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Play Ball! The Washington Nationals Will Be Back in 2022

After months of labor negotiations – enough to delay the season – Major League Baseball and the Players Association finally reached an agreement Thursday. With terms agreed upon, baseball is back and we’ll get to see the Washington Nationals again this year.

Considering how uncertain the fate of the league was, it’s easy to forget how much has changed since the Nats won the World Series in 2019, especially over the last year.

Of course, All-Star third baseman Anthony Rendon left in free agency after winning a ring, but that wasn’t the organization’s biggest recent blow. Superstars Max Scherzer and Trea Turner were traded to the Dodgers last season, Stephen Strasburg suffered yet another significant injury, and Ryan Zimmerman – the face of the franchise – officially retired earlier this offseason.

Following all of these departures, the Nationals are entering their first full season of a likely multi-year rebuild. They made major strides to replenish their farm system last year, but there’s still plenty of work to do, and the fruits of their labor won’t be seen immediately.

Before the season begins, it’s only right to refresh everyone’s minds on how the roster looks entering Spring Training – yes, we will have one before the regular season begins.

Starting Pitching

Stephen Strasburg is still the leader of the staff, but following surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS), he’s likely to miss considerable time to start the season. Behind him, the Nationals will turn to Patrick Corbin – whose stock has plummeted since his strong 2019 campaign – and Joe Ross – who suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) last August and will also have an extended absence.

From there, the starting staff is littered with uncertainty. Erick Fedde is still around, but he hasn’t put together a full season of consistent success at the big league level, and he’s entering his age 29 season. Josiah Gray, who was acquired from the Dodgers last year, will spend his first full year in the majors after showing signs of promise in 2021. We may see cult hero Paolo Espino make some more starts in 2022, although ideally he becomes a middle-inning reliever, and late-season addition Josh Rogers could also factor into the equation.

Other starters on the 40-man roster include Gerardo Carrillo (MLB Pipeline’s No. 6 prospect in the organization), Joan Adon (No. 22) and Seth Romero (No. 24). Top prospect Cade Cavalli is knocking at the doorstep, after ascending to Triple-A Rochester for six starts in his first season as a professional. Cole Henry (No. 7) and Tim Cate (No. 13) could earn a look at some point in 2022. It’s also very possible – if not likely – that the Nationals add a veteran free agent starter. Perhaps - excuse my speculation - Zack Greinke.

Bullpen

There are a lot of pieces here, but not much certainty. Will Harris, Tanner Rainey and Kyle Finnegan have the most experience pitching in late innings, but last year was a mixed bag at best for all three of them. Austin Voth, Sam Clay and Andres Machado are the “elder statesmen” within the second tier of relievers for the Nationals, but anyone suggesting that they inspire confidence is being dishonest.

Younger arms like Mason Thompson and Patrick Murphy will find themselves thrown into the fire frequently this season. Gabe Klobosits, Jhon Romero and offseason waiver pickup Francisco Perez could also make a handful or two – or more – appearances this year.

Starter Evan Lee (No. 21 prospect) was added to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft – you can find more discussion on that later in this story – but he will only appear in the big leagues this year as a reliever, if at all. A more intriguing possibility is left-hander Matt Cronin (No. 12), who isn’t on the 40-man but appears to be on the fast track to the major leagues.

Catcher

The days of Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki suiting up behind the plate are over. Instead, they’ll turn to Keibert Ruiz, Riley Adams and Tres Barrera, each of whom graduated from official prospect status last season. Ruiz will take the lion’s share of reps at catcher, but Adams could see a considerable amount of work – including some at first base, and perhaps even designated hitter. Barrera may split time between the big leagues and Triple-A, but he proved to be a viable option last season.

The next wave of prospects – if it’s even appropriate to move onto them as such this quickly – is also rather intriguing. Drew Millas and Israel Pineda will likely both start the season in Double-A Harrisburg, but one or both of them should be on the cusp of debuting for Washington by the end of the season.

Infield

There’s an assortment of capable bodies and young, former top prospects in this group. Josh Bell is clearly the leader at first base, Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia will get their share of opportunities, and free agent signee Cesar Hernandez will likely be the nominal starter at second base. Beyond that, there’s considerable uncertainty. Kieboom likely starts at third, but Hernandez could play there at times. Garcia probably plays the most at shortstop, but he could also slide to second at times, and veteran Alcides Escobar could trot out in any of those three spots.

Former Tampa Bay Rays farmhand Lucius Fox (Washington’s No. 25 prospect) could factor into the mix, although he’s more likely to play in Rochester. Yasel Antuna (No. 8) is on the 40-man roster, but he’ll presumably report to Harrisburg – and might be moving to the outfield.

Other veterans of note who signed minor-league deals and will get a chance to prove themselves in Spring Training include former Phillies corner infielder of the future Maikel Franco and one-time Marlins speedster Dee Strange-Gordon (the addition of “Strange” to his name is recent).

Some of the team’s highest-profile minor leaguers along the infield are Brady House (No. 2 prospect), Armando Cruz (No. 5), Antuna, Sammy Infante (No. 14), Brandon Boissiere (No. 17) and Jackson Cluff (No. 19).

Outfield

Juan Soto remains firmly entrenched in right field and in the heart of the Nationals’ lineup. At first blush, without any additions, Lane Thomas and Victor Robles seem to be the starters in left and center, respectively. Behind them, Andrew Stevenson and Yadiel Hernandez are competing for the fourth outfield job.

Donovan Casey (No. 18 prospect) was added to the 40-man roster in November. He’ll almost certainly start the season in Rochester, but there’s a good chance his name will be called this season. Other minor leaguers like Daylen Lile (No. 9), Jeremy De La Rosa (No. 11) and Rosmar Quintana (No. 16) are intriguing, but all a couple years away from being big leaguers.

Rule Changes

Of course, none of this would be possible without the league developing a new CBA, and there are some very noteworthy changes. The National League will permanently implement the designated hitter, the playoffs are expanding to 12 teams, minimum salaries are rising to $700k, service time rules will be amended for top-two Rookie of the Year finishers, and the top six MLB Draft picks will be determined by a lottery inclusive of all non-playoff teams.

The league has also done away with the Rule 5 Draft, which was designed to allow minor league players of 4-5 years’ experience to be selected onto other teams and – if retained on their active major league roster for an entire season – retained by the drafting franchise. In essence, it was an opportunity for quality players who were stuck in the minors to get a chance at living their dreams. Without it, teams will have increased control of the players they draft/sign as amateurs – and it also calls into question why minor leaguers were added to 40-man rosters this offseason, since it would typically be a team’s method to protect such players from Rule 5 selection.

Going forward, there will be fewer intra-division games, and all teams will play every other team in the league each year – including interleague, which wasn’t the case previously.

Beginning in 2023, the league is considering banning defensive shifting, implementing a pitch clock and making bases larger. However, they appear to have struck down the proposal to implement robot/technological umpires.

The league also scrapped some of the temporary rules from the 2021 season. There will be no more seven-inning doubleheaders, and the free runner on second base in extra innings will also be gone.

As far as scheduling goes, the league year – and in turn, free agency – begins immediately. Players will be required to report to camp by March 13, Spring Training games will begin on March 17, and regular season play will start on April 7. For the Nationals, the season will start with a four-day, four-game series at home against the Mets. There will be a full 162-game schedule, with the end of the year extended by one series and the other three missed games per team to be played on off-days and/or parts of doubleheaders.

Back To Baseball!

Spring Training games will start next week, and the regular season will begin in less than a month. Teams across the league will have a lot of decisions to make in a short amount of time, and the Nationals are no exception – although they likely won’t be very active in free agency.

Once the games begin, Washington’s depth chart will quickly begin to take shape. My initial sketch would be something like this, with some jobs vacant and open for competition:

  • Starting Pitchers: Strasburg, Corbin, Ross, Gray, Fedde with Espino and Rogers as injury replacements early
  • Primary Bullpen: Harris, Rainey, Finnegan, Voth, Clay, Machado
  • Primary Lineup: LF Thomas, 2B Hernandez, RF Soto, 1B Bell, C Ruiz, DH Adams or Hernandez, CF Robles, SS Garcia, 3B Kieboom
  • Top Bench Players: INF Escobar, OF Stevenson

With that said, if you know me, you know I’ll have updates regularly. As races for roles heat up, I’ll provide as detailed coverage as I can, and I’ll also keep you up to date on minor league prospects. Until then, it’s just great to know that baseball is back!

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Friday, 30 September 2022

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