibly Maikel Franco and Dee Strange-Gordon, should prove themselves worthy of a trade to competitors in late July. Another way for the club to bring in young talent.

Rebuilds are nothing to be ashamed of, especially after winning a championship. The Nationals aren't the only team in town undergoing one (see the Washington Football Team, Wizards, Mystics and D.C. United).

But with such an undertaking come new expectations.

It might be hard for Nats fans to accept, but this is where they are. Hopefully, not for too long. Maybe at the start of next year or the year after, I'll be writing a similar post on how the expectations have shifted back to postseason aspirations.

If Rizzo and company manage this year's expectations and do this thing properly, perhaps that, in and of itself, is a realistic expectation.

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