To put it frankly, the Nationals’ 2021 season was a failure. They came into the year as worthy contenders for the NL East division crown–while I had them finishing in third place in my season preview behind Atlanta and the Mets, I projected a high-octane dogfight between every NL East team for the division. If you were to show me a lineup, back in April, where Yadiel Hernandez was the #3 hole hitter and Victor Robles would be leading off with a batting average hovering around .200, I would have called you crazy.
The Nats fell apart, and at the trade deadline, the team was blown up. Future Hall of Famers Max Scherzer and Trea Turner were shipped to Los Angeles in the most memorable deadline deal, and many other key players were sent across the baseball world for a massive retooling of the Nats’ prospect system.
We’re about to enter September, and the Nats might finish as the worst team in the NL East. Even more shocking, they might finish among the bottom five worst teams in the league, period. While this year did not pan out the way the Nationals intended it to, the situation isn’t so bleak. They’ve been losing a lot of games since the deadline, of course, but the losses have been close, and they just swept the wildly talented Toronto Blue Jays. The offense has been remarkable, and still today, the Nats hold the highest team batting average and the third highest team OBP in the National League. The pitching has not been excellent, but new additions in the rotation and bullpen have shown flashes of brilliance. This team could honestly compete sooner than other teams’ fans might think, and the Nats need to be aggressive this offseason to accelerate the retool and re-establish themselves as serious contenders before Juan Soto’s contract expires in 2024.
So let’s look ahead to the winter and see what the Nats could do to bolster their roster for the 2022 season.
The first and most obvious hole in this team is the pitching staff. It’s ironic, considering that Mike Rizzo has openly said he likes to build teams around pitching, but the staff took a step in the wrong direction this year. Of course, Stephen Strasburg’s injury plays a major role in the pitching’s failures this season. Suddenly, when Scherzer got traded and Strasburg was moved to the 60-day IL, the Nats went from having two bonafide aces to having no established and reliably excellent starting pitchers. The Nats’ best starting pitcher since the Scherzer trade has been Josiah Gray, who was one of the main pieces involved in that trade. He’s been lights out since coming to Washington. If he can work on limiting home runs, Gray is a future ace for this ballclub. You can Sharpie him in for the rotation next season. Strasburg will also be in the rotation, although it is unclear how he will perform after returning from surgery. Joe Ross and Erick Fedde are solid fourth and fifth starters for a team with no expectations. Depending on his performance in Spring Training, 2020 1st round pick Cade Cavalli could enter the rotation and bump Fedde to either Rochester or a different organization. With an electric fastball and wicked secondary pitches, Cavalli is, in all likelihood, Major League-ready, and would make an instant impact on the Nats’ staff. I don’t know what this means for the most unlikely of heroes this year, Paolo Espino, but I’d say it’s pretty likely Espino does not pitch in a Nationals uniform in 2022.
Notice how I didn’t mention Patrick Corbin in that paragraph. He deserves his own paragraph, given how remarkably terrible he’s been this season. He currently sits at a 6.04 ERA, which is a full point better than Dan Haren’s ERA in his terrible 2013 season with the Nats. What’s interesting about Corbin’s season, however, is that he has been excellent early in games. Once he gets to the later innings, Corbin’s production goes way down. That’s why the Nats should move him to the bullpen and make Corbin the closer. He’s signed to a contract that few teams would consider adding for a player of his caliber, even if he wasn’t facing the woes he has been facing this year. As trading Corbin is out of the question, moving him to the bullpen might be the best course of action for the Nats to take. His wipeout slider could honestly be too valuable of an asset to move, and as we saw in the 2019 playoffs, Corbin can pitch wonderfully out of the bullpen. It also fills a strategic need–Sean Nolin is currently the only left handed relief pitcher in the Nats’ bullpen. I’d be shocked if Sam Clay makes it back to the big leagues, especially as a Nat, so adding Corbin to the bullpen would give the Nats the late-inning lefty the organization desperately needs.
So let’s add a starting pitcher to the Nats’ rotation for 2022. Of course, the dream scenario is to bring back Scherzer, but teams like the Angels might be more aggressive in their pursuit for the pitcher. If Corbin is moved to the bullpen, the Nats would go without any lefty starters, so I’ll look for lefties here. Former Nationals draft pick Robbie Ray (who was traded away for Doug Fister in 2014) is having an excellent season, but the asking price might be too high. His teammate, Steven Matz, is a more logical solution. He isn’t blowing anybody away this year, but he’s consistent and has experience pitching in the NL East. Let’s bring in Matz on a two year contract.
To the bullpen. It was a disaster for much of the year. The Brad Hand experiment did not work, and somehow, the Nats got catcher Riley Adams for him. I’ll take it. Tanner Rainey, Wander Suero, Austin Voth, and Clay are all in AAA right now, after they were expected to lock down later innings. Daniel Hudson was the team’s best reliever for yet another year, and he was traded to San Diego for an impressive haul of Mason Thompson and Jordy Barley. Corbin is the closer in this scenario, so I’ll focus on the setup and middle relievers here.
Kyle Finnegan will be back, and he will get the save situations if Corbin isn’t moved to the ‘pen. Thompson should be pitching the eighth innings on a consistent basis this year, but he will get a more definite setup role in 2022 if he continues his development at the current rate. Ryne Harper is the most underappreciated player on the 2021 team, sporting a mind-boggling 1.97 ERA that was under 1.00 until a bad showing against Toronto. Bring him back for another year in a middle relief role. Andres Machado has also been really solid. And while we haven’t seen too much of Gabe Klobotsis yet this year, he figures to factor into the team’s long term plans. Unfortunately, this means that Jefry Rodriguez, Javy Guerra, and Sean Nolin don’t factor into the next season. Both seem to be the stereotypical AAAA player, and in Rodriguez’s case, I can’t tell if the Nats are trying to develop him as a starting pitcher or a long reliever. He definitely gets the job done as the mop-up guy in blowout losses (or wins!), but I don’t know if I would want him coming into a high stakes playoff game at this point in his career. Let’s not forget about Rainey, Voth, and Suero, who have Major League stuff but haven’t been able to pitch consistently at the Major League level. I’m higher on Rainey than I am on Suero and Voth, but I think he needs to have his breakout season sooner rather than later if he wants to be a consistent later-innings guy. Elsewhere in the system, recent waiver pickup and team #19 prospect Patrick Murphy might compete for a spot in the ‘pen, and we’re all anticipating the debut of future closer Matt Cronin. Finally, Gerardo Carrillo could find himself in Washington by year’s end. The bullpen has always been a sore spot for these Nationals, but I don’t think they need to look outside of their own system to sport a solid ‘pen for ‘22.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Nats have been quite impressive, largely due to the emergence of some of their stagnant young stars. Let’s start at catcher, where the highly anticipated Nats debut of Keibert Ruiz should align with Opening Day 2022. Ruiz was, of course, the main piece the Nats acquired from the Dodgers in the Scherzer/Turner trade, and checks in as MLB Pipeline’s #19 prospect in the entire league. He’s having a career year in AAA this year, mashing for both of the clubs he’s been on this year. Ruiz has MLB experience, but the Nats are holding him in Rochester for the time being to conserve his service time. He’ll have an instant impact on the Nats’ lineup, and hopefully, will start a Beltways rivalry with Orioles backstop and current #1 prospect Adley Rutschman, also due to make the MLB on Opening Day 2022. Backing up Ruiz will be Riley Adams, another catcher acquired at the 2021 deadline. He’s impressed so far at the MLB level, with a 1.087 OPS as a National after struggling in his first few games with the Blue Jays. This factors out Tres Barrera and Alex Avila.
In the infield, the Nats extend Josh Bell. He’s greatly improved on an abysmal start to the season, and provides a solid glove and bat combination at first base. Whether or not Ryan Zimmerman retires is still unknown, although chances are that Zim is playing in his final season as a National. It’ll be strange to see a Nationals team without Zimmerman, but in this scenario, he hangs up his cleats after a truly legendary career. At second base, Luis Garcia will continue to get MLB experience. He’s been having a fine year since being called up–nothing extraordinary offensively, solid defense. Hopefully he doesn’t become a Victor Robles redux, but you can’t argue with the glove at such a key position. He’s young, he’ll improve his hitting. I’d also like to bring back Alcides Escobar, who has been a pleasant surprise out of nowhere for this Nationals team. He’ll come off the bench, however, because the Nats make their big splash of the offseason at shortstop. There is a wealth of shortstop talent available on the market this free agent class, and after losing Trea Turner at the deadline, this is the Nats’ chance to acquire a big-name bat for their lineup. Trevor Story is going to command a lot of money, and in all honesty, probably get signed by the Yankees only to face a massive regression after not playing 82 games at Coors Field. Javy Baez strikes out too much for my liking, and will want to re-sign with the Mets to play with his good friend, Francisco Lindor. Corey Seager will not play in Dodger blue next year, as LA has two more solid middle infielders than they do spots on the diamond, but I wouldn’t expect the Nats to go after a big lefty bat to follow Juan Soto, a fellow lefty. That narrows down the list considerably, and I think that in 2022, the Nationals will sign Carlos Correa away from the Astros. Yes, we all are angry at him for being a part of the 2017 Houston “Asterisks” cheating scandal, and Houston will make a considerable attempt to sign their captain of the infield back. But in the end, the Nats will end up with Correa in a massive deal to add his undeniable talent to their organization. At third base, the Nats stick with Carter Kieboom, who seems to finally be hitting his stride at the big league level, both offensively and defensively.
The Nats would need to add one more depth infielder to their bench, and in all likelihood, it will be Adrian Sanchez. But wouldn’t it be fun if the Nats took a blast to the past and brought back one of their former infield stalwarts for a final go? Old friend Danny Espinosa is playing really well for the Acereros de Monclova in the Mexican League, hitting to a .917 OPS and a .281 batting average. Or what about Ian Desmond, who took the last two years off, but played solidly in 2019 for the Rockies and can play both infield and outfield spots.
The Nats’ outfield will look pretty similar next year. Juan Soto will, of course, continue to be the team’s best player. Without him, the Nats are nothing. He needs to be excellent, and knowing Soto, he’s up for the challenge. Victor Robles will take center field, hoping to improve his offensive numbers after a disappointing 2021 season. His defense, however, is what makes him valuable for the future. And in left, Lane Thomas and Yadiel Hernandez will platoon for yet another year, unless Kyle Schwarber declines his mutual option with the Red Sox. Schwarber was a fan favorite in Washington, seemed to really enjoy being a Nat, and never finished what he started with the club, so I think both parties would be interested in a reunion should he hit free agency. Another factor to consider is that the designated hitter rule may debut in the National League in 2022. If that is the case, Hernandez becomes the clearest option to take over at DH. Donovan Casey, the final part of the Scherzer/Turner trade, has been hitting very well at both Harrisburg and Rochester, and could factor into the conversation with a strong Spring Training. I would give Lane Thomas more opportunities to play this season to evaluate whether he will be more of a regular or a fourth outfielder for an emerging team, but as of now, I think his tools could be valuable for the organization on the MLB level.
I would want the roster to look like this on Opening Day 2022:
SP – Josiah Gray, Stephen Strasburg, Steven Matz, Joe Ross, Cade Cavalli
RP – Patrick Corbin, Mason Thompson, Kyle Finnegan, Tanner Rainey, Andres Machado, Gabe Klobotsis, Ryne Harper, Patrick Murphy
C – Keibert Ruiz, Riley Adams
1B – Josh Bell
2B – Luis Garcia, Danny Espinosa
SS – Carlos Correa, Alcides Escobar
3B – Carter Kieboom
OF – Juan Soto, Victor Robles, Kyle Schwarber, Yadiel Hernandez, Lane Thomas
DH – Hernandez
This team could be competitive, especially considering the Nats’ relative success on the offensive side of the baseball this year, the fixes made to the pitching staff, and the consistent underperformance of the Phillies and Mets. The good thing is, however, that the Nationals have nothing to lose. Sure, signing Correa, Schwarber, and Matz might indicate that they are eager to make it back to the playoffs after dismal 2020 and 2021 seasons, but until their younger stars establish themselves as true superstar talent, they’re playing with house money. If I were Mike Rizzo, I’d try to build off of the bright spots from 2021 and try to catch lightning in a bottle in 2022.