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March 28, 2023 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ 2022–2023 off season in review: “The first rung on the ladder to get back”

On February 12, 2023, the Nationals founding principal owner, Ted Lerner, passed away at the age of 97. With the team up for sale, the Lerner era is soon likely to pass into history.

The Nationals had a relatively quiet off season. The team, which had the worst record in baseball in 2022, made a few inexpensive upgrades hoping to avoid that fate in 2023. Here’s a quick review of what’s changed during the off season.


Eight players were scheduled to reach free agency. The Nats retained two of them—Erasmo Ramirez signed a one-year major league contract, and Sean Doolittle signed a minor league contract. Nelson Cruz left, signing a one-year contract with the Padres. Cesar Hernandez signed a minor league contract with the Tigers, and Joe Ross signed a minor league contract with the Giants. Steve Cischek and Will Harris decided to retire, and Anibal Sanchez remains unsigned.

Several additional players left the team after being dropped from the 40-man roster. Tres Barrera elected free agency rather than being sent outright to Rochester, then signed a minor league with the Cardinals. Luke Voit elected free agency after being non-tendered and signed a minor league contract with the Brewers. Erick Fedde also elected free agency and signed to play in Korea.


The Nats signed free agent pitcher, Trevor Williams, who will turn 31 in April, to a two-year deal worth $13 million. Williams spent the last season and a half with the Mets, where he started in 12 of his 40 appearances. Prior to the Mets, he pitched for the Pirates and Cubs. Over the last two seasons, he averaged a 106 ERA+ and a 3.88 FIP. Williams is expected to be part of the Nats’ starting rotation.

Starting pitcher Chad Kuhl, age 30, was signed to a minor league contract. He pitched for the Rockies last season and the Pirates for the five preceding seasons, and his ERA+ has averaged 87 over the last three seasons. Due to an injury to Cade Cavalli, Kuhl is likely to start the season as part of the Nats’ rotation. The Nats also decided to take a chance with a Rule 5 draft pick—Thaddeus Ward, age 26 with no major league experience, was drafted from the Red Sox system. A starter in the minors who is still recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2021, Davey Martinez is expected to use Ward as a long reliever. If the Nats don’t keep him on the active roster or the injured list for the full season, they will have to return him to the Red Sox.

For position players, the Nats tended to follow a different strategy than last off season. Last winter, the Nats signed several older free agents such as Nelson Cruz and Cesar Hernandez, but this winter, they decided to gamble with some younger players who had been good recently but had lost value after having one or two off seasons. Third baseman Jeimer Candelario, age 29, signed a one-year, $5 million contract. Formerly with the Tigers, Candelario had averaged a 125 OPS+ during the 2020–21 seasons but dropped to to 83 in 2022. The Nats are hoping he can return to the 3.9 fWAR player he was in 2021. First baseman Dominic Smith, who played for the Mets from 2017 to 2022 and turns 28 in June, signed a one-year, $2 million contract. During the 2019–2020 seasons, he averaged a 150 OPS+ while playing 139 games, but in 203 games over the last two seasons, his OPS+ dropped to 78. The Nats are betting that with the demise of the defensive shift, Smith can regain his former batting prowess.

Outfielder Stone Garrett represents a different sort of gamble. He is 27 years old and had his major league debut last season with the Diamondbacks. He has played only 27 games at the major league level, but hit well, with a 136 OPS+, and also hit well in the minors during the last two seasons. He will start the season in Rochester, but if he can make it back to the major league level and stick, he potentially brings six years of team control. Infielder Jeter Downs, who will also start the season in Rochester, is 24 years old and was claimed off waivers from the Red Sox. Three years ago he had been a top prospect in the Dodgers system and was a key piece of the Mookie Betts trade, but after missing the 2020 season due to the pandemic, he was disappointing in two seasons playing for the AAA Worcester Red Sox and a short stint with Boston. The Nats are wagering that he is young enough to get his career back on track.

The team’s other position player free agent signing was more in the mold of the older players signed in the previous off season. The Nats signed left fielder Corey Dickerson, who will turn 34 in May, to a one-year, $2.25 million contract. He played for the Cardinals last season, and had previously played for the Rockies, Rays, Pirates, Phillies, Marlins, and Blue Jays. In recent years, he’s mostly been a platoon player, with only 81 of his 662 plate appearances in the last two seasons coming against left-handed pitching. His OPS+ over the last two seasons was 99 in 203 games.

Injuries are always part of the spring training story, and the Nats had a couple of big ones. Before spring training started, it was reported that Stephen Strasburg was shut down after experiencing discomfort while trying to pitch. Since undergoing thoracic outlet surgery in July 2021, Strasburg has pitched only one game for the Nats (in June last year, before being shut down for the rest of the season). At this point, his career appears to be in peril. He is under contract to the Nationals through 2026.

Cade Cavalli was the Nats’ top pitching prospect and fourth best prospect overall (ranked 61st on Baseball America‘s top 100 prospects) and was preparing to start the season in the team’s rotation. On March 14, he felt elbow pain on his 43rd pitch and left the game to have an MRI. The next day the not unexpected news came back that Tommy John surgery was needed and he would be out for the season.

Several other Nationals players remained out due to injuries experienced last season. Carter Kieboom missed the entire 2022 season and had Tommy John surgery in late May. He experienced some shoulder issues in spring training and is gradually rehabbing. Tanner Rainey had Tommy John surgery on August 3 and won’t be back before August at the earliest. Sean Doolittle is rehabbing from elbow ligament surgery.

Victor Arano was injured during spring training with shoulder impingement, and Israel Pineda suffered a displacement of the tip of his right pinky finger after being hit by a pitch.

Other news

Keibert Ruiz was signed to an eight-year contract extension for $50 million. While Ruiz is not yet (and may never be) a star, he’s a league-average catcher and arguably was the Nats’ best overall player last season excluding Juan Soto and Josh Bell. The contract covers his last five seasons of team control and his first three seasons of free agency, tying him to the Nationals through 2030. It also includes two club options for the 2031 and 2032 seasons. This seems like a great agreement for both parties. According to Fangraphs, Ruiz’s 1.7 WAR last season was worth about $13.8 million. (In other words, that’s roughly the cost of signing a free agent who is expected to be worth 1.7 WAR to a one-year contract.) At age 24, Ruiz doesn’t seem likely to lose value over the next eight years, and may even gain value. His upcoming arbitration years and free agent years could easily be worth $75 million or more to the team. On the other side of the deal, Ruiz gets a guaranteed salary, thus insuring his salary in case he is seriously injured, and also gets his salary somewhat front loaded. The Braves have been very successful using contract extensions to lock down talent, and I hope the Nats can start to do more deals like this one.

The Nats’ starting pitchers were horrible last season—by far, the worst in the majors—but this spring there were signs that things may be looking better. In particular, Josiah Gray has started throwing a cutter and early results seem promising. In 16⅓ spring training innings, he had an ERA of 0.55, giving up only 2 walks and no home runs. We’ll see how it works out in regular season play, but we can certainly hope. Meanwhile the team’s record in Grapefruit League play was 12–12 (13–12 if you count the last exhibition game against the Yankees in Washington today). Again, I know the games don’t count and aren’t predictive of regular season performance, but it does leave a more hopeful feeling than did their 4–11 spring record last season.

Rule changes

I assume you all know about the new rule changes, but let me just say that I love the pitch clock. I first started following baseball in the early 1960s, and these crisply played games take me back to the baseball of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. It’s so nice to get rid of most of that wasted time of batters stepping out of the box, adjusting their gloves, and stepping back in, or of pitchers repeatedly lobbing the ball over to first base to hold the runner. Baseball at its best is an exciting sport, and this faster paced version of the game is so much better at maintaining the excitement.

The other rule changes include a limit on the number of pick-off attempts when a runner is on base (two times, with a third throw allowed, but with the runner awarded the next base if the pick-off fails). This rule change was needed to prevent pitchers from bypassing the pitch clock by repeatedly stepping off the rubber, but it’s also likely to greatly enhance the running game. Stolen bases were up about 50 percent in spring training compared to last year.

The other big change was the elimination of the defensive shift. I’m sort of ambivalent about this change, but it should allow a few more ground balls to become hits, especially by left-handed batters. The size of the bases was also increased, though the effect of that change is probably going to be small.

All in all, despite a flawed Nationals team, I’m excited to watch some baseball this season.

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