Will improved middle infield have real impact on pitching?

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As much as the Nationals pitching staff struggled last season, there was always an underlying question in the back of coaches and front office members’ minds: How much did bad defense contribute to those struggles?

Statistically, the Nats pitching staff was the worst in the majors in 2022. So, too, was the team’s defense.

Until mid-August, that is, at which point things took a distinct turn in a positive direction.

On Aug. 15, the Nationals promoted CJ Abrams from Triple-A Rochester. One of the prized prospects acquired from the Padres in the Juan Soto blockbuster trade two weeks earlier, Abrams immediately was handed the starting shortstop job. And he immediately paid dividends.

On the morning of Aug. 15, the Nationals pitching staff sported a 5.30 ERA while also watching opponents score .45 unearned runs per game. From that day through the remainder of the season, the staff ERA dropped to a far more respectable 4.26, with opponents now scoring .39 unearned runs per game.

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Better, worse or the same in 2023: Position players

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The Nationals were bad last year, but you already know that. They want to be better this year, and you probably do, too.

But will they be better? That’s what we’re going to attempt to predict the next two days.

Though there’s still a month to go until spring training, and more additions or subtractions are possible, the Nats have already assembled what looks like it could be their Opening Day roster. So, it’s not too early for this exercise.

We’ll look at position players today, running through each of the positions (included designated hitter). Then we’ll look at the pitching staff tomorrow. Will the 2023 Nationals be better, worse or the same as the 2022 Nationals? Here we go …

CATCHER: Moderately better
As a group, Nationals catchers posted a .223/.286/.330 offensive slash last season, with 26 doubles, 12 homers and 48 RBIs. Keibert Ruiz (.249/.313/.361) was better than that, and there’s good reason to believe he’ll improve as a hitter in his second full big league season. The Nats would love for his power production, in particular, to improve. Defensively, Ruiz already is solid, but there’s also room for improvement there with experience. The real issue comes on days when he doesn’t start. The team’s backup catchers were really bad last season, with Riley Adams, Tres Barrera and Israel Pineda batting a collective .198/.233/.273 over 215 plate appearances. Somebody from that group is going to have to be better this year.

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What the Nats' Opening Day lineup might look like

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Though there’s still time for more additions before pitchers and catchers report to West Palm Beach – in a mere five weeks, by the way – the Nationals have now assembled what could be their Opening Day 2023 lineup.

They entered the offseason with three holes to fill: Third base, left field and either first base or designated hitter. In Jeimer Candelario, Corey Dickerson and Dominic Smith, they’re hoping they have adequately addressed those needs while constrained to a very tight budget. Those three free agents have a combined $9.25 million salary for the upcoming season, less than Josh Bell alone made last year.

Will that be enough? We’ll see. The success of the Nationals lineup may have less to do with those players’ performances than the performances of returning regulars Joey Meneses, Keibert Ruiz, CJ Abrams and Luis García.

But this is what Davey Martinez has to work with now. The question is how best to arrange this lineup.

Based on what Martinez did late last season, what he’s said this offseason and what’s now available to him, here’s one possible (probable?) batting order for Opening Day …

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Fate of 2023 Nats doesn't fall on offseason additions

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The Nationals’ offseason moves to date have been, well, less than inspired.

They signed Jeimer Candelario for one year and $5 million, then Trevor Williams for two years and $13 million. They acquired, via the Rule 5 draft and the waiver wire, unproven players named Thad Ward, Stone Garrett and A.J. Alexy. They brought back sentimental favorites Sean Doolittle and Matt Adams on minor league deals. And they’re now on the verge of bringing back Erasmo Ramirez for one year and perhaps as much as $2 million if he hits all his incentives.

Not exactly a rousing Hot Stove League to date. Certainly not compared to the rest of the National League East, which has seen the Mets, Phillies and Braves continue to bolster what already were playoff rosters with even more talent and even more dollars devoted to payroll.

It’s frustrating, for fans and team employees alike who were hoping for a bit more financial commitment from ownership on the heels of a 107-loss season.

Are the 2023 Nationals as currently constructed any better than the 2022 Nationals were? It sure doesn’t look like it on paper. They might even be worse, hard as that is to believe.

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Why the ban on shifts could help Nats hitters

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We don’t really know yet what effect Major League Baseball’s ban on the infield shift will have on hitters next season, but teams are taking the change into consideration as they make roster decisions this winter.

That includes the Nationals, whose first offensive addition of the offseason could be among those who benefit from the lack of a shift.

Jeimer Candelario is coming off a down year in Detroit, one in which his batting average fell 54 points, his on-base percentage fell 79 points and his slugging percentage fell 82 points from the 2021 season, when he hit .271/.351/.443 and led the American League with 42 doubles.

So, why did the Nationals target the 29-year-old corner infielder after the Tigers didn’t tender him a contract last month? In part because they saw peripheral numbers this season that suggested he was especially hurt by the shift.

“We had a list of 9-10 guys that we thought could fit,” manager Davey Martinez said last week at the Winter Meetings. “And we looked at Jeimer and his numbers and the amount of ground balls he did hit to the pull side, and we thought: ‘Hey, it could definitely help him.’ ”

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Where will Nationals' power come from next season?

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The Nationals were bad in a lot of ways this season. You don’t lose 107 games because of a deficiency in one single department. You lose that many games because of multiple problem areas.

And one of the Nats’ most notable problems in 2022 was a lack of power. Like, a complete lack of power.

They hit only 136 home runs, fewest in the National League. That represented the team’s lowest total for any scheduled 162-game season since 2008, when they finished with a league-worst 117 homers.

The Nationals hadn’t resided anywhere close to the bottom of the league in all the years since. Only once did they rank 10th in the NL, and that came during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. From 2011-19, they always ranked in the top half of the league in homers, and five times ranked among the top four power-hitting teams in the NL.

Suffice it to say, they’re going to need to improve in this area next season if they’re going to make some real strides in their rebuilding efforts.

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Looking at the Nats' organizational depth chart

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As we wait for the Nationals to put their offseason plan – whatever that plan ends up being – into action, it’s probably instructive to take stock of what they already have in place.

The organizational depth chart looks a whole lot different today than it did one year ago, and it basically bears zero resemblance to the one that existed two years ago. Consider this: Only 22 players who were on the 40-man roster on Opening Day are still on the 40-man roster. And out of that group, only 10 were on the 40-man roster on Opening Day 2021.

That’s a lot of change.

So, what’s left? A roster that has more young talent than it did a year ago, though most of it has yet to reach the big leagues. And plenty of holes that still need to be filled.

As you can see when you break the depth chart down position by position, the Nationals still have some work to do, both when it comes to short-term and long-term roster construction. (Note: Players not currently on the 40-man roster have an asterisk after their names.) …

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Strong down the stretch, Abrams looks like a keeper

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PLAYER REVIEW: CJ ABRAMS

Age on opening day 2023: 22

How acquired: Traded from Padres with MacKenzie Gore, Luke Voit, Robert Hassell III, James Wood and Jarlin Susana for Juan Soto and Josh Bell, August 2022

MLB service time: 131 days

2022 salary: $700,000

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After miserable season, Nats have much work to do

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NEW YORK – There is no way to sugarcoat a 55-107 season, no silver lining to setting a club record for losses, no justifying the worst record in baseball.

This was, undoubtedly, the worst of the Nationals’ 18 seasons since they arrived in the District in 2005. They lost more games than the awful 2008-09 teams. The rotation’s 5.97 ERA was far worse than the dreadful 2006 (5.37) or 2020 (5.38) starters’ numbers. Their 17-59 record and .224 winning percentage against the National League East was not only the worst in club history, it was the worst in major league history since divisional play began in 1969.

Oh, and they also traded away a 22-year-old generational star, not because they didn’t want him, but because they believed it was the only way they could restock a farm system that was barren because of their own inability to draft and develop future big leaguers over much of the last decade.

How could the Nationals try to claim the 2022 season was successful? They can’t.

What they can do, and what they are trying to do, is believe this rock-bottom season was a necessary step toward something better in the future. That by losing to this extent now and refocusing efforts on rebuilding that barren farm system, they will be in a better position to win again sooner than they would be if they didn’t take this drastic step backward.

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Abrams, Robles, Cruz all sitting for season finale

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NEW YORK – The Nationals limp into Game 162 of the season with a battered and bruised lineup that won’t include CJ Abrams, Victor Robles or Nelson Cruz.

Abrams and Robles both are sitting after departing games from Tuesday’s doubleheader with injuries. Abrams jammed his left shoulder trying to make a diving catch of a ball at shortstop. Robles felt his right calf tighten up as he ran out a double to deep left field.

Abrams got an MRI this morning, and though he was still waiting for results this afternoon, the rookie said he was feeling better and wasn’t overly concerned about any long-term issue. Robles said his calf still felt a little stiff, so manager Davey Martinez decided not to take a chance with either, even if it means he’s disappointed to write out a depleted lineup card for the final game of the season.

“Oh, absolutely,” he said. “Plus, some of our younger guys, I wanted to continue to see them play, especially the last game. But unfortunately, that’s sometimes how this game rolls. The good news is that they’re both going to be fine moving forward, and they’ll be ready for spring training.”

Also absent from the lineup again is Cruz, who hasn’t played since Sept. 13 due to a left eye infection that never fully healed to the point the 42-year-old was comfortable facing live pitching for fear of blurry vision.

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Espino rocked as Nats suffer doubleheader sweep (updated)

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NEW YORK – By the time the Braves defeated the Marlins in Miami to clinch their fifth straight National League East title, the Mets already were routing the Nationals at Citi Field, having blitzed Paolo Espino for seven runs in the first inning to deal the right-hander an embarrassing concluding chapter to his season.

At that point, there was nothing official left for the Mets to play for in the regular season, their focus now shifting to the best-of-three Wild Card Series they’ll host against either the Padres or Phillies beginning here Friday night.

But even as the rain picked up and left the small, shivering crowd scrambling for cover by the sixth inning, they pressed on and played this game to its conclusion, the Nationals handed an unsightly, 8-0 loss in which they struck out 17 times for their 106th loss of the season.

They’ll return Wednesday afternoon one final time to wrap up a miserable 2022 and turn their sights to trying to ensure this doesn’t happen again in 2023.

This game saw shortstop CJ Abrams depart after 1 1/3 innings, having jammed his left shoulder trying to make a diving catch in the field. Manager Davey Martinez said Abrams will get an MRI on Wednesday to be sure he didn't suffer any structural damage.

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Opener in New York postponed, doubleheader Tuesday (updated)

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NEW YORK – The rain that made a mess of the Nationals’ entire final home series over the weekend is making a mess of their final road series of the season as well.

With what's left of Hurricane Ian slowly making its way up the East Coast, tonight's game against the Mets has been postponed. The two teams will attempt to play a straight doubleheader Tuesday at 4:10 p.m., with Cory Abbott starting the first game and Paolo Espino starting the nightcap.

Tuesday's forecast, though, calls for rain all night and all day, and it perhaps could even extend into early Wednesday, when the regular season is supposed to come to an end with a 4:10 p.m. first pitch at Citi Field.

All the Nationals can do at this point is wait, and potentially play at some point in less-than-ideal conditions, just as they did all weekend against the Phillies in D.C.

“You can’t control Mother Nature,” manager Davey Martinez said earlier in the afternoon, prior to the postponement announcement. “We’ll see what happens. It’s looking pretty nasty right now. We’ll see if this thing goes away and lets us play a nice, cold day.”

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Corbin ends season in rare company as Nats lose finale to Phillies (updated)

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Patrick Corbin’s 2022 season came to a close this afternoon. It was another one with less-than-satisfactory results for the presumptive “ace” of this Nationals staff.

The day started with some confusion and uncertainty. With this game meaning a lot to the Phillies, who entered with a 1/2 game lead over the Brewers for the final National League wild card spot, and bad weather forecasted for most of the day, there was concern that we could be in for a long day at the ballpark.

The Nationals, Phillies and Major League Baseball discussed this morning all possible scenarios, including the idea of starting the game either an hour or 30 minutes earlier than the scheduled 1:35 p.m. start time.

But the weather cleared up enough for Corbin’s first pitch to be thrown as planned. The next question was if they could finish without any delays. They could not, with a rain delay that lasted one hour and 28 minutes before the final result of an 8-1 loss for the Nationals in six innings in front of an announced crowd of 32,789 on a cold and rainy afternoon on South Capitol Street.

“There was like a chance, I think, of a 12:30 p.m. start and then they said we're on time," Corbin said after the game. "It is what it is. Nothing you can really do about it. They tell you the game is going, and you go out there and try to do your best.”

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Abrams atones for hustle mistake with first career walk-off hit

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It was a routine chopper back to the pitcher, the kind of play that’s made 99.5 percent of the time. Knowing that, CJ Abrams slowed down as he approached first base, assuming he would easily be thrown out.

Except when A.J. Minter’s throw sailed high, and Braves first baseman Matt Olson had to dive back to tag the base with his glove, Abrams lack of hustle cost him and the Nationals. Had he run hard all the way through the bag, he would’ve been safe at a critical moment in the eighth inning of what was a tie game. Instead, he had to make the walk of shame back to the dugout, where a perturbed Davey Martinez was waiting.

“That can’t happen,” Abrams said afterward. “I talked to Davey about it. Won’t happen again, for sure.”

It was a potentially low moment for the rookie shortstop, but two innings later he made sure it wouldn’t be his most memorable play from Wednesday night’s game. With a two-out RBI single to right in the bottom of the 10th, Abrams delivered the first walk-off hit of his career, sending the Nationals to a 3-2 victory and leaving the 21-year-old to be mobbed by teammates.

“It was good for him, especially after the baserunning thing,” Martinez said. “He comes back, he puts it aside and he gets after that at-bat and gets a big base hit for us. It’s good to see that. He stayed in the game, stayed poised.”

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Abrams' 10th-inning single gives Nats a walk-off win (updated)

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The Nationals have any number of reasons to want to finish this 100-plus-loss season on positive notes, both on a team level and an individual level.

On a team level, the 3-2 10-inning win they pulled off tonight over the Braves thanks to CJ Abrams’ walk-off single most definitely qualifies as a positive note.

On an individual level, the six standout innings Josiah Gray pitched tonight most definitely does as well.

With his best start in more than a month, Gray nearly shut down the Braves’ potent lineup altogether, allowing Matt Olson’s solo homer in the second but hardly anything else during an 85-pitch gem during what might wind up being his final start of an up-and-down year.

That decision is still to come from Davey Martinez, who has repeatedly mentioned a desire to limit the 24-year-old’s innings and potentially shut him down early, but to date has continued to let him take the mound up to the season’s final week.

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Game 155 lineups: Nats vs. Braves

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It hasn’t been a pleasant experience for the Nationals to face the Braves this season. (Not that it’s been much more pleasant to face anybody else in the NL East this season.) Tonight, they get one final shot at beating the defending World Series champions and perhaps dealing them a blow in their attempt to surpass the Mets to win the division this year.

It’s Josiah Gray back on the mound for what again could be his final start of 2022, though there still remains a need for somebody to pitch next week’s final series in New York, so don’t just assume this is the end of the road. Regardless, the 24-year-old right-hander would love to wrap things up on a positive note, because it’s been a difficult September for him (18 earned runs, 25 hits, 11 walks, five homers in 19 1/3 innings).

Gray has actually faced the Braves only once this season, way back on April 13 at Truist Park. He tossed five scoreless innings, allowing only one hit. A lot, of course, has changed since then.

Jake Odorizzi starts for Atlanta. The Nats saw him this spring when he was with the Astros, but this is the first time they’ve faced him since he was acquired by the Braves. Davey Martinez goes with a lineup that again includes CJ Abrams as No. 2 hitter, with Luis García returning to play second base after sitting out Tuesday’s game and Riley Adams back behind the plate.

ATLANTA BRAVES at WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Where:
Nationals Park
Gametime: 7:05 p.m. EDT
TV: MASN, MLB.tv
Radio: 106.7 FM, MLB.com
Weather: Partly cloudy, 66 degrees, wins 9 mph left field to right field

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Abrams shakes off strange out, continues strong September

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MIAMI – As he walked from the plate to the home dugout in the top of the second inning Sunday afternoon at loanDepot Park, CJ Abrams had no idea who was approaching him from behind. As far as he knew, he had just scored on Victor Robles’ safety squeeze, extending the Nationals’ lead to 3-0.

And then just as he was about to go down the steps and into the dugout, Marlins catcher Nick Fortes suddenly tagged him from behind. Abrams turned around to look, saw umpire Bill Miller signal out and realized what had just happened.

“They said I didn’t touch the plate,” he said. “But on the replay, you could see it kind of … my cleat kind of bounced up off the plate. But it is what it is. Kept playing, won the game. It’s cool.” 

That last sentence perfectly summed things up. Abrams could’ve let the bizarre (and possibly incorrect) play rattle him. Instead, he shrugged it off, kept playing and wound up playing an important role in the Nationals’ 6-1 victory over Miami.

“He’s really done a great job with that,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He doesn’t sulk over it. He comes back, he watches video and then he shrugs it off, knowing that there’s going to be some more plays that he’s got to make. I love that about him.”

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Sánchez's surprise surge continues in Nats win over Marlins (updated)

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MIAMI – The notion of Aníbal Sánchez wrapping up the season as the Nationals’ most consistently effective starter would’ve sounded ludicrous two months ago, when the notion of Sánchez still being a member of the Nats rotation seemed far-fetched.

Funny how things play out, though, because as the 2022 campaign winds down there’s really no disputing the fact that the Nationals’ best starter has been a 38-year-old right-hander who sat out the entire 2021 season and then missed 3 1/2 months this season with a neck injury.

Sánchez added another impressive chapter to his out-of-nowhere resurgence this afternoon, tossing five scoreless innings and allowing only two hits to the Marlins during a feel-good, 6-1 victory over the franchise for whom he made his major league debut 16 long years ago.

Thanks to the efforts of Sánchez, four relievers, another Joey Meneses home run and three hits from CJ Abrams, the Nationals left town with one win to salvage the weekend. They end their season series against the Marlins with an abysmal 4-15 record, but today’s win at least ensured they didn’t drop a 16th game to one opponent for the first time in club history.

They also avoided reaching the 100-loss mark for the first time since 2009, though it will take a perfect 10-0 finish now against the Braves, Phillies and Mets to prevent that inevitable event from occurring.

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Nats storm back to get Gray off hook, finally beat Marlins (updated)

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First came Joey Meneses’ inside-the-park homer, a huffing-and-puffing adventure around the bases to add the latest improbable chapter to the 30-year-old rookie’s out-of-nowhere arrival.

Then came CJ Abrams’ two-out, two-run triple, an explosive sprint from the plate to third base by the dynamic 21-year-old shortstop.

And when Ildemaro Vargas drove the go-ahead double to left-center in the bottom of the eighth, the Nationals had finally pulled off something they’d done only once in 13 previous tries this season: They beat the Marlins.

Storming back to score five runs in their final two offensive innings, the Nats emerged with a 5-4 victory over Miami, only their second win over their division counterparts this season, certainly the most uplifting to date.

"I look back, and I think about when we play good defense, good things happen," said manager Davey Martinez, whose team indeed sparkled in the field again tonight. "We're playing good defense, we're staying in some of these games. And the hits are going to come, the runs are going to come. Continue to get the defense, get good pitching, and we'll win some games."

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Nats squander chances in 4-3 loss to Orioles (updated)

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The way they jumped out to an early lead, this felt like a night that would see the Nationals keep putting runners on base and keep threatening to add to that lead. Turns out they wouldn’t score again, and the one time they seriously threatened, their rookie shortstop ran himself out of the inning.

This 4-3 loss to the Orioles was frustrating, though for different reasons than many previous losses were. There was no bullpen meltdown. There was no critical defensive mistake. There was no disastrous outing by the starting pitcher.

Instead, this one-run loss saw the Nationals lineup go cold after the third inning, then botch its last best chance to tie the game when CJ Abrams tried to advance to third base on a ground ball right in front of him to kill a sixth-inning rally.

"He's young and wanting to get to third base, knew he had to get to third base," manager Davey Martinez said. "But that situation, you've got to see the ball through. You've got to get back to second and see what happens. It's just a young mistake. He knew right away: He should've gone back."

Abrams, whose play of late has mostly been sensational, led off the inning with a double to the gap in left-center, knocking Baltimore starter Dean Kremer from the game. But when reliever Dillon Tate immediately got Israel Pineda to hit a sharp grounder to short, Abams took off for third, an ill-advised gamble.

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