As one of maybe two Nationals fans left in the UK (looking at you, Rob), I feel it’s my civic duty to perform the abhorrent and self-flagellating task of running down the season expectations for the Washington baseball team in 2023.
To understand exactly how we got here, I think it’s important to look back:
- 30 September 2018: Homegrown superstar Bryce Harper looks destined to test the market with strong interest from the historically high-spending Nationals, as GM Mike Rizzo comments, “Of course, he’s in our plans. He’s a guy we would love to have. He’s a part of our family. He’s a big part of this roster performance-wise,”
- 4 December 2018: All-star left-handed starting pitcher Patrick Corbin signs a six-year, $140 million contract with the Nationals.
2018 RECORD: 82-80
- 1 March 2019: Homegrown superstar Bryce Harper signs a record 13-year, $330 million contract with division rival Philadelphia. Much to the amusement of Nationals fans, Bryce looks forward to “bringing a title back to DC” in his introductory press conference.
- 18 April 2019: Nationals GM Mike Rizzo addresses concerns surrounding an extension of Nationals star third-baseman Anthony Rendon, “He really knows himself and really one of the under-the-radar kind of stars in the game. We recognise what we have in Anthony… he recognises what we’ve meant to him. Hopefully, we can come to some sort of agreement.”
- 30 October 2019: The Washington Nationals stun the 2019 World Champion Houston Astros to win the World Series. Washington DC (and later the entire United States) rejoices.
- 3 November 2019: World Series MVP and All-Star homegrown starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg opts out of the remainder of his contract with the Nationals.
- 9 December 2019: World Series MVP and All-Star homegrown starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg re-signs with the Nationals on a seven-year, $245 million contract.
- 12 December 2019: Homegrown superstar Anthony Rendon signs a seven-year, $245 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels.
2019 RECORD: 93-69
- March 2020: MLB Insider Jon Heyman reports the last extension offer for superstar shortstop Trea Turner is placed on the table, “The Nats’ last offer to Trea Turner was six years, about $100M.”
2020 RECORD: 26-34
- 8 March 2021: Nationals GM Mike Rizzo speaks about potential extension talks with superstar players shortstop Trea Turner and outfielder Juan Soto, “We’re in the midst of making decisions on what a timeframe would look like… We certainly have made and will make a long-term extension offer to both players sometime in the near future.”
- 30 July 2021: Homegrown talent shortstop Trea Turner and future Hall of Famer starting pitcher Max Scherzer are traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a blockbuster deal, primarily for prospects Josiah Gray and Keibert Ruiz. This comes after a disappointing year and a half for the Nationals.
- 7 August 2021: Trea Turner speaks to the media about a lack of extension discussions with the Nationals, “I said I would talk about an extension whenever and waited for that to happen, and it didn’t happen, so I’ve been told a lot of things over the last two years, and for me, actions speak louder than words.”
2021 RECORD: 65-97
- 1 June 2022: Nationals GM Mike Rizzo speaks on Juan Soto with The Sports Junkies on a local DC radio station, “We have every intention of building this team around Juan Soto, and we’ve spoken to his agent many, many times,” Rizzo said. “We recently sat with him when he was in Washington, D.C., and made it clear to him that we’re not interested in trading him… I guess the rest of the world doesn’t believe it, but that’s our position.”
Author’s note: Shockingly, the rest of the world was right.
- July 2022: Superstar outfielder Juan Soto turns down contract extension offer at 15-years, $440 million from the Nationals. Looks to be set for the trade block.
- 2 August 2022: The Washington Nationals trade superstar outfielder Juan Soto, along with All-Star first baseman Josh Bell, to the San Diego Padres in a blockbuster deal, primarily for prospects MacKenzie Gore, CJ Abrams, and Robert Hassell III. Eric Hosmer in absolute shambles.
2022 RECORD: 55-107
The 2023 Nationals will be characterised by a youth development project surrounded by the declining veteran presence of Corey Dickerson and Jeimer Candelario (both seeking trades following bounce back first halves). Superstar prospects CJ Abrams and Keibert Ruiz look to take the next step in their development, with potential last chance years on the table for former top prospect Victor Robles and former Met Dominic Smith.
The real test will be for the rotation. With so many question marks you could be forgiven for mistaking the Nationals pitching staff for a higher-level maths exam.
Looking to turn the corner in a big way will be ace-by-proxy Patrick Corbin. The $140 million man has had a string of horrendous seasons since his Nationals debut in 2019. 2020 saw him give up the most hits in the National League, while the full 2021 season saw him register as the worst qualified starting pitcher in MLB. 2022 wasn’t much better. For the team to turn a corner, Corbin has to find some manner of magic formula to pitching around, or slightly worse than, league average. Surely it can’t get much worse.
The other major question mark is, of course, Stephen Strasburg. The once exalted World Series MVP, and next big thing of the baseball world has proven to be an incredible pitcher (on the rare occasion he pitches). Since 2019, Strasburg has: had his 2020 cut short to just two starts due to requirement for carpal tunnel surgery; had his 2021 cut to just five starts due to thoracic outlet syndrome, requiring season-ending surgery; had his 2022 cut to one start before being shut down again due to complications with thoracic outlet surgery. Since spring training began a few weeks ago, Strasburg has yet to report to camp.
Ultimately, the Nationals are pushing through the dredge many teams have before them: a complete rebuild marred by aging contracts born out of dynastic dreams. The way the team is going about a rebuild seems to tick most of the boxes (one year low risk prove-it deals, small investments on valuable veteran presence, capitalisation of trades for former star Nationals, opportunity for growth from within), but still leaves quite a lot to be desired. From a questionable coaching staff (the loss of the masterful hitting coach Kevin Long to the division-rival Phillies following the 2021 season immediately paid dividends, driving Philadelphia to the World Series), a front office seemingly unwilling to pay reasonable value to players for extensions, and of course, the largest looming factor of all: a prospective sale which looks more and more likely every day.
Hope for continued growth from our young prospects, and trade-value driving first halves from Smith, Dickerson and Candelario. PECOTA projects a 61-101 record for the Nationals this year, and while it’s hard to disagree, I would argue this team is capable of hitting 70-75 wins should just some of the cards turn in our favour. Of course, with the looming threat of former Nationals Bryce Harper, Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber and Josh Harrison with the Phillies and Max Scherzer with the Mets, the division looks fraught with emotional turmoil for even the hardiest of Nats fans.
Nationals fans everywhere rejoice! The rebuild continues again and the pain continues in the National League East (pray for a Soto extension in San Diego before we see him in orange and blue…). Ownership simply don’t want the team. Ultimately until we see this matter resolved, investment will continue to be slim, and fan experience will continue to dwindle. Let’s go Nats!
Featured image of potential 2023 superstar, Joey Meneses by G Fiume/Getty Images
James Knight is a guest contributor for Bat Flips & Nerds. You can follow James on Twitter @MidKnightTweets