The Nationals’ 107 losses in 2022 tied for the second-highest loss total in the franchise’s 54-year history in Washington and Montreal. While the club hopes for some improvement next year, it may still be a relatively quiet offseason as the Nats continue their rebuilding path.
- Nelson Cruz, DH: $16M mutual option for 2023 ($3M buyout)
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projected 2023 salaries via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
With the Lerner family expected to sell the Nationals, the ownership question is certainly the biggest-picture issue hanging over the team’s offseason. Details about the potential sale have been in relatively short supply, which means that it could still be some time before a buyer emerges and before the sale is officially approved by the league.
Until a new owner is officially confirmed, the Nats are in something of a limbo, though their direction was already clear even before the Lerners announced their exploration of a sale in April 2022. The offloading of veteran talent began at the 2021 trade deadline (highlighted by the Nationals’ move of Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Dodgers), and Washington was again a big seller at the last deadline, with Juan Soto and Josh Bell dealt to the Padres in another headline swap.
Those two blockbusters and a collection of other deals brought a wealth of young talent into the District, to the point that the Nationals hope a good chunk of their next winning core is already in place. Keibert Ruiz, CJ Abrams, James Wood, Lane Thomas, Josiah Gray, MacKenzie Gore, and Robert Hassell III are all viewed as potential long-term contributors, and the progress of this group (plus other homegrown products like Luis Garcia and Cade Cavalli, among others) in 2023 may help president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo determine the rebuild’s timeline.
During the last two offseasons, Rizzo’s front office targeted veterans on short-term contracts, first in an attempt to return to contention in 2021, and then mostly about filling roster holes last winter. That strategy is likely to continue this offseason, though it can’t be assumed that the Nationals will only pursue stopgap-esque players. Even with the arrow directly pointed in the rebuild direction last offseason, the Nats still spent $15M on a one-year guarantee for Nelson Cruz, as the club was hopeful that Cruz could at least be a trade chip come deadline time.
Unfortunately for Cruz and the Nats, the time finally seemed to catch up to the veteran slugger, as Cruz’s .234/.313/.337 slash line over 507 plate appearances resulted in his worst OPS since 2007. It is possible that Cruz’s upcoming eye surgery will correct the vision problems that certainly contributed to this decline, but the Nats aren’t likely to take the $13M risk (the cost of exercising their end of Cruz’s mutual option) on Cruz bouncing back at age 42.
It also seems like Washington has its first base/DH situation somewhat settled heading into 2023, so there isn’t an ideal spot for Cruz on the roster. Luke Voit was the most experienced player who came to the Nationals in the Soto/Bell trade, and though Voit didn’t excel after the deal, his 102 wRC+ (from 22 homers and a .226/.308/.402 over 568 PA) for the entire season was still slightly above the league average.
Voit’s projected $8.2M arbitration price tag is a little hefty, and it isn’t out of the question that the Nationals might non-tender him in search of a cheaper first baseman/DH type. Voit was such a productive bat with the Yankees in 2018-20 that even though he has been more average in the last two seasons, the Nats might give him another chance to bounce back and potentially become a July trade chip.
Remarkably, Voit is more of a question mark in next season’s first base/DH mix than Joey Meneses, a longtime journeyman whose career took him to Mexico, Japan, and several stops in the minor leagues. Signed to a minor league deal by the Nationals last winter, Meneses made his MLB debut on Aug. 2, and then surprisingly took the league by storm. From Aug. 2 until the end of the season, only 11 qualified hitters in all of baseball topped Meneses’ 156 wRC+, as the 30-year-old hit .324/.367/.563 with 13 homers.
Meneses did benefit from a big .371 BABIP, and 240 plate appearances isn’t a big enough sample size to suddenly tag the 30-year-old as a surefire superstar. That said, Meneses’ numbers are hard to ignore, and his 47.1 percent hard-hit rate is a sign that his inflated BABIP wasn’t sheer luck. His unexpected breakout is already a great story, and from the Nationals’ perspective, there isn’t really any reason not to go with Meneses as the projected Opening Day first baseman.
If Meneses keeps hitting, he could even be a late-blooming addition to the Nationals’ rebuild plans, or perhaps a sneaky-valuable trade chip at the deadline if the Nats wanted to sell high. Trading Meneses this winter can’t be ruled out if another team is enamored enough by those 240 PA and Washington gets a good enough offer. Such a swap would leave the Nats looking for more first base depth, however, and Meneses’ 2022 performance was so strong that the Nationals surely prefer to hang onto him a bit longer to see exactly what they have.
Most of the other infield spots are set, with Ruiz behind the plate, Abrams at shortstop, and Garcia at second base. Ildemaro Vargas played well over 53 games of infield duty, and the Nats might just retain him at a projected $1.1M arbitration cost to either serve as the utility infielder or to take at least a platoon role at third base.
Carter Kieboom missed the entire 2022 season due to Tommy John surgery, robbing the former top prospect of another opportunity to finally cement himself as a big league regular. Kieboom has hit only .197/.304/.285 over 414 PA from 2019-21, and while that sample size still isn’t huge, he’s already 25 years old and now coming off a lost year. The rebuild allows the Nationals some extra patience in giving Kieboom more time, and ideally, he’d return healthy and emerge as the top third base option over the course of the season. Rizzo has already stated that Kieboom will compete for the job next spring.
If not Kieboom, Vargas is on hand to handle third base, and the Nationals could explore adding another multi-position veteran for further depth in both the infield and perhaps the outfield. Jace Peterson, Donovan Solano, or old friend Josh Harrison could be options for this role on the free-agent market, and similarly, lower-cost players could also be fits for D.C. in trade talks. Re-signing Cesar Hernandez is a possibility, though he didn’t hit much in his first year with Washington.
Thomas is basically the only player assured of regular playing time in the outfield, though Thomas’ first full year in the District saw him deliver only a 96 wRC+ (.241/.301/.404 in 548 PA). Meneses played some right field and could also be a factor on the grass, though defensive metrics suggest that Meneses is much better suited to a first-base role. Late-season waiver claim Alex Call played well enough that the Nats will likely give him another look in a part-time role, and the Nats might simply just again pair Call and Yadiel Hernandez together as a left-field platoon. Thomas’ ability to play center or right field gives Washington some flexibility in determining how they’ll address the other outfield spot.
This could include parting ways with former top prospect Victor Robles, who struggled at the plate for the third consecutive season. Robles at least had an excellent defensive year, and at the cost of a projected $2.5M arbitration salary, the Nationals might deem that an acceptable number for a plus glove in center field. Robles’ defensive prowess would give the Nats something to market in trade talks before they consider a non-tender, and Robles’ prospect pedigree might interest a team who could view him as a change-of-scenery candidate.
Even if Robles was retained, the outfield still looks like a possible landing spot for a veteran hitter on a one-year deal, with any of Robles, Hernandez, or Call relegated to backup duty. Again with an eye towards trading this player at the deadline, Washington could be a fit for such free agents as Michael Brantley, Tommy Pham, or Corey Dickerson. Since the Nationals had the worst record in baseball, they also get some extra leverage in waiver priority to add players who might get designated for assignment.
Moving to the rotation, Gray had a lot of struggles in his first full MLB season, allowing a league-high 38 homers over his 148 2/3 innings of work. Gore got off to a great start in his rookie season, though started to struggle in June, and then didn’t pitch in the majors at all after July 25 due to elbow inflammation (and hasn’t officially made his debut in a Nats uniform). Cavalli also had some shoulder inflammation late in the season, which limited him to a single outing in his first taste of the majors.
While not really a sterling year for any of the trio, the Nationals can only hope for better health and more improvement, as drastic improvement is needed from the starting pitching corps. Washington had arguably the worst rotation in baseball in 2022, but the Nats into next season with a tentative top five already in place — Gray, Gore, Cavalli, Patrick Corbin, and Stephen Strasburg.
Naturally, there isn’t much certainty in this group. Corbin ate 152 2/3 innings but posted only a 6.31 ERA and a blue-tinged Statcast page, although his 4.34 SIERA indicates that he was hurt to some extent by the Nationals’ porous defense. Still, this marks three straight subpar seasons for Corbin, who is still owed $59M over the final two years of his six-year, $140M contract. Unless the Nationals can move Corbin for another team’s undesirable contract, the veteran left-hander holds no trade value, leaving the Nats to hope he can regain any of his old form over the final two years of the deal.
The situation is even direr with Strasburg, who appeared in just one game last season, and has pitched only 31 1/3 total innings since the start of the 2020 season. As thoracic outlet syndrome continues to plague Strasburg’s career, it remains to be seen if he’ll be able to reliably pitch again, let alone pitch effectively or get anywhere close to his past All-Star form.
There is certainly plenty of cause for the Nationals to augment this projected rotation with some starting depth. Erick Fedde might be tendered a contract simply due to this need for depth, though Fedde has also struggled to deliver results. Advanced metrics didn’t care for Anibal Sanchez’s performance in 2022, but the veteran’s comeback had the solid bottom-line result of a 4.28 ERA over 69 1/3 innings. He could serve as pitching depth on a minor league pact. Whether Sanchez or another experienced pitcher or two, any new arms acquired would (once again) profile as possible deadline trade candidates, and would likely be on the more inexpensive side.
Some help will be needed for the bullpen, as Erasmo Ramirez and Steve Cishek are both free agents, and Tanner Rainey will miss most or all of 2023 due to Tommy John surgery. Kyle Finnegan pitched well in the closer’s role after Rainey was injured, so Finnegan probably has the inside track for ninth-inning work in 2023, though Washington might seek out a veteran with closing experience to provide Finnegan with competition. Lefty Sean Doolittle has already expressed interest in a reunion with the Nats after missing most of the season due to elbow surgery.
Unexpectedly, the Nationals’ bullpen was something of a bright spot in the dismal 107-loss season, after the relief corps was so often a weak link for the Nats’ contending teams in the past decade. They’ll return four relievers — Finnegan, Carl Edwards Jr., Hunter Harvey, and Andres Machado — who had at least 39 innings with ERAs of 3.51 or better. Anyone from that group could be considered a trade candidate this winter, but it’s unlikely any of the four would draw a massive return.
Without any top-tier trade options remaining on the roster, it could be that a lot of the heaviest lifting is over with the rebuild. The Nationals will now have to play the waiting game and see which of their current young players emerge in the majors, and which longer-term prospects continue to develop and climb the minor league ladder. Since any additions to the MLB roster are likely to be relatively mild in nature, the results of the ownership search will probably generate the biggest headlines of the Nationals’ offseason.