Washington Nationals baseball field and seats
Credit: Michelle Goldchain

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First, the good news: Baseball is back. The Washington Nationals host the New York Mets in their season opener at 7:05 p.m. EST on Thursday, April 7, at Nationals Park. The Major League Baseball season was delayed by about a week after a lockout between the league and the MLB Players Association, but on March 10, the two sides reached a five-year deal nearly 100 days into the owner-imposed lockout of players.

Now, the reality check: The Nationals will not be very good. Most preseason predictions have Washington near the bottom of the 30-team league. The Nats have missed the postseason for two straight seasons and finished at the bottom of the National League East last year. The franchise is rebuilding—or “rebooting” as Nationals president and general manager Mike Rizzo calls it—and will have to do so without two mainstays and clubhouse leaders, Ryan Zimmerman and Max Scherzer. Zimmerman officially retired from baseball in February and the team traded Scherzer and shortstop Trea Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers at the trade deadline last season. Scherzer now plays for the Mets.

So even as manager Dave Martinez maintains a hopeful outlook for the rebuilding Nationals, it’s fair for fans to be skeptical. Baseball is here, but don’t expect any parades this fall.

A Questionable Starting Rotation

The starting rotation will be a work in progress to begin the season, something Nats fans haven’t had to endure for more than a decade. Patrick Corbin, 32, seeking a bounce back after struggling the past two seasons, gets the Opening Day start. World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg, 33, is easing his way back after surgery to treat thoracic outlet syndrome, and Joe Ross, 28, is recovering from a bone spur in his right elbow. Ross is expected to miss six to eight weeks after undergoing surgery on March 7. Both veterans will begin the season at the team’s West Palm Beach complex. Another projected starter, 29-year-old Erick Fedde, is on track to start the season on schedule after dealing with an oblique issue.

In naming Corbin the Opening Day starter, Martinez is expecting him to put the past two seasons behind him and return to his 2019 numbers. That year, Corbin had a 14-7 record, with 238 strikeouts, and a 3.25 ERA. Last season, he went 9-16, with 143 strikeouts and a 5.82 ERA. 

Josiah Gray, 24, can also become one of the anchors of the rotation. The highly touted right-hander came over from the Dodgers last year, making 12 starts with the Nationals and going 2-2 with a 5.31 ERA, with six or more strikeouts in five of those outings. Aníbal Sánchez, 38, is back with the Nats for the first time since 2020, but struggled in his two spring starts with a 14.21 ERA. Josh Rogers started six games last season and thrived in his limited time with the Nationals, finishing with a 3.28 ERA. The 27-year-old is looking to build on that late-season momentum but will begin the season at Triple-A Rochester. 

Without Strasburg and Ross early on, that leaves Sánchez, 35-year-old Paolo Espino, and 23-year-old Joan Adon alongside Corbin as starter options. Espino made 35 appearances and 19 starts for the Nats last season, going 5-5 with a 4.27 ERA. 

 If the club falls out of contention quickly, top prospect Cade Cavalli, 23, might get more opportunities. Martinez likes what he’s seen from the 6-foot-4, 240-pound power arm, and ultimately, this season might be about giving arms like Cavalli a chance in real games, figuring out what works, and building consistency. 

Not a Relief

The starting rotation raises questions about the team’s overall health. The bullpen, on the other hand, has issues with overall quality and depth. 

Tanner Rainey, 29, Kyle Finnegan, 30, Austin Voth, 29, Steve Cishek, 35, Sean Doolittle, 35, and Espino are the club’s top relievers. But from there, the club takes a big chance with a crop of bullpen arms looking to prove they belong. Mason Thompson, 24, Andrés Machado, 28, and Patrick Murphy, 26, are back with the franchise, and 27-year-old non-roster invite Victor Arano will make his Nationals debut this season. 

 Will Harris, 37, will start the season rehabbing in Florida from surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. He pitched in one spring game on March 19, facing five batters and allowing one run in one inning of relief. Martinez hopes Rainey will be his closer, but if that doesn’t work, Doolittle could get the call. Cishek also has 132 career saves.

 Machado fires 96 to 97 mph fastballs and has looked solid in a handful of spring games. Martinez is giving Machado a roster spot because of that velocity, but he must demonstrate he can also throw strikes. 

 Veteran Tyler Clippard, 37, is back with the Nationals organization after playing in D.C. from 2008 to 2014 and will begin the season at Triple-A Rochester. If things don’t go well for the bullpen early, Clippard could be called up to remedy.

Going on the Offensive

Historically, Rizzo loves to build his teams with quality starters and solid catching. This year, he shifted from employing veteran catchers like Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki and instead traded for 23-year-old top prospect Keibert Ruiz, formerly of the Dodgers, and 25-year-old Riley Adams, formerly of the Toronto Blue Jays.

 The offense will be built around 23-year-old superstar Juan Soto in the No. 2 slot in the lineup, followed by veteran slugger Nelson Cruz, and 29-year-old first baseman Josh Bell. Cruz, 41, was the biggest offseason addition to the Nats lineup and will be the team’s first-ever full-time designated hitter. He ranks third on the MLB active home run list with 449 in 17 seasons. Martinez believes having Bell hit after Cruz will also help the first baseman, who got off to a slow start last season.

 If the Nats offense does well, it will be because hitters Nos. 1 through 4 are delivering. The Nats’ newest leadoff hitter is 31-year-old veteran second baseman César Hernández, who has played in the majors for nine seasons, spending time with the Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago White Sox, and Cleveland Guardians. As with Cruz, the skipper believes the addition of Hernández will help the club’s younger roster.

In Transition

The only major holdover in the infield is first baseman Bell. Several journeymen will get the opportunity to start for this rebuilding squad. Alcides Escobar “will get the bulk of the playing time at shortstop,” according to Martinez. Escobar, 35, has played more than 1,500 games over 12 campaigns. His 75 games with the Nats last season were his first MLB games since 2018. 

 Maikel Franco, 29, gets the nod at third base with 24-year-old Carter Kieboom on the 60-day injured list due to an elbow injury. Ehire Adrianza was on pace to be the roster’s jack-of-all-trades until a quad injury slowed him. Martinez says he loves the versatility the 32-year-old switch-hitter brings, with the ability to play every infield spot and substitute in the outfield.

 This opens the door for 33-year-old Dee Strange-Gordon: He can play infield and outfield spots, demonstrating his slick glove with a play at second base to save a hit against the Mets late in spring training. Lucius Fox, 24, will step into the backup shortstop role with Adrianza out and Escobar dealing with a stiff neck. Infielder Luis García, 21, got a taste with the Nats last year and could get more playing time later this season. Martinez wants to get to the point where García is an everyday big league player, but that time isn’t now.

Not to Be Outdone

Even though he’s had a rough couple of seasons, Martinez is still confident in the former top prospect Victor Robles. And with the way the season looks like it’s going to play out for the Nationals, the upside for the 24-year-old Robles is still there. He has all the tools to be a quality center fielder and seemingly unfulfilled potential the Nationals covet. The Nats and Robles recently avoided arbitration and have agreed to a one-year, $1.65 million deal

 Lane Thomas, 26, provides depth in center and left fields, showing some flashes with his bat in 2021 after being acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals. Thomas hit .270 with seven homers and 27 RBIs in 45 games with the Nats. Yadiel Hernández, 34, makes the roster because of his bat and hopes to be able to hold his own on defense in left field. Plus, as a left-handed bat, he can be the designated hitter should Cruz need a day off. Hernández hit .273 with nine homers and 32 RBIs in 112 games last season.

 Somewhat surprisingly, the Nats sent outfielder and lefty bat Andrew Stevenson, 27, to Triple-A Rochester the last week of training camp. That leaves Soto rounding out the outfield. The big question for the Nats and Soto is when the team will iron out a long-term contract with the power hitter, something that did not happen with stars Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, or Turner. 

 Soto is a franchise player and opposing teams must build their strategy around how to slow him. Batting in the No. 2 slot will hopefully provide Soto with at least 14 more at-bats on average this season, and he will be crucial to setting the tone on the scoreboard. Soto reportedly turned down a contract extension worth $350 million for 13 years in February, but agreed on a one-year, $17.1 million contract for this season. The Nats have him through the end of the 2024 season before free agency arrives. 

 Making the postseason may not be realistic for the 2022 Nats, but the season may be fondly remembered if the organization can find a way to lock up Soto before the price tag reaches a half billion dollars. Take any bright spots you can.