Monday, April 4, 2022

Walking into the Washington Nationals’ spring training clubhouse when camp opened a few weeks back had a bit of a 2008 feel to it. There were the extra lockers, the unknown players and the air of uncertainty.

Not a big whiff — after all, Stephen Strasburg was there. Juan Soto was there. Dmitri Young wasn’t.

The 2022 season may be one without the expectations Nationals fans have had over the last decade.

There are a lot of ways this season could go for Washington.

“We take this a little bit different than we’ve taken it each year,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “But we’re trying to make moves to win games, and we know where our landscape goes and what our big picture looks like.

“The moves we’re going to make are going to be with winning this year in mind, but also with a bigger picture to getting back to that 10-year-window of being one of the best teams in baseball,” he said.

They’ve made some moves, big and small. 

The biggest was signing free agent designated hitter Nelson Cruz to a one-year, $15 million deal, which should help make the Nationals lineup strong enough to score some runs. 

Rizzo told me that after last year’s trade deadline, after the team waved the white flag on the season, Washington still led in 42 of their games after six innings. 

But their bullpen broke down, in part because of the pressure created after ineffective starters were bounced from games early. The Nationals finished 65-97, good for a second straight last place finish in the National League East.

A lot went wrong last year, beginning with the hamstring injury to Kyle Schwarber and the shoulder that sidelined Strasburg, with the Nationals two games out of first place. Even a week before the July 30 trading deadline, the Nationals were close enough to still competing for a postseason berth. But five straight losses turned them into sellers, and Max Scherzer and Trea Turner were gone.

Those trades marked the end of a remarkable run of success by Rizzo, who has called the transition the team is going through now a reboot rather than a rebuild, though he maintains that this team — a mixture of some veterans like Cruz and Josh Bell and prospects like catcher Keibert Ruiz and pitcher Joshua Gray, who both came from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Scherzer-Turner trade — can compete for a playoff spot, in this expanded playoff season.

Like a lot of things went wrong last year, a lot would have to go right for that to happen. 

Strasburg, coming off thoracic outlet surgery, and Patrick Corbin, coming off one of the worst seasons a Nationals starter ever had, both would at the very least have to compete at their average level. That’s a big question right now. After that, the rotation is up in the air with Gray, an often-injured Joe Ross, still coming back from surgery for bone spurs in his right elbow after a torn ligament last year, 38-year-old Anibal Sanchez and other bodies. The young prospects like Cade Cavalli, Jackson Rutledge, Cole Henry and others are still a year or more away.

Reliever Sean Doolittle — returning to Washington after spending last year in the Cincinnati and Seattle bullpens — said he had a good feeling when he walked into the clubhouse this spring.

“They did a good job of getting guys that will fit in really well, and if they do that, they are going to feel comfortable right away and give them the best chance to play well and to have everything mesh in the clubhouse,” Doolittle said. “It’s only been a couple of days, but it’s been a lot of fun. It’s a very different clubhouse. It has to develop, the chemistry for this year.”

All of this — all of it — revolves around the center of the Nationals universe, the great Juan Soto, one of the best players in the league. Soto remains unsigned to a long-term deal by Washington and has three years remaining until he will likely become the highest-priced free agent in baseball history. The Nationals have squandered two of his four major league seasons so far with losing records. If they collapse under the uncertainty that seems to define them going into this season, that could mean three straight losing seasons with the best player in baseball on the roster.

The time waiting for the reboot to take hold is precious time lost during Soto’s time in Washington.

Hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC.