The Nationals Are as Fast as They've Ever Been, And They're Getting Faster

The Nationals showed their aggressiveness on the basepaths last season. Heading into this season, it is important they continue to utilize one of their best assets.
Atlanta Braves v Washington Nationals
Atlanta Braves v Washington Nationals / G Fiume/GettyImages

The Nationals are trying to emerge from a rebuild right now. After the worst season in Nationals history, a 55-107 record in 2022, the 71-win team last year represented a significant improvement. While they weren't nearly as good as the contending Nationals teams of the previous decade, the Nats as we last saw them were starting to build a new identity.

The team's unwillingless to spend on payroll and their failures in player development have been well-covered in recent seasons. Those factors have led to a team without star power, with a major power hitting deficit, and a bare-bones starting rotation. However, last year the Nationals found one thing they can do well - running the bases. It wasn't going to lead them to the playoffs, but it was crucial to the team playing far more competitively than in prior seasons.

In my baserunning season preview before the 2023 season, I foresaw a jump in stolen bases for a Nats squad led by CJ Abrams. I anticipated Abrams pushing "30 or 40 steals", similar to a young Trea Turner at shortstop before him, and for players like Victor Robles, Lane Thomas, and Stone Garrett adding in steals as well. Indeed, those players and more put together a strong season in the steals category, aided by the new baserunning rules that led to a major leaguewide increase in stolen bases. Abrams especially helped the team set a new benchmark for speedy Nationals teams.

The 2023 Nationals Stole The Most Bases In Nationals History

My expectation that the Nats would notch 100+ steals was proven correct, and the team set a record for the young franchise, slightly surpassing the Turner-led 2016 and 2018 teams. CJ Abrams broke out as a base stealer in a major way, moving to the leadoff spot during the season, going on a months-long streak of steals without being caught, and topping Turner with a Nationals-record 47 steals. As a reminder, Abrams turned 23 in October.

Here's the lowdown for 2024: Abrams will return to the leadoff spot full-time and will have his eyes on 50 steals or more, while the rest of the team is only getting faster. Last year saw a large helping of Alex Call in center field, who managed 9 steals in 128 games, and that playing time is projected to go to Victor Robles, Jacob Young, and Dylan Crews in '24. Robles has always been a threat to steal when healthy, Young put up 13 steals in the final month of the year last year and displayed elite, 98th-percentile sprint speed, and Crews brings plus speed and the highest offensive potential of any current Nats outfielder to the depth chart.

But wait, there's more! Nick Senzel had top-end sprint speed earlier in his career that has dropped to the 75th percentile, but he's still fast enough to steal more bags than Jeimer Candelario. Elsewhere on the infield, Rule 5 selection Nasim Nuñez stole 52 bases in the minor leagues last year and profiles as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement. If Nuñez makes the team in a bench role, he will get chances to put his wheels to work and adds an additional threat to opposing pitchers and catchers.

If you look at Roster Resource's projections for the Nats, the steals aren't quite so eye-popping. According to their estimations, Joey Meneses, Joey Gallo, and Jesse Winker will make up the middle of the Nats order with Keibert Ruiz, and that's a lot of plate appearances given to slow, slugging types. Gallo and Winker aren't guaranteed full seasons of playing time, considering their struggles in recent years, and if their jobs get taken by players like Crews and the similarly toolsy James Wood during the year, the team will become younger and speedier yet. If you have seen the Nats early in Spring Training so far, you've seen these players use their legs plenty and you can likely imagine the group of Thomas, Garrett, Robles, Young, Crews, and Wood all getting into the baserunning action this season.

Crews and Nuñez are the real X-factors here, as players with 20+ steals potential with enough opportunities. A lineup with Abrams, Thomas, Crews, and Young would be deep with dangerous runners, and if you combine that with an opposing battery struggling with holding and throwing out runners, their speed will be a true game changer. Good baserunning is a joy to watch, and Abrams is already one of the league's best on the bases right now. With CJ leading the way, the 2024 team has a chance to push the Nationals record even higher and finish as one of the league's top baserunning teams.