Tuesday, September 26, 2023.
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Perspective | A year after being MLB’s worst, these ‘better’ Nationals are refreshing


Right now, Washington is watching a major league rebuild in its crucial middle stages. The Washington Nationals, who were the worst team in MLB last year, entered Tuesday having won 29 of their past 50 games and had moved ahead of six teams, including the Cardinals and Pirates last week. Through Monday, with 37 games to play, they were tied with the Tigers, trailed the Mets (the highest-paid team in history) by a game and a half, trailed the defending American League Central champ Guardians by two games and were behind the bejeweled choking Padres by 2½.

Why not pass more of ’em? They don’t give out a trophy for having a better record than 10 teams in a 30-team sport, but aside from following a team that’s in a pennant race, my favorite MLB pleasure is watching a team of overachievers try to finish a season in which it blows away preseason predictions. See: the 1989 Orioles, who improved by 33 wins, and the 2007 Nats, predicted by plenty to be the worst team in history, who refused to lose even 90.

The Nats deserve full credit for their two months of fine play, regardless of what lies ahead. On Aug. 13, they scored six runs in the bottom of the ninth to walk off as 8-7 winners over Oakland, and then, five days later, they responded to a six-run Phillies fourth inning with six runs of their own in the bottom half on the way to another 8-7 win. The Nats entered Tuesday on pace for 74 wins, 19 more than last season.

That’s asking quite a bit because their schedule now gets tougher. But that represents miles of progress because just one year ago the Nats were so ugly I couldn’t watch their games.

For a midmarket team to go from the top of the MLB mountain (2019) to the bottom (2022) and then back near the top, it must execute several difficult and intertwined transformations — not some of them but all of them.

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Most painful, you must trade your most valuable and popular stars: Juan Soto, Trea Turner, Max Scherzer and Josh Bell. In return, you must get major league-ready young players who quickly will be part of your new foundation. So far, the Nats may be 4 for 4.

Right-handed starter Josiah Gray was an all-star last month. Lefty MacKenzie Gore now strikes out as many per nine innings as Scherzer. They’re not top-of-rotation polished yet but may get there. Catcher Keibert Ruiz, with a .977 OPS the past six weeks, and shortstop CJ Abrams, stealing bases at a 90-a-year rate since being moved to leadoff, are daily excitement. Abrams may soon be a 20-homer, 60-steal shortstop with top-five defensive range.

In those mega-trades, you also must get at least one young star of the future. That’s probably 6-foot-6, 240-pound James Wood, 20, MLB.com’s No. 7 overall prospect, with huge power and track speed. Don’t rush him. Ted Williams said it took 1,200 at-bats in the minors to learn your craft. It’s fewer now, with better instruction. After 765 at-bats, Wood had a .921 OPS.

While a team is awful, it needs to nail its first-round draft picks. The Nats may be 2 for 3 there. Brady House, 20, is a big, strong-armed third baseman with power potential hitting .316 at Class AA. ETA: probably 2025. Even if he’s just a good everyday player, that’s plenty. Elijah Green, last year’s top pick, is 19, so be patient. But he strikes out 50 percent of the time. Some prospect somewhere probably has overcome such a ratio in time, but I don’t know his name.

Dylan Crews, this year’s No. 2 pick, needed all of 15 games to reach Class AA ball in Harrisburg. That’s where Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon first learned they could make outs. But not for long. Soto did to Class AA what he has done to the rest of planet Earth and was called up quick.

When Crews arrives, it won’t be Strasmas, but you still may want to wear bells.

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Another huge part of a rebuild is the low-regarded players who are acquired for next to nothing but, when given a chance, become part of a core. When every game is open mic night, how much talent can you steal?

The Nats are currently blowing the doors off this category. Right fielder Lane Thomas, 28 on Wednesday and playing at an all-star level, was acquired for now-retired Jon Lester. Riley Adams, hitting .316, may back up Ruiz but also pick up at-bats as a DH for years. His price: reliever Brad Hand.

Believe it or not, Thomas and Adams are the expensive ones. Half of the Nats on the current roster — including Joey Meneses, Stone Garrett, Kyle Finnegan, Hunter Harvey and Jordan Weems — were castoff-bin free agents or waiver-wire claims.

Thomas, Meneses and, perhaps, Garrett remind me, in terms of total offensive value, of Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Wilson Ramos in the first half of the past decade. Only Ramos, in 2016, made an all-star team on the National League East champions of 2012, ’14 and ’16. But all were solid core players.

Finnegan, Harvey and Weems entered Tuesday with ERAs under 3.00 and have touched 100 mph this season.

Zimmerman once told me that fans “want a $200 million player at every position” but that a 90-plus-win team needs a lot of “good players, not superstars” to maximize the roster. The members of Mike Rizzo’s front office, especially on everyday players and relievers, are aces at this.

In 1,288 plate appearances as a Nat, Thomas has a 117 OPS+ — 17 percent above league average. From age 26 through 30, Zim’s OPS+ was 117. Thomas’s base-running and defense, combined, are at least as good now as Zim’s were then.

The Nats should be delighted they control Thomas through 2025 and should lean more toward trying to extend him a couple of years than deal him for prospects. “Good players,” at reasonable prices, are not easily had.

Perfect example: Meneses. Did you enjoy LaRoche at 32 to 34 when he averaged 26 homers and 83 RBI with an OPS+ of 118? As a hitter, Meneses, 31, is LaRoche, if not better, at the same age.

And the Nats may have pulled another Joey-out-of-the-hat in Garrett, 27, who did little except strike out in the nether regions of the minors until 2021. Then he crushed Class AA and AAA ball with a ton of RBI in 2021 and ’22. So far, he has had just 305 MLB at-bats. But his .823 OPS means he should get plenty of chances this year to show whether he belongs. He has speed and enthusiasm, makes sliding catches … and still strikes out.

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With all this good news, what’s the problem? Aside from Gray and Gore, the Nats have a dearth of young starting pitchers with high ceilings. And their current staff is near the bottom of MLB in ERA and homer-prone.

Vet Patrick Corbin has been useful after three bad starts in April. Jake Irvin may be a fifth starter or a long man in the future. And promising Cade Cavalli, who missed this season after elbow surgery, should be back in 2024.

The Nats can, and should, talk up others in the rotation pipeline. But adding starting pitching, by free agency or trade, is their next rebuilding priority. There’s time. And the first addition doesn’t have to be the killer Final Piece, like signing Scherzer.

For now, enjoy the Nats’ improved record and, even more, their one-for-all cohesion, their resilience after lopsided defeats and their joy in the game under Manager Dave Martinez, who agreed to a well-deserved extension this week.

These are August dog days, followed by a September countdown to “Can we please go home now?” Many a Washington foe, with an established career or a fat bank account, will lack motivation.

The Nats, every one of them in different ways, will be playing with something to prove. On the surface, they may not look like a dangerous late-season climber. But if you want to get back to the top of the ladder, you have to step on a lot of rungs, one at a time.


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