Ladies and gentlemen, the stage has been set for the Washington Nationals’ 2023 regular season! With that, I’m ready to share my preseason analysis and predictions.
I think the team will be marginally better than last year, but the devil is in the details. By the end of the season, we could see them transition from “bad but competitive” to truly respectable, with key building blocks beginning to perform as such.
Let’s start with the build-up to setting the Opening Day roster before diving into predictions.
Throughout March, the Nationals have made Spring Training roster cuts. Those alterations – though unofficial reports, as opposed to official transactions – culminated this weekend, trimming the roster down to the requisite 26 men.
Patrick Corbin will pitch Opening Day against the Braves. He’ll be followed by Josiah Gray and MacKenzie Gore to close out the Atlanta series. Then, free agent signee Trevor Williams and non-roster spring invitee Chad Kuhl will round out the starting staff.
There are some finer points that need to be rounded out. Kuhl will be in the rotation, but it’s not currently known whether he’ll be on the Opening Day roster. Since he’s on a minor league contract, his rights will have to be purchased from the minors, and there are advantages to waiting until the day he’s needed to do that.
When Kuhl will be needed is also uncertain. Since there’s an off day after their first game, the Nationals could wait until their sixth game – as opposed to the fifth – to use their No. 5 starter. In other words, they could push Kuhl’s first start by a day.
Conversely, since Williams has been a relief pitcher for much of his career, the Nationals could delay his first start and use him as a reliever initially instead.
That’s a lot of minutiae, but it could set the tone for this season. Will the Nationals make simple, traditional decisions?; or will they modernize their practices in ways that are more optimal?
The club surprised me a little bit here. There was never a doubt that Kyle Finnegan, Carl Edwards Jr, Hunter Harvey and Erasmo Ramirez were making the roster. With Sean Dootlittle, Tanner Rainey and Victor Arano slated to start the season on the Injured List (IL), Mason Thompson and Thaddeus Ward were near-locks to make the team out of camp, too.
The battle came down to five guys for two spots: right-handers Paolo Espino, Andres Machado, Alex Colome and Hobie Harris, and lefty Anthony Banda.
Espino and Machado are incumbents with the team, Colome is a veteran late-inning reliever (and often a closer), Harris is a 29-year-old minor league journeyman, and Banda had emerged as the only qualified left-hander – something the bullpen would not have without him.
They chose Harris – who was arguably their most effective reliever throughout March – and Banda to round out the bullpen. Expect changes to come before long, but that’s how it’ll look on Day 1 of the season.
Aside from who made the roster, Espino’s demotion is the most significant. It signals that for now, he’s Washington’s No. 6 starting pitcher and they’ll be “stretching” him towards being able to pitch five innings.
By years’ end, this will definitely change.
There wasn’t a ton up in the air here. Keibert Ruiz and Riley Adams were shoe-ins to crack the initial 26; and the infield core of Joey Meneses, Dominic Smith, Luis Garcia, CJ Abrams, Jeimer Candelario and Ildemaro Vargas was never in doubt, either.
There was, however, one bench role that came down to veteran slugger Matt Adams and young utility man Michael Chavis. Adams’ productivity made him appear to be the frontrunner, but the Nationals instead opted for Chavis’ youth and versatility.
Well, maybe. Manager Dave Martinez has stated that Chavis is the leader for the roster spot over Adams, but Chavis’ fate hasn’t been finalized. There’s a chance that the organization adds a player who doesn’t crack someone else’s roster to fill the final bench opening. My preference is Keston Hiura, a 27-year-old former top 10 draft pick by the Brewers who could fill a similar utility capacity to Chavis, but has shown more upside at the plate.
We entered the spring with this race handicapped as Corey Dickerson, Victor Robles and Lane Thomas as the three players (from left to right) slated for the most play time, followed by Alex Call and Stone Garrett – likely in that order. That’s exactly how it played out, and – as expected – the final two were competing for one roster spot, which was understandably given to Call.
By hook or by crook, Robles is still the top option in center field. Dickerson will be glued in left, except for days when he may fill in for Meneses as the designated hitter. Thomas will primarily play in right, but he could see time in center occasionally. Call appears to be the top backup in all three spots – although the No. 2 man in center hasn’t revealed itself yet.
One key nugget to stash in your memory bank, however, is that Dickerson likely won’t start against left-handed pitchers. Barring a last-minute crisis, Max Fried (a lefty) will be Atlanta’s Opening Day starter. So, don’t be alarmed when you see Call playing ahead of Dickerson in the season debut; that’s by design.
It’s a murky race that still hasn’t been fleshed out entirely. However, there have been logical breadcrumbs dropped recently.
There hasn’t been a great sample in which everyone who will play against right-handed pitchers has played. Between auditioning CJ Abrams at the top of the lineup, Meneses and Candelario being away at the World Baseball Classic, and standard days of rest for everyone else, there has not been a lefty-dominant 1-through-9 lineup used in a game that makes sense on paper.
Saturday’s lineup looks the closest to what you’ll see most days, with the notable exceptions that Meneses and Dickerson’s defensive positions will be swapped, Dickerson might bat ahead of Candelario, and Thomas and Garcia (another left-handed hitter) might switch positions in the lineup – with Thomas potentially dropping behind Ruiz, as well.
Similarly, we haven’t seen the perfect righty-dominant lineup either. However, based on my embarrassingly extensive studies, it should look roughly the same as the lefty lineup, except Call will replace Dickerson and most likely bat sixth – sandwiched between Garcia and Ruiz.
Phew, now onto the fun stuff!
Across the board, the experts expect the Nationals to finish in last place in the NL East. Although PECOTA estimates them to finish with 71 wins, FanGraphs predicts them to finish 65-97, DraftKings set their over/under at 59.5 wins, and USA Today projects Washington for another struggle-filled 57-105, season.
I think those middle two estimates seem the most accurate, but I’m most inclined to agree with FanGraphs. Let’s call it 64-98, one game worse than they finished in 2021.
I tweeted some other miscellaneous predictions recently.
Here are some other things I expect to happen this season:
It all starts Thursday with a three-game series against Atlanta from Nationals Park. Then three more games against the Rays, a seven-game road trip, and a weekend series against the Guardians April 14-16 (I’ll be in the stands for one of those games).
For now, just know this. This season will still be bumpy, but putting Corbin on the mound Opening Day might be the best opportunity to show how much better – and certainly more interesting – this team could look by the end of the season.