Because the team made no splashy offseason acquisitions, because a top pitching prospect already has been lost for the year to Tommy John surgery and because there’s a real chance $245 million ace Stephen Strasburg will never pitch again, external projections don’t anticipate much improvement from the 2023 Nats. Baseball Prospectus projects them to lose 100 games and again post the worst record in the sport. FanDuel oddsmakers have the Nats with an over/under win total of 58.5, lowest in the majors.
Depressed yet? This is a process, of course, and any pennants are in the past and the (perhaps distant) future, not the present. Does it matter how many games the 2023 Nats win?
“It totally matters,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said.
“One hundred percent,” Manager Dave Martinez said.
Another 100-loss season might feel inevitable. Internally, another 100-loss season is unacceptable.
“It matters to me, to Davey, to ownership and to the fan base,” Rizzo said. “Nobody wants to go out there and lose games. I’m not putting a number on it. We want to win them all.”
Kidding. But hold them to this standard because it’s not much: They can’t lose 107 games again — for a ton of reasons. Start with the clubhouse.
“Last year at the end of the year, they really felt like, ‘Man, we can play with these guys,’ ” Martinez said. “They weren’t afraid of playing anybody. And at the end of the games, you watched — they never gave up. These [freaking] guys, they don’t believe these teams are better than them. We’re just a little short. For me, that was a good steppingstone.”
A reality check would show that the Nats finished the season by losing eight of their final 10 games, and the losses were by the following scores: 8-0, 8-2, 5-1, 8-2, 8-1, 4-2, 8-0, 9-2. Maybe a healthy MacKenzie Gore, a more experienced Josiah Gray, a can’t-be-any-worse Patrick Corbin and the addition of Trevor Williams — career ERA as a starter: 4.33 — shrink those deficits. But every time you hear “We were in every game,” remember that they weren’t. Progress may come. It won’t be easy. There’s a long way to go.
But understand, too, that an organizational rebuild has zero impact on how the players approach a given day and a given game.
“It’s still, as a player, as a coach [and] now as a manager: Win. Right?” Martinez said. “You want to win. The first day [of spring training] I told these guys, I said, ‘Hey, we’re here to win.’ And I’m not talking about the big picture, being in the playoffs and going for it all. That’s one thing. But it’s to win our day every day. How do we do that? It’s my job to instill that in them every day.”
That, of course, won’t always mean the Nationals end up with more runs than the opponent. Indeed, it won’t mean that very often. So there are wins for the organization when there is a loss on a given day. Did CJ Abrams make all of his plays defensively and drive a ball the other way? Did Keibert Ruiz lay off a pitch on which he could have made weak contact and wait for one he could thump? Did Gore shake off a bumpy first inning and grind through six?
Have enough of those things happen, and Rizzo and Martinez believe there will be more actual wins. Seventy? That seems a stretch. But more than the 55 from last year, for sure.
Don’t forget, though, that looming over all of this is uncertainty about the Nats’ direction beyond this season. The Lerner family announced nearly a year ago that they would explore a sale of the team. There is no more clarity about that now than there was then. That’s remarkable. It’s also crippling.
“The way the uncertainty affects it — it doesn’t affect the way I do business on a day-to-day basis,” Rizzo said, choosing his words carefully. “But we were talking about long-term players to try and acquire, trying to only get the best and brightest coaches — they would come over for me, but do they come when I don’t know if I’m going to be here?
“We’ve had that issue to talk about. But as far as making trades and drafting players and doing our daily business, we’re full speed.”
Signing Ruiz to an eight-year extension — which really keeps the catcher with Washington for just three years beyond what he would have been anyway — is an indication that the front office isn’t completely handcuffed. But what if there is real progress in the W-L column this season? (That’s not a prediction.)
Think of it this way: The Nats of 2009 lost 103 games (and drafted Stephen Strasburg that June). The Nats of 2010 lost 10 games fewer (and drafted Bryce Harper that June). That was the kind of step forward that the rest of the majors didn’t notice but that emboldened Rizzo to pursue a marquee free agent — which became seven years of Jayson Werth for $126 million.
What if 107 losses last year become, say, 92 losses in 2023? (Again, not a prediction.) If Rizzo and his staff deem that it’s time to sign someone comparable — well, what then? The general manager’s contract is up at the end of this season. The manager’s contract is up at the end of this season. Even if the Lerners — in flux and indecisive — decide to extend both as they pursue a sale, would that empower Rizzo and Martinez to convince an impact player that they have a long-term plan they will be permitted to execute? Absolutely not, through no fault of their own.
This is an unprecedented season in the trajectory of this franchise. Who will own it, who will run it and who will manage it on Opening Day in 2024 can’t be known. But the people who run it and manage it right now say they are demanding more wins and fewer losses this summer. Hold them to that standard because it should have an impact on whether they get to do it again.