The Nationals are off to a pretty terrible start to the 2023 season, winning just 7 their first 21 games, with just one of those wins at home. For the fans, things can seem pretty bleak, and not for no reason. There are some key flaws in the lineup, most notably a lack of home runs and other extra base hits, but there are several markers of success or at least improvement that Nationals fans can look to as progress for a team hoping to reclaim its former glory in the coming years.
1. Starting Pitching
As you may have heard, pitching wins championships. While this rotation isn't going to be shutting down opposing hitters in the postseason anytime soon, it has a stronger foundation than it did this time last year. Nationals starters have been racking up quality starts, pitching efficiently and effectively against dynamic lineups like Baltimore and Minnesota.
While many of these starts ended up in the 'loss' column, the starters have kept the team in nearly every game, sparing fans from suffering through blowouts. Josiah Gray and MacKenzie Gore in particular have been very exciting to watch, the former having recovered strongly from a disastrous start against Atlanta opening week and the latter turning even his weakest starts into opportunities for the team to pick up wins. Gore gave up three runs in six innings against Baltimore last week, fighting hard to limit the damage after surrendering several walks. Sadly, the hitters sleep-walked through the entire game and Gore was stuck with a loss on the day. This has impacted Gray as well, as the offense has not scored a single run during an inning Gray has pitched this season, explaining his 0-4 record despite his 3.74 ERA. Despite the offensive failure, bot Gray and Gore's competitive spirit were on display, an encouraging sign for their future in DC.
Trevor Williams has been a very solid offseason pickup from General Manager Mike Rizzo. Williams joined the team to give himself an opportunity to be a mainstay in the starting rotation, and with a 3.38 ERA, he's earning his spot and then some. Williams sets a positive example for his young teammates, and could be traded for decent return before his contract ends following the 2024 season.
Even Patrick Corbin has been handing in quality performances, narrowly earning a quality start in yesterday's loss to Minnesota. While Corbin's ERA is still an ugly 5.88, he's been eating up innings and keeping his team competitive in his starts. While Corbin does not look to be a part of the Nationals' future, sustained success in the final two years of his contract could make the lefty a viable trade candidate. Fifth in the rotation is Chad Kuhl, who has struggled to go deep into games. As placeholders go, he certainly could be worse.
Of course, the rotation lacks a true ace at this point, and Cade Cavalli's absence due to injury is sure to knock a few wins off the team's 2023 record. The starters' success has been limited somewhat by some questionable managerial decisions that have kept starting pitchers in games past their expiration dates, leading to some nasty outcomes. Dave Martinez should be more comfortable pulling his starters when they are no longer capable of pitching effectively because of how strong his bullpen has become.
2. Relief Pitching
The bullpen is one of the more complete aspect of the Nationals game this season, although it lacks effective left-handers and has shown uncertainty in the closer role. The Nationals bullpen ranks 14th in ERA, clocking in at a respectable 3.57.
Mason Thompson has been a formidable long arm, often eating up multiple innings in an appearance. In nine games and 15.2 IP, Thompson has only surrendered nine hits and two runs. You can't really ask for a much better start to the year from a reliever. Hunter Harvey has been exemplary in later innings and so has Carl Edwards Jr, who despite some shakiness has only given up one run in 9.1 IP.
Rule 5 pickup Thad Ward and fellow rookie Hobie Harris have showed promise over on the B-side of the bullpen, with the former hoping to play an important role in the rebuild, perhaps as a starting pitcher. On the weaker side is Anthony Banda, the team's sole lefty reliever. Nationals fans will hope to see him replaced by a healthy Sean Doolittle at some point this season, but the team has had enough success out of their righties to make the lack of solid left-handers less of a deficit.
The closer role has been more enigmatic. Kyle Finnegan has an 8.59 ERA, a horrific stat for a pitcher whose status as closer has apparently been etched in stone. Although he has racked up 4 saves, his lack of consistency has at times ruined his team's chances of winning games, most notably against Tampa on April 4th when he turned a one-run Nationals lead into a 4-run deficit. While this is his only blown save, his more recent appearances have been less than dominant, relying on his defense to keep him out of trouble. With the strength of the rest of the bullpen, Finnegan's position as closer should be far less secure than it apparently is.
3. Young Hitters
The performance of young Nationals hitters must be taken in the context of the team's youth and inexperience. One of the reason this very bad start to the season is worth watching is the knowledge that players like Keibert Ruiz, CJ Abrams, and Luis Garcia will be with the team long-term. Watching them grow into the stars we hope they'll become is what makes this season compelling.
Keibert Ruiz is slashing a respectable, but not exceptional .261/.320/.362 through 18 games in 2023. While these numbers do not scream "All-Star", Ruiz's performance has been solid. The switch-hitting catcher has 7 RBI and one upper-deck homer that earned him a permanent mark on Nationals Park in the form of a coveted red seat. As promised when he was traded over from Los Angeles, Ruiz strikes out very little, a strong indicator that he will improve offensively as his batted balls increase in power. As a catcher, Ruiz has done an excellent job calling games and may be part of the reason the pitching has been as good as it has been. His success, both behind the plate and in the batter's box, are vital to the Nationals rebuild as Ruiz signed an 8-year contract extension prior to this season.
CJ Abrams and Luis García look like the Nationals' long-term solutions in the middle infield, as prospect Brady House transitions to third base. While much growth is needed from them, they've shown exciting flashes of greatness in the month of April. CJ Abrams blasted his first Nationals homer this weekend against the Twins, a three-run shot that broke the game open for Washington. Luis García has struggled with drawing walks throughout his young career, with his batting average and OBP tending to be roughly the same number. García walked 11 times in both 2021 and 2022, but has already walked 4 times this season. While this is still a low number, progress is important for a young hitter with a lot of pop who needs to develop a smart approach at the plate.
This team is going to lose a lot of games, but how it loses those games is what matters. The Nationals are staying in games and showing signs of improvement in the young players that look to be a part of future championship-calibre seasons in Washington. As Nationals fans watch rebuilds pay off for teams like the Diamondbacks, Orioles, Cubs, Rangers, and Pirates, there are signs that the Nats could be the next team to return from the depths, and begin to do some damage in the NL East.