The Nationals Offense Is Still A Let Down

While the Nationals' offense performed better over the weekend, in large part due to playing at Coors Field, the offense still leaves much to be desired if this team is to contend this year, or in the near future.
Washington Nationals v Detroit Tigers
Washington Nationals v Detroit Tigers / Mark Cunningham/GettyImages

There's an interesting sentiment going around regarding these Washington Nationals. It's a curious notion making the rounds from MLB Network to national outlets and circling itself into the hearts and minds of Nationals fans. "The Nationals are going to be good sooner than it seems". While local broadcasts and Nationals-only fans will have been convincing you of that every game for the past several years, it's finally starting to be believed by the wider baseball community.

There are two clear reasons to believe in this, more than the default hopefulness that comes with fandom. First, the years-long rebuilding process has finally generated a wave of young talent at or near the majors in Washington. Secondly, the team took a step up last year and is playing even better so far in 2024 - they're even in the thick of the early Wild Card race! While expectations for the rest of this season are mild, the notion that the youthful Nats are here to compete will only catch on more and more with the team even remotely near the playoffs.

There are some problems with this line of thinking. First of all, I take issue with the notion that the Nationals have become good quickly, or sooner than expected. They're not even a league-average team yet, statistically, and it's been five long years since the team has competed, or even avoided last place in the NL East. While five-plus year rebuilds have become commonplace in MLB, it is no miracle that the team has improved after such an extended period of tanking and selling every solid asset.

Secondly, there is no real guarantee that the Nationals can continue their upward trajectory. The young major leaguers are exciting and will improve, and the prospect pipeline will introduce some serious star power in short order. There is enough in the organization to expect a step into the middle of the pack, especially with recent gains in the pitching department, but there are many pieces missing for a real return to the 2012-2019 level of play. This team hasn't been able to hit for five years, and it's going to be a difficult problem to fix.

So far in 2024, the Nationals rank 25th in hitting according to wRC+. Last year they were 23rd, and previous seasons' rankings were obfuscated and inflated by the presence of Juan Soto. Without a Hall of Fame level superstar to rely on, it's proven difficult for Mike Rizzo and the Nationals to put together a solid lineup. Right now, Joey Meneses and Keibert Ruiz are putting up horrendous numbers in the middle of a struggling order.

Great teams are built on great offenses, most of the time, because pitching is less reliable. While the Nationals current pitching staff is surprisingly solid, they've only barely kept the team near .500 while the offense continues to employ four consecutive below-average bats from spots 4 though 7. CJ Abrams and Lane Thomas are talented, and would perform solid roles on a theoretically good team, but they are not the kind of offensive stars that can make up for holes elsewhere in the lineup. The players who can, the Juan Sotos and Bryce Harpers of the world, come with a sky-high acquisition cost. To be a great team, like the Nationals once maintained for a decade, something needs to happen more than the current rebuilding plan.

This bring us to the 6'7 elephant in the room, James Wood. Plan A, it would seem, for the Nationals to produce a good offense is to let Wood do most of the heavy lifting. If Wood capitalizes on his highly volatile potential, he could be the best hitter in D.C. since Soto, or at least since '22 Joey Meneses. Dylan Crews should join CJ Abrams and Lane Thomas in a club of well-rounded above-average performers to complement Wood at the top of future lineups. It's certainly possible to talk yourself into this plan, and I'm sure many Nats fans have been doing so for a while now.

There's a catch, though. This is a bad plan! I think James Wood is amazing, and will be amazing, but no prospect is a guarantee, and that especially goes for someone of Wood's stature. The issue isn't with Wood, though, but with the total lack of position player depth that the Nationals project to have. There aren't enough top prospects for the team to become anything near what the neighboring Orioles are right now, who have seven or eight consecutive above-average hitters under team control, with more top-100 prospects on the way. Even if James Wood is immediately on Gunnar Henderson's level, he will be followed by an inferior supporting cast. I'm certain many fans would disagree, and would point out the potential of their favorite young Nationals. They wouldn't be wrong to point out more players with untapped potential, but the team doesn't just need a few talented players, they need to catch the Braves and Phillies and the rest of the league in an arms race that is always advancing.

Keibert Ruiz, Luis Garcia, and Jacob Young all have their strengths, but none have produced real offensive consistency. Jesse Winker has been good, but he figures to move on from the Nationals just like Nick Senzel, Eddie Rosario, Joey Gallo, and Ildemaro Vargas will be after this year or the next. Compared to other elite teams and other mediocre teams with elite dreams, there is a serious lack of offensive talent to work with here. Just because Brady House, Yohandy Morales, and whoever else exist, and even if they play well, it does not improve the Nationals relative to other teams with comparable prospects and better star players.

Here's another scary wrinkle: patching holes in free agency might not help. If the Nationals were the Phillies or the Rangers and had snatched up generational talents on 10-year contracts, they could make up for a lack of offensive depth. Failing that, it's hard to sign sufficient free agents to put together a good hitting team. The Giants in the past two years have tried, outbidding several teams to acquire Mitch Haniger, Jorge Soler, Michael Conforto, Matt Chapman, Jung Hoo Lee, Tom Murphy, Joc Pederson, and a stable of veteran pitchers to boot. It didn't work. The Giants barely hit better than the Nats did last year and this year, partially because of failed gambles on those questionable mid-level free agents. They were the best options available to cover some gaps, but like the Nationals, they lacked any true superstars and lacked organizational depth to keep the floor high.

All of this leaves me wishing and praying on James Wood's success even more. With enough luck, he becomes a monster and CJ Abrams keeps improving; those two alone can power a winning team. Some money spent in future offseasons would definitely help, but assembling the middle of a lineup with just-okay thirty-somethings is less effective than pushing more chips in for a genuine star, and I don't see the Nationals doing that anytime soon. Meanwhile, an upstart pitching staff has taken a massive leap after being even worse than the offense during the rebuilding years. An alternate path to real success would be though an elite rotation, but I'll hold off on buying into that just yet.