The 2022 season was expected to be bad. But not this bad.
The Nationals entered Tuesday tied for the most losses in the major leagues. The club’s porous starting rotation, miscue-riddled defense and hot-and-cold offense have all made the first quarter of the season a forgettable one.
But none of those facts are the most concerning development to come out about the rebuilding club through the first seven weeks.
That, of course, is the news from April that the Lerner family is exploring a sale of the franchise. It got even more uncertain last week with the report that general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Dave Martinez are both in the final guaranteed year of their respective contracts.
It’s tough to imagine with a 14-29 record before Tuesday night’s game against the Dodgers, but the worst of the Nationals’ rebuild could still be yet to come.
“The one thing I can tell you about these guys is that they don’t quit,” Martinez said. “They’re playing hard. Sometimes I feel like they’re playing too hard. We need to relax a little bit and not chase the game, let the game come to them.”
Once Rizzo shipped away Max Scherzer, Trea Turner and six other veterans at last season’s trade deadline, it was clear that the Nationals were embarking on what Rizzo calls a “reboot.” But the potential of the Lerner family selling the team isn’t just a big question mark for the long-term future of the franchise. It also has massive implications for how long this rebuild could take.
Another factor that complicates the Nationals’ future is who will be running the show, as The Washington Post reported that Rizzo and Martinez are not guaranteed to return next season.
USA Today reported that Washington is expected to exercise Rizzo’s club option for 2023, extending the executive who has been with the franchise since 2006 and in charge of baseball operations since 2009. Martinez has a 2023 option worth $4 million, according to USA Today, and the team has until the All-Star Break to decide whether to pick it up.
And as if all these question marks weren’t enough, there have also been rumors about Juan Soto’s long-term future in the District.
ESPN’s Buster Olney reported last week that rival executives said the Nationals may seek to trade the once-in-a-generation superstar this summer. Soto, who won’t hit free agency until after the 2024 season and is represented by agent Scott Boras, reportedly turned down a 13-year, $350 million offer from the Nationals this past offseason.
However, Olney’s suggestion generated multiple other reports pushing back against a possible Soto trade, considering how difficult it would be for Washington to give away the 2021 NL MVP runner-up and get proper value for a player who is still just 23 years old. It would also be a stark contrast to the way Rizzo spoke about Soto before the season, calling him the “face of the franchise” after Ryan Zimmerman’s retirement.
“This is his team,” Rizzo said in March. “He’s the face of the franchise. I want him here for the long term.”
Between the lines, the 2022 season thus far has also resembled that of a rebuilding team — maybe closer to a tanking one, actually. Monday’s 10-1 drubbing at the hands of the Dodgers was the latest example — the Nationals’ 16th time losing by four or more runs.
The poor play and blowout losses have even been difficult to stomach at times. The Nationals are tied for the second-most errors in the big leagues, including multiple blooper-reel-worthy defensive sequences as well as a baserunning blunder. Martinez said earlier this month that some of the errors were “lazy mistakes.”
However, amid the dark first quarter of the season, there have been signs of light.
While the rotation has been dreadful, Josiah Gray, who the Nationals received in the Scherzer-Turner trade with the Dodgers, and Erick Fedde, in his sixth season with the club, have both been solid on the bump. Gray leads the team with four wins and 46 strikeouts, while Fedde’s 4.08 ERA is tops in the rotation.
First baseman Josh Bell is off to one of the best starts in his career with a .383 on-base percentage. Left fielder Yadiel Hernandez has become an everyday player thanks to a team-best .466 slugging percentage. And third baseman Maikel Franco, a minor-league free agent signing in the offseason, has surprised as an offensive jolt with a team-high 10 doubles along with 21 RBIs.
But arguably the most welcome development this month has been catcher Keibert Ruiz, who also came to Washington in the trade with the Dodgers last summer. With a solid glove and an improving bat, Ruiz’s .718 on-base plus slugging is 13% better than league average, leading Martinez to move the 23-year-old up to the No. 2 hole in the lineup on Sunday and Monday.
“He‘s starting to stay on top of the baseball. He’s hitting the ball all over the field, which is great,” Martinez said last week. “But he‘s catching, his game-calling, his blocking — everything’s gotten so much better.”