World Series foes showed Nats the path back to October

For as much angst as the recently completed World Series generated – How dare the venerable Fall Classic feature a 90-win team against an 84-win team, neither of which won its division! – it really should have been embraced to the fullest extent around here.

Not because Nationals fans should’ve felt an emotional pull toward the Rangers, who spent the first 11 of their 63 years of existence as the Washington Senators. Not because it afforded Max Scherzer the opportunity to win his second ring. And not because the Diamondbacks made sure neither the reviled Dodgers nor the reviled Phillies (who took care of the reviled Braves) would reach the World Series again.

No, this series should’ve been wholly embraced by any baseball fan in the D.C. area because it offered something that’s been in short supply around here for several years now: Hope. Real hope.

Surely you heard it mentioned once or 17 times in the last two weeks, but just in case you forgot: Both the Rangers and Diamondbacks lost 100-plus games two seasons ago. Then Texas went 68-94 while Arizona went 74-88 last season. And here they were squaring off in the final week of October for the Commissioner’s Trophy.

The Nationals, as you already know, lost 107 games last season. And they finished this season 71-91. Huh, how do you like that?

Now, lest anyone start having delusions of grandeur, this franchise has a long way to go before it can even consider the possibility of playing baseball in early October, let alone late October, in 2024. The roster as currently constructed cannot get there.

But it doesn’t take a blind optimist to see a potential path toward the promised land in the relatively near future.

If the Nationals’ much-hyped top prospects reach the majors sometime next season and live up to the hype, this team will look a whole lot more competitive. That’s how the Diamondbacks won their first pennant in 22 years, with a roster loaded with young talent that came together at the right time to do something unexpected.

And even if it doesn’t happen for the Nats in 2024, if enough progress is made to convince ownership the biggest step is finally within reach, there should be little standing in the way of one or two major free-agent signings next winter to help get the young core over the hump. That’s how the Rangers won the franchise’s first championship, by spending big on Corey Seager and Marcus Semien to supplement what they already had in place, then trading for Scherzer and others to finish the job.

There’s no one right path to build a winner. But most would agree it’s best to combine homegrown talent with strategically acquired veterans from the outside. That’s the path the Nationals took the last time around. And it’s the path they’ve suggested they intend to take again when the time is right.

When is that time? Privately, most club officials hope it’s next winter, once they have a better sense what they truly have in place already and what they still need to find elsewhere. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen sooner. Just look at the defending National League champs for evidence of that.

You don’t have to like Major League Baseball’s expanded playoff format, which now includes three wild cards along with three division winners. But you have to admit it does make it a whole lot easier for teams on the outside looking in to crash the party.

The Diamondbacks and Marlins each made the postseason with 84 wins this year. The Cubs, Reds and Padres all finished within two games. In other words, every team in the National League that finished with a winning record this season was in the race right down to the final weekend. That’s all it takes now.

Gone are the days when 90 wins didn’t even guarantee a spot in the bracket. If your win total starts with an eight, you’re in the hunt.

That’s the goal for the 2024 Nationals: not to make the postseason, but to push for a winning record throughout the summer, then perhaps to convince the front office to buy pieces at the trade deadline for the first time since 2019 instead of selling them.

If it happens to all come together, maybe a surprise pennant race in D.C. is feasible. If it doesn’t, the organization still should be well positioned to make a run the following year.

A ludicrous notion? Maybe it was in the past. But not anymore. The difference between losing record and October baseball has never been so minimal.

For that, you can thank MLB, the NL champion Diamondbacks and the World Series champion Rangers.

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