One year later, state of Nationals is very different

The Nationals woke up exactly one year ago feeling as good about themselves as they had, quite possibly, since they won the World Series.

On the morning of July 1, 2021, the Nats owned a mediocre 40-38 record but had just won 14 of their last 17 games to climb back over .500 and thrust themselves into the National League East race. Kyle Schwarber was on fire at the plate. Trea Turner had just hit for the cycle for the third time in his career. Max Scherzer was still the ace. Stephen Strasburg was supposed to return from the injured list within a matter of weeks. Mike Rizzo would probably be a buyer at the trade deadline.

And then over the course of that holiday weekend, which included a four-game sweep at the hands of the Dodgers, injuries to Turner and Schwarber and Alex Avila starting a game at second base, the foundation began to crack. And by the end of a disastrous month that saw the franchise suffer all manner of calamity, the Nationals were well under .500 and Rizzo had traded away eight key veterans, signaling the end of an era of contention in D.C. and embarking on a massive franchise rebuild.

What has happened since hasn’t been pretty, at least not in terms of wins and losses on the field. The Nats have played exactly 162 games in the last 365 days, and their record is a woeful 54-108. That’s a .333 winning percentage, worst in the majors during that time frame. (Next worst are the Cubs at 59-98, a .376 winning percentage.)

One year ago, there was genuine optimism about the state of the franchise, reason to believe a run at another World Series title wasn’t far-fetched. At the very least, this organization would be in a position to try to win a title for several more years, between the big league talent already in place and the ability to spend on more to fill roster holes.

How much optimism is there today? Certainly not for any immediate success. The 2022 roster was never built to win in 2022, and that has proven true over the last three months. It’s probably not built to win in 2023, either, barring some massive spending spree by ownership (whether current or future, which is a whole other pressing question looming over the entire franchise right now).

If you squint hard enough, believe in a few top prospects, believe in the scouting department’s ability to acquire more studs in this month’s draft and believe in ownership’s willingness to spend again when the time is right, you might be able to see everything coming together as soon as 2024. But it requires a lot of things coming together.

It requires Josiah Gray and Keibert Ruiz and Luis García and perhaps Lane Thomas all continuing to develop into frontline big league players. It requires Patrick Corbin to become a reliable major league pitcher again. It requires Cade Cavalli and Cole Henry to be the real deal. It requires Juan Soto to still be here come 2024. And it requires more players coming from somewhere – the draft, the farm system, trades, free agency – to supplement those already here.

That’s a lot that has to go right, with little margin for error for anything else to go wrong.

Here’s some small reason for optimism, though: The Nationals have progressively played better each month this season. They were abysmal in April, going 7-16 for a .304 winning percentage. Then they went 11-17 in May, good for a .393 winning percentage. And now, thanks to six wins over their last nine games, they finished June with an 11-16 record, a .407 winning percentage.

That’s nothing to get overly excited about. A .407 rate over an entire season equals 66 wins. That’s not good.

But if you believe this team can play better in the second half than it has in the first half, there’s reason to believe it can avoid 100 losses and perhaps lay the groundwork for something better in 2023.

That process begins the next four days against a Marlins club that has owned the Nationals so far this year, going 8-1 and outscoring them 48-20. (The good news: Sandy Alcantara isn’t scheduled to pitch this holiday weekend.)

Even better news: Alex Avila won’t be starting at second base, either. That automatically should ensure July 2022 is a better month than July 2021 was.

Game 79 lineups: Nats vs. Marlins
On the non-controversial parts of Wednesday's game
 

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