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Washington Nationals outlook: Can the young roster set the Nats up for future success?

Washington Nationals
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After trading Juan Soto during the 2022 season, the 2023 season was going to be a bit of a step back for the Washington Nationals, and it was. They finished the season 71-91 in a highly competitive NL East, just four games back of the New York Mets, who entered the year with much higher expectations. That was a 16-win increase from their 55-107 finish in 2022.

That said, the Nationals also traded their best hitter at the deadline in Jeimer Candelario, who had a 125 OPS+, and their Pythagorean record was a few wins worse at 67-95. The Nationals also went 35-37 in the second half of last season, largely without Candelario, which should provide some hope for another season of improvement heading into 2024.

The Nationals aren’t exactly expected to make a run in the postseason this season. But they are expected to show some improvement, especially from their younger guys, like C.J. Abrams and MacKenzie Gore — two of the players they landed in the Soto deal. They’ll also be looking for another productive year from Lane Thomas, who quietly swatted 28 homers a year ago but wasn’t quite the same player in the second half.

Let’s take a look at the moves the Washington Nationals have made this winter, their outlook for 2024, and one player to keep an eye on for the upcoming season.

Washington Nationals additions and subtractions

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Last season, the Washington Nationals received 381/3 innings from Chad Kuhl that earned him an 8.45 ERA and saw him accumulate -0.6 WAR. He was released in June. Cory Abbott elected free agency this off-season after posting a 6.64 ERA in 391/3 innings for -0.4 WAR. They’ll also be without Carl Edwards Jr. (0.4 WAR), Dominic Smith (0.1), and Michael Chavis (0.1), but combined, those five players were worth -0.4 wins last season.

Up until they signed Joey Gallo in late January, the additions the club has made this off-season weren’t looking much better. Gallo is projected for 1.6 WAR in a typical season for him, complete with a .190 average, .316 on-base percentage (OBP), and 24 homers.

The total projected WAR the team has added is 0.5, even with Gallo. The biggest detractor is Nick Senzel, who is expected to be the team’s third baseman this season, though he’s failed to put up a positive WAR total since 2019. He is projected for -0.9 wins in 2024 while batting .223 with a .287 OBP and a 66 wRC+ (100 is league average).

Dylan Floro is the only other veteran the team has signed, and after a 1.1 WAR year in 2023, he’s projected for 0.1 to go along with a 4.85 ERA out of the bullpen. Only one pitcher, Hunter Harvey, is projected to have a sub-4.00 ERA this season.

Washington also nabbed Nasim Nuñez from the Miami Marlins in the Rule 5 Draft, and he showed good plate discipline in Double-A last season, walking 14.9% of the time while striking out 18.3%, but he also hasn’t played a game in Triple-A. For him to stick with the Nationals, he’d have to remain on their 26-man roster the entire season. He has also spent the majority of his time in the minors at shortstop, which is the same position as Abrams. He’s a switch-hitter, and shortstops are typically the most athletic players on the team, so maybe they have plans for him to adopt a new position. Or, they could keep him as a pinch-runner for the 2024 campaign since he stole 52 bags last season and has racked up 183 in four seasons in the minors.

Those are the only big-league additions the team has made, but there are two more players that were signed to minor-league deals that offer a bit of intrigue. The first is Juan Yepez, formerly of the St. Louis Cardinals. He had a solid rookie campaign in 2022, collecting 12 doubles and 13 home runs while putting up a 109 OPS+ (100 is league average). He struggled mightily in 28 games with the Redbirds last year, batting just .183 with a .246 OBP and an 80 mph exit velocity, which led to him electing free agency in November. If he can find some of that success from two seasons ago, then he could be a nice pickup.

The other minor-league signing that is interesting is Dérmis Garcia. He made his MLB debut with the Oakland A’s in 2022, and in 39 games he hit .207 with a .264 OBP and five home runs. The first two of those dingers came against the Nationals in D.C. He also held an 89 wRC+ in that span, which was a bit below league average. His biggest flaw was that he struck out 44% of the time with the A’s, and he spent last off-season working on shortening his swing to limit the strikeouts. In 45 games in Triple-A Las Vegas, the 26-year-old actually increased his strikeout rate by nearly two percent from the previous season, going from 29.9% to 31.8%. How much he can limit those strikeouts will determine his future in baseball, but he’s a nice flier pick up.

Joey Meneses and Stone Garrett are Washington’s slated first base/DH combo right now, but Yepez and Garcia could push them a bit this season if they can turn things around.

Washington Nationals 2024 outlook

Washington Nationals
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So the Washington Nationals over-performed a bit last season and haven’t made any whopping additions to the roster heading into 2024. The recently released PECOTA projections sees both of those factors and has the team projected for a 58-103 season, which would place them just slightly ahead of the Colorado Rockies. In other words, Washington is projected to finish with only the second-worst record in baseball, just missing out on the bottom spot.

Here’s the thing with projections: they’re not facts. They are helpful and can paint a good picture of what to expect, but sometimes they miss the mark. Last year projection systems thought that the Los Angeles Angels were better than the Texas Rangers. One of those teams missed the playoffs, and the other is the reigning World Series champs. PECOTA also projected the Baltimore Orioles for a 74-88 campaign, and they went on to win 101 games.

The projections often get things wrong, and that’s because certain factors change. The Nationals, for instance, have a lot of young players without a ton of big-league experience. Those inputs are bound to be a little more conservative, and therefore the projections that get spit out on younger players aren’t going to have 20 players that are all the next Mike Trout, regardless of prospect rank. You also have to account for growth from these younger guys, and if Abrams or MacKenzie take a big leap forward in 2024, then that should put the Nationals in a good place to beat their projections.

That’s what this season is going to be about. Taking leaps. Making gains. Improving here and there that will lead to more success in future seasons. Not all of those improvements will even happen at the big-league level. How do Dylan Crews, James Wood, and Cade Cavalli perform this year? That’s what is going to turn things around for this team moving forward. They aren’t going to win the World Series this year, but the hope is that pieces start falling into place so that the future begins to look a little brighter heading into 2025.

Washington Nationals player to watch out for in 2024

Washington Nationals
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This may feel like the easy answer, but C.J. Abrams is the player to keep an eye on this season. Yes, he was a big part of the Juan Soto deal and he’s not exactly under-the-radar, but the Washington Nationals don’t have a ton of exciting guys to watch at the big league level just yet. Abrams is one of those guys.

Last season he hit .245 with a .300 OBP, 18 home runs, and 47 stolen bases. He finished the season with a 90 wRC+. The goal for this season has to be to make that climb to league average at the plate. He’ll be entering his age 23 season, and in the second half last year he posted a 95 wRC+, so he was right on the precipice. A couple of stats popped out in that second half, too. He went from seven to 11 home runs in nearly identical playing time, and also swiped 33 of his 47 bases after the All Star break. His batting average stayed consistent, and he also cut down on his strikeouts (22.2% to 16.3%) and upped his walk rate (4% to 6.4%). This is the kind of growth that fans should be looking for.

Now, headed into 2024, it will be important for Abrams to take what he did in the second half of last year and continue to build upon those skills this coming season. If he’s able to do that, the Nats will be on the right path as a team moving forward, too.

Jason Burke covers MLB for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.

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