Heading into the weekend with a 13-26 record that bests only the lowly Cincinnati Reds, the Nationals appear to be in for a long summer amid their ongoing rebuild.
The club will hit the quarter-mark of its 2022 campaign Saturday midway through their second of three games against the Milwaukee Brewers this weekend. While there are plenty of factors contributing to the Nationals’ sluggish start, there have also been several positive developments unfolding in Navy Yard over the first 25% of the season.
Here’s a look at whose stock has risen and fallen the most thus far.
Stock up: Josh Bell
Perhaps the best hitter on the Nationals this season has been Josh Bell. The switch-hitting first baseman put together a blistering stretch out of the gate, hitting .365 with more walks than strikeouts in the month of April. He’s fallen back to Earth over the last few weeks, but his overall numbers over the last 12 months paint an impressive picture.
With Bell, 29, set to hit free agency after this season, the Nationals will likely deal him at the trade deadline barring any last-minute momentum toward an extension. President of Baseball Operations and GM Mike Rizzo said when the season began that the club isn’t working on any other extensions while it focuses on locking up Juan Soto long term. That should keep Bell on trade market, where there will be plenty of suitors especially with the universal DH.
Stock down: Alcides Escobar
Alcides Escobar was a nice story for the Nationals in 2021. They acquired him from the Kansas City Royals and gave him his first opportunity back in the big leagues since 2018. After he surprised everyone by hitting at a decent clip, the club brought him back on a one-year deal to man shortstop until Luis García is deemed ready.
It’s been a rough start for Escobar, who’s hit just .208 with a .523 OPS in 28 games while playing streaky defense. The 35-year-old has an average exit velocity of 81.3 mph, which would be the lowest in baseball if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. With García putting up MVP-esque numbers in Triple-A, Escobar’s time in the Nationals’ everyday lineup may soon be up.
Stock up: Position player prospects
Two infielders in the Nationals’ farm system have made early waves with their hot starts. The aforementioned García may not technically be considered a prospect, but Rizzo declared him the “future at shortstop” and he’s knocking on the door of the major leagues. He’s hit .338 with four home runs and a .995 OPS in 34 games at Triple-A while playing steady defense at short.
Down in Low-A Fredericksburg, fellow shortstop Brady House has flashed the potential that made him the No. 11 overall pick in last summer’s MLB Draft. House has a .324 average and .871 OPS with three home runs and five doubles in 26 games. He was a consensus top-70 prospect in baseball entering the year and should be even higher in the midseason rankings.
Stock down: Nelson Cruz
The Nationals’ biggest acquisition of the offseason, Nelson Cruz has looked out of character with a .182 batting average and .549 OPS to begin the year. Both numbers would be career lows for the 41-year-old, who prior to the 2022 campaign had either made the All-Star Game or garnered MVP votes each of the last nine years.
It’s possible Cruz’s age is finally catching up with him after he hit the eighth-most home runs of any player in his 30s across MLB history. Both Rizzo and manager Davey Martinez have expressed their confidence in the veteran DH, who has hit either third or fourth in the lineup every game he’s played this season. He’s another player the Nationals could trade at the deadline, but he’ll need to heat up before any suitors come knocking.
Stock up: Keibert Ruiz
This season is all about youth development and few players are more central to that plan than Keibert Ruiz. Acquired along with Josiah Gray and two other prospects in the Nationals’ trade deadline trade that sent Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Ruiz had the highest prospect status of any of the 12 players they traded for last summer.
He’s lived up to those lofty expectations so far. Ruiz enters play Friday ranked second among qualified catchers in on-base percentage (.344), third in OPS (.726) and third in fWAR (1.0). He has made an even stronger impression on defense, particularly with his abilities to block balls in the dirt and throw out baserunners attempting to steal.
Stock down: Organizational certainty
The Nationals are in the midst of a critical time period for their franchise. They’re still in the early stages of a rebuild. Negotiations with Juan Soto over a long-term extension are ongoing. As if that wasn’t enough, the Lerner family is reportedly considering selling the team or bringing on a minority owner. There’s no timeline for when a decision might be made.
Adding to the uncertainty are the contract statuses of Rizzo and Martinez. According to The Washington Post, both of them are in the final guaranteed years of their contracts with the club holding team options for next season. While it would be surprising to see the Nationals cut ties with the GM and manager that led them to a World Series title, the lack of clarity on their ownership situation puts all options on the table.
Stock up: Yadiel Hernández
Among the most surprising players to be producing for the Nationals this season is left fielder Yadiel Hernández. He was a rookie last season at 33 years old after playing in Cuba for most of his 20s and spending three years in the Nationals’ farm system before finally breaking into the majors. The Nationals had Hernández splitting time with Lane Thomas in left field to begin the year, but he’s started carving out more starts with his hot hitting.
Hernández enters the weekend with an .856 OPS that ranks third on the team behind only Bell and Soto. He’s also been among their best run producers, racking up 20 RBIs in his first 29 games while putting up a 1.189 OPS with runners in scoring position. With how inconsistent their offense has been, Hernández will be in the lineup often as long as he keeps hitting.
Stock down: Victor Robles
Victor Robles’s stock wasn’t exactly soaring when the season began following his demotion to Triple-A toward the end of 2021. He had a .606 OPS over 159 games between 2020-21, struggling to regain the form he showed as a rookie in 2019. In the early goings of 2022, Robles has carried over those struggles with a .595 OPS entering play Friday.
Advanced metrics have also pegged Robles as a league-average defender in center field. The 2019 Gold Glove finalist has made three errors, still making the occasional jaw-dropping play but also making over-ambitious diving efforts and throws behind runners. The Nationals were hoping Robles would take a step forward this year, but that has yet to happen.