- The Washington Times
Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Major League Baseball teams fall into three distinct categories these days.

First, there are the Contenders — the teams that expect to win, and rightfully so. Teams like the Dodgers and Yankees.

Then come the Pretenders — teams that think they can compete with the Contenders but probably can’t — like the Angels and Mariners.

Finally, bringing up the rear: The crowded We Aren’t Trying to Win At All category.

The Washington Nationals — one of the best teams in baseball for almost a decade before the pandemic — are officially a member of that final group, along with the Athletics, Orioles, Pirates and several others. For the first time in years, the Nationals kick off their season Thursday as a rebuilding team. 

Buckle up. It could be a bumpy ride.

Oddsmakers project the Nationals — with a roster littered with veterans on the downslope of their careers and a below-league average payroll for the first time in a decade — to be one of the worst teams in baseball. 

FanDuel Sportsbook projects Washington to finish last in the NL East with 69.5 wins, tied for the fifth-lowest win total in the league. And for any brave soul willing to put his or her hard-earned money on the Nationals to win the World Series, the return would be quite hefty. The Nationals are tied for the fifth-lowest odds to win the Fall Classic at +15,000, according to DraftKings Sportsbook. 

And while spring training has a weak correlation to regular-season results, the 4-11 spring training record that the Nationals posted in Florida could be seen as a sign of more frustration to come. 

That doesn’t mean the 2022 season is a wash. The Nationals have more questions than answers heading into the campaign, and the way the team performs this season could signal how long this rebuild will actually take. 

Can Stephen Strasburg return to form after his thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, no longer costing the team tens of millions of payroll space to sit out with injury as he has the last two seasons? Can Josiah Gray realize his potential in the rotation and become a reliable — or even an elite — starting pitcher? Can former top prospects Victor Robles (center field) and Carter Kieboom (third base) turn around their early career woes and establish themselves as everyday players? 

How long will it take for top prospects Cade Cavalli (starting pitcher) and Luis Garcia (shortstop) to push for spots on the big-league roster? And will the team once again be a seller at the deadline, possibly trading away recently-signed designated hitter Nelson Cruz or soon-to-be free agent first baseman Josh Bell?

Of course, every season has surprises, and an expected rebuild doesn’t preclude manager Dave Martinez’s club from surprising the league and competing this season. If those questions all go in the right direction — in addition to better-than-expected performances from the team’s shaky back-end of the rotation and a marked improvement from a bullpen that was the league’s worst in 2021 — the Nationals could very well be in the hunt, especially in MLB’s new expanded 12-team playoff format. 

But the Nationals’ rebuilding mentality for the upcoming season shouldn’t be a surprise to any of the team’s fans. 

After a disappointing 2020 campaign, which was shortened due to COVID-19, and a bad first half of 2021, the Nationals went into seller mode at last season’s trade deadline. General manager Mike Rizzo initiated a teardown of the team’s veteran roster, shipping off eight players in exchange for young prospects. Out went ace Max Scherzer, lefty Jon Lester, star shortstop Trea Turner and slugger Kyle Schwarber, and in came Gray, catcher Keibert Ruiz, outfielder Lane Thomas and prospect Aldo Ramirez. 

The purge was predictable. Aside from massive-market teams like the Dodgers and Yankees, it’s uncommon in today’s MLB to have an eight-year run of success like the Nationals did. From 2012 to 2019, the Nationals were above .500 in every season, made the playoffs five times and won the elusive World Series in 2019.

But a rebuild is never easy. 

The successful ones take about four seasons, while the failed ones can drag on much longer. They’re especially hard on fanbases, as the Orioles and Pirates have learned in recent years. But they can also produce wonderful results after the dark days, as evidenced by the Houston Astros’ recent success that followed three straight 100-loss seasons.

Rizzo & Co. last summer decided that the only way to move forward was to take a step backward, and 2022 will be the first full season of that new philosophy.

• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at jmeyer@washingtontimes.com.

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