The Nationals are two series into their 2022 season with both coming against NL East opponents. After the New York Mets took three of four from them in D.C., they traveled down to Atlanta and grabbed a series win in three games against the defending World Series champions.
After a week of play, the Nationals sit at 3-4 with a -12 run differential that stands as the worst in the NL. Their 38 runs allowed are the most in the majors, while the offense has sputtered in some games and taken over in others.
Washington’s season could go a lot of different ways from here. So which early storylines are signs of things to come and which are overreactions?
Starters can’t go deep into games: Overreaction
The Nationals have had just one starting pitcher make it into the sixth inning so far this season and it came in the form of Josh Rogers, who didn’t make the club out of camp but received a call-up when Aníbal Sánchez was placed on the 10-Day Injured List on Monday. Manager Davey Martinez has already spoke in multiple postgame press conferences about needing his starters to go deeper.
However, the Nationals are far from the only team dealing with this issue. The delays caused by the MLB lockout cut spring training down to just over three weeks, which prevented many pitchers from fully building up their arms before Opening Day. Only 10 pitchers in all of baseball had thrown at least 90 pitches in a start heading into play Thursday and just one eclipsed 100.
While Martinez can’t be thrilled to see several of his starters hitting a wall in the fifth inning, they should settle in within the next week or two. There are still many questions marks surrounding Washington’s rotation, but it’s not time to hit the panic button just yet.
Defense can be a real strength of this team: Not an overreaction
Washington’s highlight reel has seen plenty of submissions already this season. Alcides Escobar is making shortstop look easy, Josh Bell has flashed the leather over at first, Victor Robles has shown off his speed with some running grabs in center and even Dee Strange-Gordon has an outfield assist on the ledger after throwing out a runner at home.
It hasn’t all been pretty, but the Nationals have overall been impressive in the field thus far. In fact, their glove work may be the best aspect of their game. The infield is stocked with veteran talent, their catcher Keibert Ruiz carries a strong defensive profile and both Robles and Juan Soto have already been Gold Glove finalists in their young careers.
If the Nationals are going to surprise everybody and compete for a playoff spot this season, their defense is going to be a big reason why.
Bottom of the lineup is a problem: Not an overreaction
Heading into their four-game series against the Pittsburgh Pirates this weekend, the Nationals sport a .595 team OPS that ranks 27th in baseball. Players such as Nelson Cruz (4-for-24), Lane Thomas (3-for-19), Escobar (1-for-19) and Robles (0-for-15) have gotten off to slow starts, pulling down that number.
While there’s no reason to expect Cruz, a perennial All-Star, to slump all year, there are legitimate questions about the bottom of the lineup. Robles has hit .209 over the last two seasons and ended up in Triple-A at the end of last year. His average exit velocity is only 82.3 mph, though he has hit into a few tough-luck outs. Escobar had a renaissance year in 2021 and is hoping to do it again at 35 years old. Even when he’s going well, there isn’t much power in his bat.
Thomas has the look of a player still getting his timing down, swinging late on a lot of fastballs but making solid contact when he does get the barrel around. He came on strong with Washington following the trade deadline last year after hitting just .172 in sporadic at-bats with the St. Louis Cardinals. The Nationals can’t rely on Soto and Bell (and Maikel Franco?) to carry their offense all year; a few of these struggling hitters will need to heat up for them to be competitive.
Keibert Ruiz is primed for a breakout season: Not an overreaction
One of the most intriguing trends from the Nationals’ first week of 2022 has been the play of Keibert Ruiz. The young catcher has shown the ability the position well. He hasn’t allowed a passed ball, he threw out the first baserunner that tried to run against him in Starling Marte, tagged out several runners on throws home and earned praise from both Martinez and GM Mike Rizzo for his game calling.
He’s been impressive at the plate as well. Ruiz has racked up six hits in five games including a pair of doubles and three or four deep flyballs that might have gone out in warmer months. His power was a late-blooming aspect of his game, but all signs appear to point toward it being a legitimate strength for him once he settles in as a major leaguer.
Ruiz isn’t eligible for Rookie of the Year voting, but he’s already showing the potential to be one of the best young backstops in the game.
Mets are the class of the NL East: Overreaction
It’s far too early to be peeking at the standings, but the Mets have certainly gotten off to a strong start with series wins over both the Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies. Their rotation has done nothing but impress and the lineup is as deep as advertised. Meanwhile, the Braves’ pitching staff has struggled and the Phillies look all over the place defensively.
But remember, the Mets spent 103 days in first place of the NL East last season and finished third. They were originally passed by the Phillies, who couldn’t hold the position for long before the Braves took over and went on their title run. The NL East has the look of one of the most competitive divisions in baseball once again this year, especially with the playoff field expanding to 12 teams.
New York needs to weather the absence of Jacob deGrom for the first two months and so far it’s off to a nice start doing just that. The Braves are waiting for players such as Ronald Acuña Jr., Mike Soroka and Kirby Yates to return from injury, which will make them more dangerous as the season goes on. Philadelphia has a lot of new pieces that are still only just coming together. While the Mets look dangerous, their place atop the NL East is far from secure.