Yesterday at Nationals Park, the Nats defeated the Yankees in their final preseason tune-up before tomorrow's opening day matchup with the Braves. It must have been a good feeling for the club to win and see solid outings from Trevor Williams and MacKenzie Gore. Unfortunately for the team, people around baseball are expecting another long, losing season in DC.
The Athletic published their first Power Rankings of the season placing the young Nationals in 30th out of 30 teams. Look around at anyone's preseason predictions, and you'll find a similar expectation. This isn't new for the Nationals who have been getting more and more used to their surroundings in the league's basement in the years since their 2019 World Series victory. There are multiple things for the Nationals to be excited about, sure, but not enough to compare favorably with any other team. It's pretty much rock bottom.
In addition, FanGraphs' Positional Power Rankings series placed the Nationals in the bottom third of the league at every single position. Their rankings use FanGraphs projection systems to approximate the WAR production each team's position groups will provide. These projections aren't destined, but give a midpoint for how players are expected to perform.
These are only expectations, though. There's a lot of baseball to play in 2023 that could easily change the minds of those doubting the Nationals. The team will probably not be competing for the playoffs this year, but they absolutely will be trying to develop players and turn potential into production. To find signs of improvement, the Nationals players need to outperform their projections, and will in turn be projected for better things in the future.
Let's look at the rankings for each position and see which ones could surprise in 2023.
Nationals catchers, led by Keibert Ruiz, rank 25th. That's actually one of the higher rankings here, and is notably held down by below-average backup options in Riley Adams and Israel Pineda. Adams had a rough 2022 and hasn't shown much in the majors so far in his career. Pineda is nominally the 3rd catcher up, but is only 22 and has hardly played above Single-A.
CJ Abrams and Nationals shortstops rank 28th in MLB, while Luis Garcia and other second base options are all the way in last place. Just like Keibert Ruiz and the catchers, these positions for the Nationals have very weak backup options and an unproven starter. The potential within the young starters at these spots is tantalizing, but they're not destined for immediate greatness. Ruiz, Abrams, and Garcia are all under 25, have a natural feel to hit, and are expected to grow in the coming seasons. They may rank low compared to the stars and veterans around the league, but that doesn't mean they're wasted positions for the team. For any of them to improve their production on offense or on defense would be to improve their future projections. For players this young, it's worth watching the next year's positional projection rankings, and then the next year after that, to see whether or not they can become top options in the league.
The team's center fielders rank 27th in MLB. Victor Robles' lack of improvement and lack of production represents a possible and unfortunate outcome for the aforementioned players. He was also a top prospect who ranked lowly early on, and had a very solid rookie season. Heading into 2020, Robles and his backups in center ranked 12th in MLB in these same rankings. Knowing what we know now about Robles, that seems kind of ridiculous. His development has stunted since that prediction, performing as one of the worst hitters in baseball and worst regular center fielders overall. If the Nats' other youngsters can breakout as rookies like Robles did, they will hope to avoid the same regression he has had. For 2023 there could still be some optimism, Robles is still just 26, but it's hard to envision him climbing back to where he was before 2020.
Elsewhere in the field, there's not much exciting for the team. Veterans Jeimer Candelario, Dominic Smith, and Corey Dickerson at third base, first base, and left field are projected for modest production. That's understandable for players the Nationals acquired on the ultra-cheap. Any of them could surprise and be league-average or better instead of the bargain bin scraps they get paid as, but that's not the average expectation for them. Even if they do overperform their ranking, they'll be out of a contract before next season. Lane Thomas in right field has team control, but hasn't shown much ability better than a stopgap or fourth outfielder type of player. The Nats rank 27th at first base, 28th at 3rd base, 26th in left field, and 27th in left field. There probably won't be any star performances from this group.
Designated hitter is a more interesting position, but ranks just 25th. The projections show Joey Meneses for just over half of the playing time there, with some serious regression from his scorching 2022 debut. This is an area the Nationals can definitely shoot up the rankings if Joey can keep hitting the way he has been recently. He hasn't looked competent in the outfield, and Dominic Smith is the superior defender at first. If Joey commits to the designated hitter spot he absolutely can be one of the top options in the league. He just needs to perform consistently for the projection system to recognize him as such. Hopes are higher for him than just about any other spot in the lineup for the Nats.
It's probably unsurprising that the Nationals starting pitchers are ranked 30th out of 30 teams. Patrick Corbin, Josiah Gray, MacKenzie Gore, and Trevor Williams all have middling projections and there's nothing too strong behind them. Just like the Nationals young position players, 2023 is a year for Gray and Gore to show they are better than that. The relief group is only slightly better at 24th in MLB with decent contributions from Kyle Finnegan, Carl Edwards Jr., and Hunter Harvey. There's not a single pitcher in the team who is a sure thing to succeed and pitch at an elite level, but pitchers are volatile. There's plenty of opportunity for someone, anyone, to show signs of life for the Nationals. A few of the pitchers will probably bomb out of the league, and a few of the pitchers will probably become surprising successes. That's the case for all teams, really. It's the job of the Nationals coaching staff to try to create more success stories than failures, and keep up with the rest of the league.
Don't read too much into the projection ranks specifically, as there's not much separating places from one another. We already know that there's no superstar on the Nationals that will carry the team, or at least their position. The team lost that when they traded Juan Soto, and now are looking for someone Soto-like to breakout. It's worth looking at this position-by-position, still. If Keibert Ruiz, CJ Abrams, or someone else has a sudden star turn, they'll shoot up the rankings. For the Nats to get back to contention, they'll know they have great players at specific positions and can go look for signings or trades to improve the rest of the team. Keibert Ruiz's extension is a sign of the Nationals trying to cement positions one at a time, now that they think they have their franchise catcher. Eventually, we'll stop desperately searching for breakouts and focus on adding to a roster full of stars. That time isn't here yet.