Breaking News: the Nationals aren't very good. After getting swept by the Rays, they're 1-5, good enough for last in MLB. Only one other team, the Royals, have yet to secure a second win as of the time of writing this. The Nationals are struggling across the board, and notably are failing to accumulate the most important statistic (wins). If you had told me they'd start this slow before the season, I would have said "well, yeah". Record-low attendances and an alarming power outage have highlighted the young season at this point.
Not all is lost. Even while getting swept at home the young team sent out some positive signals. CJ Abrams finally had his first good game while Victor Robles and Lane Thomas were solid throughout the series. There are just a few negatives, maybe a couple dozen, all of which we will look into during the season. For now, though, I still have April-brain and will focus on some reasonable goals that we've already seen some hints of.
Here is a short list of things that the we know the Nationals can do that they really need to do. If they can't, things will feel a whole lot worse than they do already. I'm optimistic, but I'm also not trying to dream too big. As I watch a season of losing baseball, these are a couple little things I'm looking out for.
1. Patrick Corbin Pitching Deep In Games
Patrick Corbin has looked just as rough as we expected this year and has started 0-2. Here's the good news, though: he completed 6 innings on Wednesday against the Rays. Wow, try not to be too excited!
Six innings of six-run ball isn't ideal, as Corbin's ERA might indicate. For the Nationals staff full of inexperienced starters and Chad Kuhl, even six innings of six-run ball is a semi-acceptable outcome. The bullpen will have to eat an oversized portion of innings this year regardless, but if Team Ace Patrick Corbin can keep his pitch count down and allow 0 walks like he did on Wednesday things will be a lot easier for the whole staff.
In between allowing roaring home runs to Rays righties, Corbin's good side started showing a bit. The contact pitching Patrick Corbin that I previously speculated about came out for a few innings, recording 11 consecutive outs on 39 pitches after Wander Franco put the Rays ahead permanently. It's not great, but any pitcher who can get 11 straight outs on 39 pitches some of the time is roster-able for the Nationals. If he pitches exactly like that, he will absolutely luck into some quality starts this season. If he blows up, walks a ton of batters, and has to get taken out in the first few innings, he's decidedly un-roster-able.
2. Outfielders Getting On Base
Allow me to present a cherry-picked stat that the Nationals are top-10 in the league in. That kind of stat has been hard to find over the past three years, and I'm as desperate to find them as ever. If you forage deep enough into the leaderboards, you will find something to smile about eventually.
Ready? After 5 games, Nationals outfielders are 7th in MLB in on-base percentage with .377. Amazing! The team as a whole is 20th, and this is an absurdly small sample, but it's still a good sign. Lane Thomas, Victor Robles and Alex Call have all been taking walks and knocking hits and each have looked energized and ready to go in 2023. (Corey Dickerson has also got on base once, and then immediately got hurt.)
This is huge for a team that has been prone to paltry performances on offense for weeks at a time. If the outfield group, now joined by Stone Garrett who had a solid Nationals debut, can keep the line moving, good things will happen. If Robles, Thomas, Call and company see their collective OBP fall down near .300 the lineup will look flat out bad.
It would be nice for an outfielder to hit a home run at some point, but I don't have enough room on my letter to Santa. I can settle for seeing them stand on first from time to time.
3. Young Defenders Defending
It's tempting to just put "player development" here, but that's too generic a mantra for any bad team. To be more specific, defensive reps for the young core is extremely important for the Nationals.
We've already witnessed the effects of inexperience from Nationals defenders when CJ Abrams made 3 opening day errors. That kind of thing will happen, but as Abrams and his teammates continue getting MLB games, they need to become consistent on defense.
Any player on defense going from bad to average, or average to plus, or plus to elite, is huge for their overall value. A solid defensive profile sets a solid floor for a player's performance and gives them a longer leash to figure things out at the plate, whether they're hitting well or not.
Abrams has talent and highlight plays, but has been a bad overall MLB defender so far due to inconsistency. Luis Garcia has been pretty awful on defense and absolutely needs to improve at the keystone. Lane Thomas and Alex Call have a chance to prove that they are plus defenders in the outfield corners, and doing so would go a long way to ensure their place in the MLB for years to come. We know what Victor Robles can do: his elite defense is his carrying tool, all he really needs to do is stay healthy and keep the highlights coming.
Keibert Ruiz is perhaps the most interesting player to watch on defense. The league has been stealing a whole lot more in 2023, and his arm will be tested quite a bit. Catcher defense is mysterious but hugely important, and Ruiz can become an even more valuable asset by upping his defense.