The 2022 Washington Nationals season is over.
Er, the 2022 Washington Nationals have been put out of their misery.
For years and years and years, the Nationals teams of the late 2000s were complete jokes. A jersey misprint caused the team to be known as the Natinals for a game? A sorry 59-103 finish in 2009? Jim Riggleman resigning as manager in the middle of the season? Nyjer Morgan’s hissy-fit in a live ball situation leading to an inside-the-park home run against the hated Orioles? Wil Nieves, a backup catcher at best, featured prominently in MASN’s advertising for the team? Surely you can’t get worse than that. Right?
Wrong. The Nats entered this season with low expectations. After a somewhat strong start, the 2021 season was a failure that saw superstars Max Scherzer and Trea Turner shipped to the Dodgers in a massive trade. Other key pieces vital to the team’s playoff chances, like Kyle Schwarber and Daniel Hudson, were involved in a complete teardown at the trade deadline. The only decent pieces remaining were superstar outfielder Juan Soto, solid first baseman Josh Bell, and highly-touted young prospects. Somehow, the Nats did even worse in 2022 than even the most pessimistic fan could have expected. They finished as the very worst team in the league by five games. Their run differential of -252 is comical. At least that Soto guy’s still good…oh right.
Since I’ve been in college, I’ve played a game called Rose, Bud, Thorn far more than I would have liked to. Essentially, as an icebreaker, you talk about a rose (the good things that have happened to you recently), a bud (something you’re looking forward to), and a thorn (the bad-to-ugly parts of your recent life). Let’s play some good old-fashioned Rose, Bud, and Thorn with this season. Frankly, there’s a lot to unpack here.
- The return for Juan Soto
Juan Soto is one of the game’s finest young stars, and when the news broke that the Nats were considering trading him, the baseball world knew he was going to command a trade return unlike anything seen in baseball history. The Nats received a package of young prospects with immeasurable upside at the August 2 deadline, making the misery of the second half sorta worth it. We saw CJ Abrams make his Nationals debut towards the end of the season, and his progress was evident throughout the year. MacKenzie Gore looked fantastic for the Padres at points in the early season. James Wood is a physical freak who mashes baseballs like nobody’s business. Robert Hassell III is an on-base machine who’ll be challenged at AA for the entire 2023 season. Luke Voit gave us some fun home runs down the stretch. Losing Soto sucks, but what we got back for him is more than promising.
- Josh Bell’s first half
Oh yeah, the Nats also parted ways with Josh Bell in that trade with the Padres. While Soto netted the Nats Abrams, Gore, Hassell, Wood, and Voit, Bell got the Nats Jarlin Susana, an 18-year old pitcher who was touching 103 mph on his fastball in A-ball last season. Holy cow. Susana is oozing with potential, whether it be as a power starter or a lights-out closer. Bell was the team’s best player in the first half, finishing with an OPS of .877 and 14 home runs. He had a disappointing end to the 2022 season with San Diego, so this trade-within-a-trade is looking incredibly one-sided for the Nats so far.
- Joey Meneses
What can I say about this guy that hasn’t been said already? Every MLB team would consider rostering 2022 Joey Meneses over 2022 Juan Soto. Having an ultra-reliable player like Meneses in the lineup made the lack of Soto a little more palatable. AAA Rochester’s best hitter in 2022, the rookie hit his way to the Major Leagues when Soto and Bell were moved and then obviously played better baseball in the majors than he did in the Minors. He delivered in the big moments, like homering in his MLB debut and hitting the Nats’ first walk-off home run of the season. The 30-year old rookie, who had always produced in the minor leagues and overseas, was the team’s best player. What a cool story.
- The bullpen, somehow?
Ok, what happened here? Even the best Nationals teams had awful bullpens. Remember Trevor Rosenthal and Matt Grace? For the most part, this Nationals bullpen was legitimately good. Tanner Rainey had a massive bounceback season and was an effective closer until an injury sidelined him for the remainder of the campaign. Kyle Finnegan, Rainey’s replacement as closer, was again excellent in the role he thrived in during the 2021 season. Aside from Rainey and Finnegan, much of the Nats’ bullpen excellence came from players not guaranteed roster spots at the beginning of the year. Hunter Harvey was fantastic in a set-up role this year. Carl Edwards Jr. was a consistent force at the back end of the Nats bullpen and had his first truly solid season since his glory days with the Cubs. Erasmo Ramírez, the definition of a journeyman, was the team’s most valuable pitcher, offering set-up, middle relief, and even some spot start flexibility in 2022. Andrés Machado bounced between Washington and Rochester but didn’t give up an earned run in consistent playing time since August 1. Mason Thompson was inexplicably kept in Rochester most of the year, but looked sharp in the big leagues. Paolo Espino was good as a reliever in the first half. For whatever reason, this squad was among the league’s top relieving corps. And my goodness, did they need pitching stability from somewhere.
- Luís García..sorta
The definition of a bat-first player. García’s defense was truly terrible at shortstop, where the Nats played him until CJ Abrams was called up in August. García was spectacular at the plate, though, and was probably the Nats’ best hitter in the second half. Now that the Nats have a wealth of infield talent in Abrams, Brady House, and Armando Cruz, García needed to establish himself as a force for the future this season. He did just that. Remember, García’s two full years younger than Cade Cavalli. He’s a baby. He’ll be around for a long time.
- Waiver claims and NRIs played huge roles
Could anyone have expected these seemingly random signings to play such a massive role throughout the season? I’ve already talked about Edwards, Ramírez, and Harvey, the three lights-out relievers most Nats fans had never heard of before the season. Down the stretch, old friend Aníbal Sánchez was by far the Nats’ best starting pitcher. After Maikel Franco (a minor-league free agent himself) performed below the replacement level, the Nats turned to Ildemaro Vargas, who played the best baseball of his career with Washington. Alex Call and Josh Palacios served as spectacular outfield depth. Jordan Weems and Cory Abbott were serviceable out of the bullpen. And, of course, there’s Meneses, who became a star by the end of the season. Expect more NRIs and waiver claims this offseason as some of the failures (Víctor Arano, Francisco Pérez, Lucius Fox) change organizations.
- Debuts, debuts, debuts!
Cade Cavalli, far and away the best pitching prospect in the organization, made his first major league start. Abrams assumed the role of everyday shortstop towards the end of the season. Israel Pineda, the Nats’ future backup catcher, played his way to Washington after starting the season in High-A ball. Evan Lee and Jackson Tetreault (remember them?) showed flashes of potential for depth. While he’s not necessarily a piece to build a future team around, Meneses was heaven-sent in the post-Soto era. Overall, Nats fans got a small glimpse of the future core in 2022, even though it wasn’t always pretty.
- A fantastic draft
In the July draft, the Nats used the 5th overall pick on Florida prep outfielder Elijah Green. Green is a physical freak who has insane game power and flashes all five tools. In the second round, they nabbed Jake Bennett, a polished college left-handed pitcher who helped Oklahoma reach the College World Series. Bennett is a former Nationals draft pick out of high school and was high school and college teammates with Cavalli. The first two college bats the Nats selected, Trey Lipscomb of Tennessee and Jared McKenzie of Baylor, absolutely raked in their first glimpses of professional baseball. Fourth round pick Brenner Cox has so much untapped potential. Add headliner international signing Cristhian Vaquero, who Dominican scouts called “The Phenomenon”, and you’ve got yourself a more-than-solid homegrown crop of players entering the organization in 2022.
- Former top prospects performing at top levels
Nats fans put a lot of trust into Mason Denaburg and Jackson Rutledge in the late 2010s as future aces in the rotation. Denaburg was doomed by injuries since he entered the organization, and Rutledge was comically inconsistent. This year, while neither were spectacular, both showed signs of significant improvement towards the end of the season. Rutledge, the 2019 first round pick from a Texas junior college, threw to a 2.29 ERA in his final eight starts with Low-A Fredericksburg. Denaburg flashed ace-like stuff in his starts, too. Both should be challenged to a promotion to High-A Wilmington in 2023. Jeremy de la Rosa also had a much-needed breakout season after a few underwhelming campaigns in the past few years.
- Future bullpen takes shape
I already talked about Tanner Rainey, Kyle Finnegan, Hunter Harvey, and Mason Thompson, four hard-throwing, young, controllable righties who established themselves as future bullpen pieces. Elsewhere in the organization, the remainder of a future contender’s bullpen took shape. 2022 was the coming-out party for lefty flamethrower José A. Ferrer, pitching his way from Fredericksburg to AA Harrisburg and even got a chance on the national stage in the Futures Game. Zach Brzykcy dominated every level he threw at this past season as well. Matt Cronin worked through early struggles in AAA to finish the second half remarkably strong. Again, for a team that has historically had a very weak bullpen, the future looks really bright.
- Juan Soto is no longer a Washington National
I firmly believe we won the trade. I truly do. The Nats got a damn good package of players back. Soto is having a down year and at his age it’s still uncertain if he’ll amount to more than a DH in the future. He certainly wasn’t worth $450 million this past season. But he’s Juan Soto. You don’t trade Juan Soto. It still stings to see him in Padres brown and gold. This was one of the lowest moments in Nationals history, especially just three years removed from a World Series championship.
- The starting rotation
Aníbal Sánchez didn’t suck for the last two months. Other than that, there was a lot of bad and even more ugly in the rotation. It feels silly to have expected Patrick Corbin to rebound in a big way, but I bought into the false hope. His 2022 was somehow worse than his 2021. Back-to-back NL leader in earned runs allowed, baby! Josiah Gray, the headliner in the Scherzer/Turner deal, was the NL leader in home runs and walks allowed! Erick Fedde is one of the most consistently bad pitchers the Nats have trotted out in a long time. Paolo Espino couldn’t recreate his 2021 magic. Cory Abbott was…meh. Corbin had the most losses in the National League. Fedde was tied for third. Joan Adon, who, remember, literally was not in the major leagues for the majority of the season, WAS TIED FOR FOURTH. Pitcher wins and losses are a very bad stat in most cases but this shows the abject futility of the Nats’ rotation. There has to be improvement next year. MacKenzie Gore and Cade Cavalli should be healthy for full seasons. Sánchez will probably be back, but he’s by no means a lock to recreate his magic from the end of this season. A low-stakes free agent, someone like José Quintana, Andrew Heaney, or Trevor Williams is a necessity this offseason.
- Injuries suck
The great equalizer in sports is whether or not your players can stay healthy. This year, the Nats had simply rotten luck with injuries. Stephen Strasburg, the 2019 World Series MVP, spent the first half of the season recovering from thoracic outlet syndrome, pitched one game, and then spent the rest of the season sidelined with thoracic outlet syndrome. Cole Henry, the Nats’ 2020 second round pick who was excellent in the minor leagues, also spent most of 2022 out with TOS. Brady House was sidelined most of the year with a back issue. Gerardo Carrillo, Daylen Lile, and Aldo Ramírez spent time rehabbing. On the big league side, the Will Harris signing was a complete and utter failure, as he could not make his way to the major leagues after suffering, you guessed it, thoracic outlet syndrome. At points throughout the year, Víctor Arano, Cade Cavalli, Sean Doolittle, MacKenzie Gore, Harris, Hunter Harvey, Evan Lee, Tanner Rainey, Joe Ross, Strasburg, Jackson Tetreault, Keibert Ruiz, Carter Kieboom, Yadiel Hernández, and Nelson Cruz missed significant time with injuries. Even with a bad team, it’s really hard to come back from that much missed injury time.
- Major league free agents were bad
Over the winter, the Nats signed Nelson Cruz, César Hernández, and Steve Cishek as experienced major league depth which they could move at the trade deadline. All three had very underwhelming seasons. Cruz had experienced a resurgence at the plate in the later part of his career with the Twins and Rays, but the notorious slugger only hit 10 home runs this year and was otherwise bad at the plate. Hernández was coming off a career year with Cleveland and the White Sox in which he hit over 20 home runs, yet he slugged just one despite over 550 at-bats. Cishek was rather pedestrian out of the bullpen and had trouble keeping the ball in the yard. Other than Soto and Bell, the Nats only moved Ehire Adrianza at the deadline. These boom-bust signings in the offseason certainly did not work out for the Nats, but expect the team to sign more of these types of players in the offseason.