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2023: A Nationals Year in Review
A solid year that outperformed expectations for a rebuilding team.
With another 162 games in the books comes another opportunity to reflect on the past season of baseball. When it comes to your Washington Nationals, perhaps you're breathing a sigh of relief that it's finally come and gone. Maybe you're sitting back satisfied with how it went. Most of us are looking to the future, but it never hurts to take a glance back and figure out how we got here.
On paper, it's easy to look at the eight-year, $50 to $76 million extension as an early failure for Keibert Ruiz, He exited the season with a 93 wRC+, some of the worst defensive numbers among all catchers, and a flat 0.0 fWAR. But watching him play tells another story. The name of the game for Ruiz is finding consistency--when he gets hot, he's among the hottest bats in the sport. The kid, quite simply, does not strike out. He sits in the 99th percentile in K rate at just 10.3%, and while his expected power numbers dwindled in the second half, his Statcast expected batting average continue to surge, sitting in the 81st percentile. Expected numbers aren't everything, but with a 39.4% sweet-spot rate--which heavily influences line drive rate--and a +11 run value on four-seam fastballs, Keibert obviously has potential to be unlocked.
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When it comes to his defense, the story changes. Keibert is, without a doubt, one of the worst defensive catchers in the league. His framing dropped 10 runs to -13, he went from 0 to 12 caught stealings below average, and from 4 to -10 blocks above average. Every aspect of his defense has regressed from about average to downright bad. It's never too late for catchers to improve defense, especially at Keibert's age--the Brewers do it all the time with their catching lab--but the hope is that widespread coaching changes throughout the organization will foster some positive growth in his defensive abilities.
The question, then, becomes--what do you do with Riley Adams? By all accounts, Adams' numbers outplayed Keibert in his limited time on the field. A .807 OPS, above-average blocking, and pop time numbers would suggest that Riley Adams is set to find significantly more playing time next year, and I don't disagree. I don't, however, think that his current success is sustainable without some changes to his approach. While he did not qualify at the plate this year, all of his expected numbers--and both his strikeout and walk rates--are significantly worse than the league average. Still, he's 27 and under team control for some time. A move to first base might be awaiting the 6'4" right-hander.
That brings us to, finally, Drew Millas, acquired in the Yan Gomes trade. Millas demolished Double-A pitching in a 25-game span, then improved his K rate after receiving a promotion to Triple-A. At all stops--except a 45-game stint in Double-A in 2022--Millas has shown exceptional plate discipline for a 25-year-old catcher. He's also shown above-average speed, and I look forward to seeing him potentially get more opportunities with the major league club going forward.
Searching for... anything positive to say here, I settled on Dominic Smith's defense. By most metrics, he's around top five in the league defensively among first basemen.
But I know what you're here for, and I hear you. General Manager Mike Rizzo issued Smith a one-year, $2 million "prove it" contract that, by most accounts, will probably not bear any kind of fruit with the Nationals organization in 2024. Smith was, I'm sure, a great presence in the clubhouse. It was rare to not see him smiling in the dugout, and I certainly wish him luck going forward.
It leaves first base as a bit of a question mark for 2024. The obvious initial reaction is to turn to Joey Meneses as the everyday first baseman, but as I said earlier, it's not out of the question that Riley Adams might find some time there as well. I see no reason to anticipate anything splashy like a potential Cody Bellinger signing, but one-year deals for guys like Ji-man Choi, Yuli Gurriel, or Carlos Santana wouldn't blow me away. Inject a veteran presence into the clubhouse, and if he hits well, flip him to a contending team for a prospect or two.
It's hard to really get a read on Luis García's future with the Nationals organization. According to Fangraphs, Lui was about replacement level, putting up below-average middle infield defense and an 84 wRC+ that caused him to get demoted for a 25-game stint with Triple-A Rochester that didn't go much better. His saving grace is a low whiff and K rate, but he's still chasing way too much. Obviously, the expectation isn't for García to develop into any kind of power hitter, but his hitting for average isn't exactly moving the needle either. If García can't start finding his 6-for-6 form more consistently in 2024, he might not be long for this team.
That leaves the door open for Jake Alu, who carries with him a similar makeup to García while also playing a serviceable left field. Alu was about league-average offensively in 74 games with Triple-A Rochester this year after posting a 140 wRC+ in 59 games in 2022 where he hit .323. His concerning .226/.282/.289 slash line in a 51-game debut season comes with a little bit of hope--his expected numbers in both slugging and wOBA are about 30-40 points higher than his real numbers each--and he got decently hot in the final week of the season, but at 26, Alu might be running the risk of going the same way as Lui.
Darren Baker is the last real anticipated option--besides the obvious Ildemaro Vargas--at second, but even he has struggled in 99 games with Triple-A Rochester, putting up a fine enough average with quality stolen base rates but effectively zero power to speak of. I expect him to get a look in Spring Training, but right now, the Opening Day 2B spot is basically up for grabs.
Never, ever sleep on CJ Abrams. Ceej put up plus defensive numbers in July and August per Statcast Outs Above Average after a shaky start to the season and has shown marked improvement in the field after 3 errors on Opening Day. Standing 6'2" and just 191 pounds, CJ has hit offspeed stuff remarkably well--he slugs .652 against 246 changeups seen this year--but struggles significantly versus the heater. Statcast grades him at a -14 run value against four-seamers. That is his most glaring area of needed improvement, but with the right coaching, Abrams has light-tower power that can be unlocked. I seem to recall a stretch of, what, 5 straight games where CJ led off with balls smashed 100+ MPH to center field that died on the warning track. If the Nationals brass can find some way to get CJ ahead of fastballs and consistently pull them to right, there's a chance he becomes a--gasp--30 homer guy.
He's so, so athletic, though. All you really need to know to back that up is that Davey Martinez started giving CJ the green light in July--with just 11 stolen base attempts through June--and he STILL broke the Nationals single-season stolen base record with 47 on the season. He hasn't hit same-handed pitching well, he's looked a little shaky in the field, but he's a 23-year-old with a ton of room to grow, and I personally am beyond excited to see CJ Abrams continue to play for this Nationals team.
Mike Rizzo knocked the Jeimer Candelario signing out of the park. Candelario was non-tendered by the Tigers after a down 2022 season and was given a one-year deal by the Nationals and completely tore it up this year, earning himself a trade to a contending Cubs squad and, likely, a multi-year deal elsewhere in the league. In turn, the Nats picked up lefties DJ Herz and shortstop Kevin Made, 22 and 21 respectively.
With Candelario out of the picture, the door was opened for Ildemaro Vargas and, eventually, Carter Kieboom to earn some playing time. Kieboom's return from not playing at all in 2022 initially lit up Nationals fan discourse when he homered three times in his first six games back with the big league club, but then went yard just one more time in his next 21 games. 2024 might be Kieboom's final proving ground with the team.
Ildemaro Vargas is a wonderful presence to have around the clubhouse, and a great guy to have off the bench. He slots into a superutility role with his primary position being third base, but my concern is that he'll find himself in a starting role come Opening Day. Vargas is still under club control for another three years and has historically been a below-average hitter. As long as Davey Martinez doesn't expect him to continue to start at third come 2024 like he did in the second half this year, I have zero qualms with keeping Vargas around.
Given that, the attention kind of turns to the elephants in the room: Brady House and Trey Lipscomb. House climbed from Class A to Double-A this year and crushed the ball at every level. He's not major league-ready yet--his 28.4% strikeout rate at Double-A and just 4.7% walk rate will not play in the bigs--but House is showing serious progress and an ability to hit for contact consistently.
Lipscomb is finding his stride slowly but surely, putting up a 102 wRC+ in 80 Double-A games this year in his second season in pro ball. The Nats' 2022 3rd-round pick has not shown particularly great plate discipline but put up 27 extra-base hits in his first full season. If anything, one of the two should find major league playing time at some point next year, though I'd be shocked if they crack the Opening Day roster.
Where to begin with the outfield?
The Nats took a flier on nine-year vet Corey Dickerson, who put up his worst single-season numbers of his career with a 70 wRC+ in 50 games. He was released shortly after the deadline.
Victor Robles showed marked improvement from an abysmal 2022 in his first month of 2023, massively improving his chase, whiff, strikeout, and walk rates to more respectable numbers. He played to a 112 wRC+ in 36 games, reaching base at a .385 clip, but played shockingly bad defense by every advanced defensive metric and hit the IL with a back issue. An attempted return made it obvious he was not 100%, and he hasn't played since.
I LOVE Stone Garrett, and his offensive breakout was one I'm quick to brag about never having been in doubt of. The 27-year-old Garrett's injury at the end of August was devastating both to fans and to teammates, as he fractured his fibula on the 23rd during a play in right field at Yankee Stadium. Stone is and always will be an all-or-nothing guy at the plate, boasting a 30.7% strikeout rate in parts of two seasons, but I seriously hope he finds playing time when he returns next year and continues to hit well.
The Nats gave looks to Blake Rutherford and Travis Blankenhorn, the former of which got called back up to the majors after the latter hit the IL at season's end with plantar fasciitis. Rutherford had an abysmal start to his big league career, and while it's hard to imagine the 26-year-old factoring into the organization's 2024 plans, he'll still find chances to get playing time in, whether with the big league club or in Rochester.
Former Tiger Derek Hill ripped up Triple-A Rochester, posting a 164 OPS+ in 83 games, but similarly to his tenure in Detroit, the offense did not translate to the major leagues, as he reached base just 12 times in 13 games with 11 strikeouts.
Alex Call is somewhat of a divisive figure among Nationals fans--not because of anything he's said or done, just because of his makeup. The 29-year-old drafted in the third round of the 2016 draft by the White Sox had his share of big moments with the big league ballclub this year, but maintaining an 86th percentile walk rate and 77th percentile strikeout rate doesn't get his OBP far above .300. Call could be useful as a reserve defensive outfielder going forward, coming off the bench to provide plus defense from either left or center field, and might occasionally draw a walk in a crucial situation, but not much more than that.
That leaves us with a couple of big ones: Lane Thomas and Jacob Young. Lane Thomas should have been an all-star this year and I will not hear dissenting opinions. In the field, Thomas grades out as similar to Ronald Acuña Jr., which sounds like a compliment until you consider how bad they both are at getting jumps on balls. Both possess cannon arms, and Thomas led the league in outfield assists by a huge margin.
At the plate, the Lane Train sticks out as a platoon bat, mostly set to find work against left-handers--he demolished southpaws with a 153 wRC+ in 192 PA against them--but 19 home runs against right-handed pitching might just get the job done to offset a concerning .292 OBP. I carry with me the bold take that Lane Thomas might benefit defensively from a move to center field, where his 94th-percentile sprint speed would play up vastly more, but for a club still a couple of years out of contention, it's best to let Jacob Young settle into his role.
On that subject--MLB.com's 29th-ranked prospect in the organization came up in late August to serve as the Nats' everyday center fielder going forward, and the 23-year-old has hardly disappointed in his first showing in the bigs. Young will always grade out as a contact-first bat--he hit about .305 across 108 games between Advanced-A and Double-A this year--and has displayed good bat-to-ball skills with low whiff and K rates, even if it hasn't translated to particularly quality contact. Young is also a major stolen base threat when he gets on, stealing 13 in just five weeks, while also flashing the potential to stick in center with plus defense. At worst, the hope is that Jacob Young grades out as a Victor Robles-type--even if the bat doesn't develop, he still possesses good fielding instincts and quality speed to boot.
Coming into 2024, there's almost enough to talk about that I think it could honestly use its own article. Dylan Crews and James Wood are expected in the majors sometime this upcoming season. MLB.com also pegs Robert Hassell III--who struggled this year--as likely to crack the bigs in 2024.
The number-two overall pick in this year's draft, Dylan Crews ripped up A-ball with a 1.068 OPS and five home runs in just 14 games. Upon his promotion to Double-A, he stagnated a bit, limping to a .208 average and 73 wRC+ across 20 games. It's easy to immediately point at this as cause for panic, but he's been crushing the ball and has a low .278 BABIP. In the final week of the season, as pointed out by @NatsFarm on Twitter, he reached base in over 55% of his plate appearances with a 22.2% walk rate. 20-game sample sizes are obsessed over in the minors, but the bottom line is he's a 21-year-old out of college in his first half-season in pro ball. Right now, there's nothing to worry about.
After an electric delayed start to his major league career and an even more heart-stopping World Baseball Classic, Joey Meneses entered 2023 with reasonably high expectations, and while he didn't quite go the way of Frank Schwindel, his 2023 campaign was certainly a bit of a disappointment. He matched his 2022 home run total of 13 in nearly three times as many games and regressed to about a league-average bat. I reckon Joey's got another season or so to see if he can stick in the majors for another few years after lighting the world on fire down the 2022 stretch.
Let's get this out of the way: the Trevor Williams signing is confounding to me. I have zero idea why, as a rebuilding team, you sign anyone at all to a two-year deal, especially a guy like Williams. Even ignoring his off-field antics--I have quite a lot to say about those--he's been easily one of the worst starters in Major League Baseball this year. His 5.70 xERA ranks in the bottom 7%, and an 11th-percentile K rate wouldn't be such a huge deal if he was actually getting weak contact and groundballs. Instead, he ranks in the 16th percentile in barrel rate. Nothing about his makeup is valuable to this team going forward. But I digress.
Patrick Corbin had a couple of starts this season where he showed flashes of his past self, but it remains evident that he's over the hill. Still, it's probably in the team's best interest to ride out the rest of the contract. He's got just one year left, and I don't foresee the Nats contending next year. If they surprise me, they can always cut bait on him midway through the season like the Diamondbacks did with Madison Bumgarner. As for right now, Corbin threw the most innings since his 2019 campaign where he was worth 4.7 fWAR. As long as he can eat innings and get into the 6th and 7th innings, even if he's giving up 5 or 6 runs in the process, he provides some value to a Nationals club still very much in the rebuilding phase.
Josiah Gray is still 25, and that is how I will choose to lead into my analysis of his season. In his second full season, Gray earned all-star honors after a first half with a 3.41 ERA in just over 100 innings pitched. In many regards, however, Josiah regressed considerably from his already-rough 2022 campaign. He's introducing more breaking stuff into his repertoire, reducing his four-seamer usage from 38.9% to just 17%, while working in sinkers and cutters more often. That's allowed him to concede fewer home runs--a saving grace, considering that his four-seamer is down a full tick in velocity--but his 3.91 ERA for the season shields the underlying numbers:
- 4.99 expected ERA
- 4.94 fielding-independent pitching, a result of his 4.53 BB/9
- 5.12 expected FIP
Josiah is showing signs of being able to handle a major league workload without getting burned out by season's end eventually, but his walk rate simply cannot continue to be this high if he's going to stick in the rotation. It's clear that going forward, his breaking stuff is going to be key to his success.
MacKenzie Gore had a fine enough sophomore season. His real and expected numbers are all over the place: 4.42 ERA, 5.20 Fangraphs xERA; 4.89 FIP, 4.11 Fangraphs xFIP. Kenzie’s 10.0 K/9 rate looks great on paper becomes significantly less effective when you factor in a 1.8 HR/9. Gore got crushed this year, allowing an 18th-percentile 43.7% hard-hit rate and a 1st-percentile 12.1% barrel rate which resulted in a brutal 27 home runs allowed in just 136.1 innings pitched. Work on the spin rates of his fastball and curveball could potentially unlock ace-caliber stuff, but as he heads into his age-25 season, I'm not holding my breath. He's got a little time.
That leaves us with a few more rotation pieces to discuss. Chad Kuhl got rocked in five starts, none of which got out of the 5th, before moving to a relief role and getting released in late June. Kuhl received offers from other teams since then, but declined them in order to focus on his family, particularly his wife Amanda, who is fighting breast cancer. The entire baseball world is pulling for Mrs. Kuhl, as are we at the Nats Report.
A late-April injury to Kuhl opened the door for Jake Irvin, who put up a 4.61 ERA and 5.31 FIP in 24 starts and 121 innings pitched. Irvin showed an ability to go deep into games, but nothing in his makeup has really stood out--there's a whole lot of blue on his Baseball Savant page, and a 4.0 BB/9 paired with a 1.5 HR/9 typically doesn't blossom into elite stuff. Irvin is still just 26 and possesses quality four-seam fastballs and curveballs, but his sinker got rocked for a -7 run value. Toying with his repertoire in the offseason could do some good, especially if he can add an effective secondary breaking or off-speed pitch.
Joan Adon got a look late in the season, compiling 10 starts with a 6.45 ERA that was due for some positive regression. Adon had a couple of really special starts, including his first of the year on August 5 when he carried a perfect game into the 6th inning before allowing 3 runs and getting pulled. Similarly to a lot of the rest of the young rotation, Adon struggles with walks and home runs, but compared to his disastrous 2022 campaign, where he allowed a 6.01 xERA in 14 starts, he's improved in some key locations; namely, his fastball, which jumped from a -17 run value last year to a flat zero. He's still allowing hard contact, but his xwOBA on the pitch has dropped from .415 to .330, and his xSLG from .539 to .436. He's struggled to find much movement with his curveball this year, and might consider dropping it all together as he reintroduces his slider and continues to develop his sinker and changeup. Adon has dipped his four-seamer usage to just 39.5%, which shows a willingness to get crafty and rely more heavily on a wider pitch mix.
The goliath 6'8" Jackson Rutledge struggled a bit in his first four starts with the big league ballclub, getting slammed for 7 runs in three-and-two-thirds innings in his debut. He bounced back the next week, though, pitching into the 7th against the White Sox, then tossing five innings of one-run ball against the regular season-champion Braves just five days later. Rutledge encountered control issues in 11 starts with Triple-A Rochester, posting a 5.33 BB/9 ratio, and his changeup has yielded only trouble early on. Still, he's got a fastball that sits 95 and put up an elite 50.7% groundball rate in 20 Class-A starts last year. Rutledge is just 24 and has plenty of room to grow--though if he gets any taller, he might not fit through doorways comfortably.
Cade Cavalli is still recovering from Tommy John surgery, and might bump Williams out of the rotation--and likely the club--once he returns around the middle of the season. Several other prospect arms are expected to debut at some point in the coming season in some capacity.
The Nationals' relief core, or lack thereof, was a big talking point in 2023. Thad Ward was selected in the Rule 5 draft from the Red Sox and stuck on the roster the whole way, spending a decent amount of time on the injured list in between posting rough numbers on the mound.
Mason Thompson, one of the two guys acquired in the Daniel Hudson trade, looked to follow up his 2022 2.92 ERA with another strong season, but struggled in high-leverage situations. Still, he looks to factor into the 2024 club with passable underlying numbers--a 4.03 FIP isn't thrilling, but it's markedly better than his 5.50 ERA. Thompson's sinker got slammed this year, dropping from a +4 to -11 run value, but his slider took a step forward.
Erasmo Ramírez had, all things considered, pretty pedestrian numbers in 2022, and it surprised me to see how many writers were hyping him up as a big factor in the 2023 club. Instead, the 33-year-old posted a 6.33 ERA through 27 innings, got released, and then picked up by the Rays, where he pitched to slightly better underlying numbers (but still a 6.48 ERA) in a low-leverage long relief role before getting outrighted to the Florida Complex League on October 2.
Carl Edwards Jr. put up decent numbers through 32 appearances before hitting the IL in mid-June with a shoulder issue, and did not make it back to the major league roster after being shut down two months later with a stress fracture. It remains to be seen if both he and the club are interested in reuniting on another one-year deal for 2024.
Jordan Weems likely outperformed his true ability with a 3.62 ERA that fails to betray a 4.90 FIP, in large part due to a 4.2 BB/9 and 1.5 HR/9 rate. Weems, 30, will still only have the Nationals on the hook for the minimum next year.
Paolo Espino, 36, made his season debut in June, before pitching two more games in July, hitting the IL, and being released a few weeks later. He had a 24.75 ERA and 7.26 FIP in 4 innings and the Nationals evidently did not find much benefit in continuing the swingman role he had held with the club the past two seasons.
The Anthony Banda experiment mercifully ended after 10 games. Banda was the Nats' only lefty out of the bullpen for some time, which got him into 10 games where he walked five batters over seven innings and allowed 5 runs. Banda was outrighted to Triple-A at the start of May and did not see major league playing time again afterward.
While I'm a little frustrated about the lack of a waiver claim on former Phillies lefty Andrew Vasquez, who was scooped up by the Tigers after an attempted outright assignment, Mike Rizzo did just fine with the claim of Robert Garcia. Garcia appeared in just one game with the Marlins in July before being waived, and the Nationals quickly picked up the left-hander. Garcia has had a couple of blow-up outings as a multi-inning reliever, including one on August 17 where he allowed 6 earned runs in two-thirds of an inning, but he's still put up respectable numbers most of the time: a 3.66 ERA and 3.54 FIP give Davey Martinez an extremely useful option for a left-handed arm out of the bullpen.
Fellow lefty Jose A. Ferrer debuted this season at the age of 23. He pitched to an alarmingly high 5.03 ERA in 34 innings across 39 appearances, but underlying numbers--like a 55.3% groundball rate and 2.9% barrel rate--suggest positive regression is on the horizon. Ferrer only really throws two pitches, a fastball and changeup, but nonetheless represents a powerful bullpen tool going forward.
There are a few other guys I didn't speak on much--Cory Abbott seems to have moved into a full-time long relief role in the majors, Joe La Sorsa has struggled to find a foothold, and Andrés Machado had about 2 weeks of total dominance before regressing to the mean--but I want to get to the big guns: Kyle Finnegan and Hunter Harvey.
Harvey, a former Oriole, was up and down in Baltimore for a few years before bouncing to the Giants and then the Nationals via waivers. It's been a brilliant pickup for the Nats, as over the last two years Harvey has managed a 2.70 ERA and 2.81 FIP across 100 innings. He's got 38 shutdowns--that's Fangraphs lingo for relief appearances with a 6% or more boost in team win probability--while striking out 112 and featuring a vicious four-seamer that averages 98.3 MPH. He ranked 10th among all relievers with a 1.93 BB/9 ratio, and 7th with a 0.940 WHIP. If Harvey keeps this up, the 28-year-old might just stick with us to the postseason.
Harvey, for much of the season, acted as the setup man for Davey Martinez's closer, Kyle Finnegan. For the first couple of months, I was of the opinion that the Nationals should move to a sort of three-headed high-leverage squad of Harvey, Thompson, and Finny, but I've come around to the idea of Finnegan being a more traditional closer. Finnegan actually ranked 5th in all of MLB with 38 shutdowns this year--ahead of guys like Giants closer Camilo Doval and Guardians closer and saves leader Emmanuel Clase--and it's not hard to see why. Finnegan gasses opponents up with a fastball that sits at 97.3 MPH, then uses a vicious splitter as his putaway pitch. The split this year generated a +4 run value--up from 0 last year and -2 in 2021. Finnegan might be 32 but he figures to serve as the team's closer for at least another couple years.
So that's the Nationals season in review. Feedback is welcome, and I'm always curious to hear others' opinions on my takes. Feel free to let me know what you think about both those and the article as a whole, either in the comments or on Twitter @TheOttSpot. JJ signing off.
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