Playing Pepper 2023: Washington Nationals

If there is one thing baseball is good at, it’s tradition.  (OK, so that point could be debated with the changes over the last few years.)  Tradition around here states that the beginning of the season means that it’s time for Playing Pepper!  This is the fifteenth season–a decade and a half!–of the series that helps you get ready for the season by going around the league and talking with people that live and die with their teams.  Bloggers, former bloggers, podcasters, we’ve got them all as we take a tour of MLB and play some pepper!  If you get inspired to make some predictions during this series, this contest is open to fans of all teams so enter today!

Washington Nationals
55-107, fifth in the NL East
Website | Twitter | Twitter List
Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by fWAR: Hunter Harvey (1.0)
Top hitter by bWAR: Juan Soto (2.8)

The days of the Nationals regularly reaching the playoffs (and quickly leaving) are well and gone.  After finally breaking through and taking home the title in 2019, the club has finished last in the NL East for three straight years with some ugly records to show for it.  Have they hit rock bottom?  We’ve got a few folks that know a little bit about the highs and lows of this team to break it down for us.

Contributor Site Twitter
Nick Meyers Half Street High Heat NationalsAce
Justin Howard DC Baseball Blog HalfStreetHeart

C70: It’s been a rough few years for the Nationals since they won the World Series. What’s your general feeling about the team as they go into 2023?

Nick: This year is a bit different than last year. If we go back to 2021, we still had Max Scherzer, Trea Turner and Juan Soto to enter the season and while we did not expect to win another World Series, we were at least hoping to be competitive. We weren’t, and Scherzer and Turner were shipped off as part of a fire sale – which was fans’ first real experience of what it was like to sell at the deadline. We entered 2022 with obvious lowered expectations, but we still had Juan Soto and Josh Bell as well as the young prospects acquired in the ’21 deadline in Josiah Gray and Keibert Ruiz, so it seemed like the Nationals were on their way to rebuilding around Soto and the young guys. We were not great, and the Nationals traded away a generational talent in reaction to that. Sure, maybe they didn’t feel they would be able to re-sign Soto before he hit Free Agency, but after failing to retain generational talent after generational talent in Harper, Rendon, Turner and more, it was a gut punch. The second half of 2022 was the lowest I have ever felt as a Nats fan, and I’ve been a fan since 2005. Now entering 2023, the dust has settled and we’re entering 2023 almost expecting to be the worst team in baseball. But at the same time with those lowered expectations, we are almost able to enjoy the little things more than we were before. We can see young players like CJ Abrams and Luis Garcia learn to be the next great middle infield duo and the rotation of young arms with Gray, Gore and Cavalli come to fruition. There will be growing pains, but they hurt a little less when there’s no expectations on your team.

Justin: The Nationals are at the bottom of their rebuilding cycle. They restocked the farm system a little bit last summer by trading Juan Soto, but there’s very little major league talent on this roster and they will probably lose 100 games. You are correct that it has been a rough ride in DC since the World Series trophy paraded down Constitution Avenue in October 2019. The Nationals had the oldest team in baseball that year, so nobody expected the beginning of a dynasty. But the downfall has been faster and more dramatic than anyone could have imagined. The farm system dried up at the worst time and players like Anthony Rendon, Adam Eaton and Ryan Zimmerman couldn’t be replaced. After a disappointing 2020 (the covid year) and first half of 2021, the Nationals decided it was time to blow everything up. After Juan Soto made it clear he wasn’t interested in an extension, they traded him too. Now they have to do it again from scratch, which will be a painful process while in the same division as the Braves, Phillies, and Mets who are all peaking at the same time. 

C70: Stephen Strasburg is the player with the highest salary and he’s still on the books for four more years. What can people expect to see from him this year after three injury-shortened years in a row?

Nick: Speaking of expectations, I think you should expect to not see Stephen Strasburg again. It’s been a brutal stretch for him since the World Series and he’s on the wrong side of 30 now with his body not healing the way it used to. Even if it did, Thoracic Outlet Syndrome is an incredibly difficult injury to come back from and there aren’t a ton of success stories from players who have had the injury. (Editor’s note: Cardinal fans will remember that Chris Carpenter dealt with that during the latter part of his career, having surgery in 2012 and returning for a couple of games at the end of the season before retiring in the offseason.) My prediction is Stephen Strasburg will get one final farewell batter/inning and officially retire, whether it be this year or next year. One person can only have so many setbacks.

Justin: Stephen Strasburg might never pitch again. He has a rare medical condition known as Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. You’ll need an actual doctor to explain that one, but the likelihood of him ever returning to form looks pretty bleak. It’s a baseball tragedy. Strasburg was 5-0 in the 2019 playoffs and carried the Nationals to a World Series title. Unlike most of our star players, he decided to stay in DC for his whole career. He has first-ballot Hall of Fame talent, but that’s never going to happen. The good news is flags fly forever and his 2019 heroics can never be taken away, even if his salary is mostly dead weight until it comes off the books. Strasburg is a good guy and a hard worker and will make every effort to come back. It would be a great story for the fans if he got healthy enough for one last run.

C70: How goes the search for a new owner and, whenever that happens, how do you think it will impact the team?

Nick: Not great. For those that don’t know, the Baltimore Orioles own the Nationals’ TV rights due to a bargain that was struck between the MLB and the Orioles when the Nationals relocated in 2005. The agreement is tricky and nearly impossible to get out of, to the point where MLB really doesn’t feel like they can even intervene. The Orioles have also withheld over $100 Million in revenue from the Nationals, further complicating things. So without steady TV revenue, it is hard for any investor to see the Nationals as a worthwhile purchase. Even if they do, their price does not meet the Lerner’s current $2 billion dollar asking price. So it seems we are stuck, and there is no resolution in sight. Trying to run a team with owners who are one foot out the door does not bode well for a team’s success.

Justin: The ownership situation is a mess. The Lerner family shocked the baseball world last year when they announced their intention to sell. Nobody really knows their motivation, but it is assumed their commercial real estate business took a big hit in the pandemic. Now the sale appears to be on hold, likely because there is uncertainty about the value of the Nationals TV rights, which is owned by the Baltimore Orioles due to an MLB-brokered compromise when the Expos moved to DC in 2004. Hundreds of millions of dollars are currently at stake and both sides are waiting for a decision by a New York state court. Until that matter is settled, The Lerners are unlikely to get the price they expect for their franchise. So do not expect any big free agent acquisitions any time soon.

C70: Which young player (either someone who will make a debut or someone with limited major league experience) will have the most influence on how this season turns out?

Nick: For once, there are actually multiple possible answers to this question. Guys like CJ Abrams, MacKenzie Gore, Keibert Ruiz, etc. will all have a significant impact on the club, and rightfully so. However, I’d argue the player who could have the largest impact is Luis Garcia, and it’s not even necessarily directly due to his performance on the field. Luis Garcia is one of the few “homegrown” Nationals’ prospects. Most other of our top prospects have come from the Dodgers and Padres after the blockbuster trades that have happened the past two seasons. Therefore, we have seen the most time of all prospects in Luis Garcia. There are obvious deficiencies to his game. He needs to walk more and strikeout less and just improve his OBP overall, but that’s the point. We have enough of a sample size on a guy like Luis Garcia to see if he truly develops this year. Garcia will be the guy to really evaluate just how well, or not, the Nationals’ player development system is working. If they can’t get it right soon, we can probably see a full clean house in the Front Office.

Justin: The Nationals’ top prospects are still far away from the majors. So 2023 is all about giving the current guys an audition for 2025, the first season the team will have any chance to be competitive. Keep an eye on pitchers Josiah Gray (obtained in the Max Scherzer trade) and MacKenzie Gore (obtained in the Soto trade). CJ Abrams (also obtained in the Soto trade) will get a chance to lock down shortstop. I wish I had more names to share but I don’t. Check back next year when the Nats’ multiple Top 100 prospects are closer to the big leagues.

C70: What’s the best case, worst case, and most likely scenario on how 2023 plays out?

Nick: I am really emphasizing best case scenario here, but I think the template is the 2022 Baltimore Orioles. You get great rookie campaigns from your top prospects and you get an average pitching staff to greatly overperform. I don’t think that will happen for the Nationals, but a .500 season would be an incredible season for this team.

Worst case scenario is what we saw last season: your prospects don’t develop, your “plan” still continues to fail, and you have zero direction whatsoever. Then all of a sudden, a 30 year old rookie with a history of PED use becomes the face of the franchise and is on all of your promotional material.

The most likely scenario will probably be closer to the latter, but I do think the Nationals improve upon last season. I think 63-65 wins is about where they settle. It really depends on their pitching staff as that was where they were really the worst in baseball last season. If Gray can improve his fastball and Gore and Cavalli can stay healthy, that gives you a really solid young core that can hopefully eat more innings than whatever you called that rotation last year. You’ll need the lineup to improve as well, but they addressed that more than the rotation by bringing in 4-5 players that can really compete and contribute. As crazy as it sounds, the bullpen is the Nationals current strength. Everything else is just a hope and a prayer.

Justin: The worst case scenario is an unwatchable team that does not develop any young players or trade pieces. The best case scenario on the field is a breakthrough by a few of the legitimate prospects or reclamation projects, which might give them some quality trade bait or a head start on the rebuild. But the overall best case scenario is clarity on the ownership or broadcasting situation. If I could waive a magic wand, MLB would work out a deal with the Orioles to give the Nationals control of their tv rights in perpetuity. That kind of financial certainty is far more valuable than anything that can happen on the field in 2023.

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