The Nationals won 71games in 2023, a drastic increase from their 55 win projection. Yet, they still finished 33 games behind the Atlanta Braves and 13 games out of a wild card spot, but in the proper context, their win total was considered a success. The roster had been completely stripped for parts in recent years, and a young team with no star power whatsoever managed to compete with better teams all year long. Heading into 2024, the team is relatively unchanged, and the youngsters will aim to improve on last year's record while waiting for reinforcements from both the farm system and, theoretically, the free agent market in a few years' time.
Winning that many games last year was a genuine surprise. In fact, the team surpassed the guesses of every writer at this site in our predictions article last March, and we're fans of the team! I had the Nationals with a 63-99 record, and that was on the optimistic side. There was no one player or position group that performed well above expectations, but the pesky Nats managed to win some ballgames regardless. In a rebuilding year, it was as much of a feel-good story as one could find in Washington. Their unlikely winning ways, relatively speaking, were great for the young players, for the fans, and for those who enjoy an underdog spoiling the day of a contending club.
Here's the bad news: the industry doesn't expect this to repeat, even a little bit. While Mike Rizzo and Dave Martinez will certainly say that this team will take a step forward from last year, the odds are against it. If we accept that last year was a surprise, and the team hasn't changed much since last year, it would be unwise to expect another year of beating the projections.
Projection systems provide a median expectation that are proven accurate over a large sample of data. For individual teams, players, and seasons, they can miss the mark by a wide margin, but over the full sample they are more precise than any one expert could be. The Nationals overperformed last year, but not by so much that it was completely outside the projections' uncertainty.
PECOTA, hosted at Baseball Prospectus, is a notable public projection system that pegged the Nats for 61 curly W's last season. With the team adding little in the way of impact players, the expectation was only a small improvement from their 55 wins in 2022. Knowing that PECOTA was beaten by 10 games, one would expect the projections to adjust, and set something around 71 wins as the new baseline going forward... right?
PECOTA projects the Nationals to go 58-104
Oh. Oh boy. Not only does PECOTA see the 71-win season as a mirage, it actually sees this team as worse than it was a year ago. This can't all be explained by the departure of Jeimer Candelario, either. In an article about the teams PECOTA dislikes this year, it is explained that PECOTA views a bulk of the Nationals core as substandard players heading into 2024. Indeed, there are nits to pick with just about every National despite their relative accomplishments in 2023, and aside from (maybe) CJ Abrams, no one player has stood out as a certified gem in what is looking like a rough 2024 season.
There's plenty to break down in the projections for individual players, but here's the broad strokes: only two Nationals are expected to be even league average at the plate, and not a single Nationals pitcher is expected to reach 1 win above replacement. Players like Lane Thomas, Josiah Gray, and MacKenzie Gore are no greater than than league average, newcomers like Joey Gallo and Nick Senzel don't add any major winning contributions, and the team still allocates innings to the final, grotesque decline year of Patrick Corbin.
Now, if you're even a replacement level Nationals Fan, you will cast doubt on pessimistic views of the home team, as you should. Projections aren't magic, even though that would be cool, and as useful as they are they have large error bars. In this case though, PECOTA views the team as so thoroughly rotten that it almost completely rules out a surprise season of contention or even .500 ball. That was essentially the case last year, then the team reached the high end of what could be reasonably expected, and even then they've dropped down several rungs in the omniscient-ish eyes of the computers. Remember, 58-104 is the median projection. Struggles and injuries and all kinds of bad luck could make the team even worse.
Seriously, this projection is awful. It is so awful that the aforementioned article admits that it is probably overly negative, perhaps for the same reasons that PECOTA missed on the Nats a year prior. A true-talent 58-win team necessarily has a bunch of sub-replacement players and black holes in the lineup, and those issues can be fixed. During the season, we should expect the team to make adjustments to avoid the bad endings to their 2024 story. With plenty expected to go wrong, any good rebuilding team knows to focus on the many things that could possibly go right. Last year, Lane Thomas and CJ Abrams led an upstart group to surpass expectations, and they will absolutely have a chance to repeat the trick. They still have to play the games, after all.