After a 65-97 season in 2021, much about the Nationals was unsettled. There were questions about the pitching staff, the makeup of the left side of the infield and more. The only sure thing was that they were embarking on a rebuild.
With a few days remaining before the start of the season, the Nationals haven’t answered all those questions. Still, there are a few topics we know will follow them into Opening Day and beyond.
How can they lock up
John Soto for the long haul?
It starts with the money. Juan Soto turned down a 13-year, $350 million extension offer from the team before the lockout, he told ESPN. When he was asked about his future at the start of spring training, he demurred and invoked his agent, Scott Boras.
“Scott is talking with them,” Soto said. “I don’t know what they’re going through. Right now, I just try to focus on baseball. They’re doing all that stuff, and he will let me know if he hears anything.”
General manager Mike Rizzo has repeatedly made it known that signing Soto to a long-term contract is a priority of Nationals executives. They’ll have to make a proposal that is worthy of being relayed to Soto, the 23-year-old who has landed in the top-10 in National League MVP voting in each of the last three seasons, including a runner-up finish in 2021 after he led the majors with a .465 on-base percentage.
And they’ll also have to prove that Soto can enjoy team success in Washington. Soto said he “always sees his future from him with the team” and he “never think (s) about leaving or anything like that.” But it stands to reason he might find it hard to return to a team he doesn’t think is positioned to win another championship if he reaches free agency at the end of 2024.
Adding Nelson Cruz as the designated hitter was a step in the right direction. Cruz essentially fills the void left when Ryan Zimmerman retired earlier this year. Cruz is a bona fide leader and mentor, a fantastic role model. Soto wo n’t be the only one to benefit from his presence. All players who spend time in the Nationals’ clubhouse during Cruz’s tenure will get to see up close what it takes to put together a successful career. If things go to plan, a trickle-down effect will occur.
There’s also the farm system, which is in a better place now than it was at this time last year. The Nationals reloaded it at the trade deadline after adding some valuable talent in the draft. They further improved their stock when the international signing period opened this year, adding one of the best available prospects for the second year in a row. The combination of a talent influx and upgrades within the player development system could touch off a new era of minor-league prosperity.
The Nationals have this season, and probably even the next, to show Soto they made enough changes to turn back into an organization capable of making yearly playoff runs.
What can the Nats get out of
With Stephen Strasburg still building back stamina after thoracic outlet surgery last summer, the burden of carrying the rotation falls on the shoulders of Patrick Corbin. The veteran left-hander is set to start on Opening Day after posting the worst two years of his career. Since 2020, he has accumulated an MLB-high 23 losses and produced a 5.50 ERA, the second-highest mark among qualified starters. His inability to keep the ball in the ballpark has been a hallmark of his struggles.
Corbin found a bit of relief as 2021 wound down. A tweak to his mechanics from him enabled him to assemble a brief rebound. He found that a higher than usual release point could be blamed for some of his issues locating his fastball down in the zone and led to a spike in his home-run-to-fly-ball ratio.
Corbin must stay consistent with his delivery if he is to anchor an inexperienced rotation and reverse the negative perception of the six-year, $140 million contract he signed before the 2019 season. Consistency will be the key to everything for him. It could allow him to get his slider back to what it used to be — a dominant pitch that featured roughly 43 inches of vertical drop at its best, compared to a roughly league-average vertical drop of 41.6 inches last season.
Another thing to look for with Corbin will be his fastball usage. He had relied more on his sinker before last season, when he threw nearly as many four-seam fastballs (766) as sinkers (784). Neither pitch was good for him; opponents hit .337 against his four-seamer and .306 against his sinker. A formula that proved useful for him in the past was throwing at least 10 percent more sinkers than four-seamers.
What more does
Cade Cavalli need to prove before he is called up?
Cade Cavalli, the Nationals’ top pitching prospect, enjoyed a few fine weeks in major-league camp this spring with the exception of an 11-run meltdown against the Cardinals during the final week of exhibition games. Before that, he struck out nine in six innings across two outings and flashed his 96-98 mph fastball and pair of hard breaking balls. But the likelihood Cavalli would break spring training as a member of the Nationals’ rotation had always been slim.
Cavalli didn’t master Triple A last year after dominating opponents at his previous two minor-league stops that summer. He gave up an opponents’ batting average of .317 and posted a 7.30 ERA in 24 2/3 innings for Rochester. He often lost his advantages in accounts. He failed to pile up strikeouts at the same rate he had earlier in the season.
Cavalli and the Nationals chalked up the 23-year-old’s struggles to growing pains. He wanted so badly to outdo advanced hitters that he would try to out-think them and try to throw the perfect pitch to tie them up.
Cavalli must learn to trust that his stuff is too good for him to spend so much time nibbling at the strike zone. Doing that should get him to the major leagues sooner than later.
What is the long-term prognosis for
Carter Kieboom, the Nationals’ embattled former top prospect, hurt his arm in mid-March. The combo diagnosis of a sprained ulnar collateral ligament and strained flexor mass (group of muscles in the forearm) did not immediately require surgery but did lead to Kieboom being placed on the 60-day injured list. He will not return to the Nationals before June.
The injury was a massive blow for a former first-rounder who was trying to win the Opening Day job at third base for the third consecutive year. He had slimmed down and made improvements in his swing that encouraged manager Dave Martinez. Kieboom had also looked somewhat nimbler to Martinez, a hint that perhaps Kieboom could field at third base with a little more ease.
Kieboom was battling Maikel Franco, in camp on a minor-league deal, for the starting job at third base at the time of his injury. He might have had a leg up on a veteran who has only produced an OPS+ above 100 in three of eight big-league seasons. Now there’s a chance that Franco puts together a strong start to the season at the plate. That could leave Kieboom in the dust, burning the last of his minor-league options from him at Triple A.
Kieboom may need another tune-up anyway. Across 106 games in the major leagues since 2019, Kieboom has batted .197 with an unsightly .268 wOBA and 63 wRC+. His strikeout rate from him has been exorbitantly high, settling at almost 27 percent across his 414 plate appearances from him. His defense of him at third base, still a relatively new position for him, left so much to be desired in 2021 that Baseball Savant says he cost the Nationals 13 Outs Above Average (OAA) in 197 attempts. None of those numbers paint a pretty picture.
But a return to the minor leagues would put Kieboom, who is under team control through 2026, in a precarious position. He’d be out of options heading into 2023. This year is effectively his last chance for him to prove he is worthy of an everyday spot on the Nationals’ roster before they seriously consider moving on from him entirely.
Luis Garcia become the shortstop of the Nationals’ immediate future?
After a couple of seasons testing him at second base in the major leagues, the Nationals want to give Luis García another chance to prove that he can man his natural position — shortstop — for the long term. He won’t get the chance to do that at the MLB level yet. He will have to prove it at Triple-A Rochester, where he made 11 errors in 28 games at shortstop last season.
Garcia made some important strides at the plate last year, tapping into more power (13 homers in 37 Triple-A games, six in 70 MLB games) and doing a decent job knocking hits with runners in scoring position (20-for-68 with 16 RBIs in the big leagues). But his aggressiveness from him at the plate hurt his on-base percentage from him. And he struggled against right-handed pitching despite his platoon advantage; he performed best against left-handers at both levels last year after spending the previous offseason working on that area of his game.
Garcia is only 21, so it is only natural that he is still working to sharpen his offensive approach. He deserves the same grace as he navigates becoming a stronger defender. The Nationals often cited lapses in concentration as the main contributor to García’s mishaps at second base. He committed eight errors at the position and cost the Nationals six OAA according to Statcast. But the lifelong shortstop also struggled to shake the instincts he honed on the left side of the infield. Perhaps focusing on his preferred position will help him unlock his defensive potential.
If Garcia doesn’t prove capable of being an everyday shortstop, the Nationals can go back to trying him at second. His arm from him is probably better suited to the right side of the infield anyway.
(Photo: Dylan Buell/Getty Images)