The Washington Nationals are showing promise a year after being MLB’s worst performers

Currently, Washington is watching the major leagues rebuild in their crucial middle stage. The Washington Nationals, the worst team in MLB last year, have won 29 of their last 50 games and edged out six teams last week, including the Cardinals and Pirates. As of Monday, with 37 games left, they are a half game level with Detroit, a game and a half behind the Mets (the highest-paid team in history) and two games ahead of defending AL Central champions, Cleveland and the jewel-studded, suffocating Padres by 2½ .

Why not more of them exist? They don’t give out an attendance cup for a better record than 10 teams in a 30-team sport, but aside from following a team that competes in a pennant race, my favorite MLB pleasure is watching a team of achievers do it they’re trying to finish a season in which they beat last season’s predictions. Behold: the 1989 Orioles, who improved by 33 wins, and the 2007 Nats, predicted by many as the worst team in history, refusing to lose even 90.

The Nats deserve full credit for their fine performance over the past two months, regardless of what lies ahead. Last Thursday, they hit six runs at the bottom of the ninth inning and walked away as the winner, 8-7, and then, the next night, they responded to a Phillies fourth inning with six runs with six runs of their own in the bottom half way to one another 8:7 victory. The Nats are on their way to 74 wins, 19 more than last season.

That’s quite a lot to ask as her schedule is now becoming more difficult. But that’s a mile step up because just a year ago the Nats were so ugly I couldn’t see their games.

In order for a mid-sized team to get from the top of the MLB mountain (2019), to the bottom (2022), and then back to the top again, it must make several difficult and intertwined transformations—not some, but all.

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Most painfully, you’ll have to trade your most valuable and popular stars: Juan Soto, Trea Turner, Max Scherzer, and Josh Bell. In turn, you need to attract “major-league-ready” young players who will quickly become part of your new foundation. So far, the Nats could be four-on-four.

Right-handed starter Josiah Gray was already an All-Star last month. Left-hander MacKenzie Gore now hits as many strikeouts as Scherzer in nine innings. They aren’t polished to a high gloss yet, but they could be. Catcher Keibert Ruiz, who has .977 OPS for the past six weeks, and shortstop CJ Abrams, who has been stealing at a rate of 90 bases a year since moving to the leadoff, are causing daily excitement. Abrams could soon be a shortstop with 20 homers and 60 steals and a top-five defensive range.

In these mega trades, you also need to get at least one young star of the future. That’s probably the 6’2″, 250 pound James Wood, 20,’s #7 overall, with tremendous power and lane speed. Don’t rush him. Ted Williams said it took 1,200 strokes in the minors to learn his craft. It’s less now, with better guidance. Wood has an OPS of 0.921 in 765 bats so far.

Even though a team is terrible, they have to hit their first-round draft picks. The Nats could be two in their last three games. Brady House, 20, is a tall, strong-armed third baseman with strength potential who bats .320 in the AA class. ETA: probably 2025. Even if he’s “just a good everyday player”, that’s enough. Elijah Green, last year’s top pick, is also 20, so be patient. But he strikes 50 percent of the time. Some prospect somewhere has probably gotten over such a relationship over time, but I don’t know his name.

Dylan Crews, this year’s No. 2 overall, needed all 15 games to reach Class AA ball in Harrisburg. It was there that Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon first learned they could make outs. But not for long. Soto did to Class AA what he did to the rest of planet Earth and was quickly drafted.

When Crews arrives, it won’t be Strasmas, but you might still want to wear bells.

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Another big part of a rebuild are the little-regarded players, who are acquired for next to nothing but, given the chance, become part of a core. If every game is Open Mike Night, how much talent can you steal?

The Nats are currently blasting the doors of this category. 28-year-old right fielder Lane Thomas, who plays at All-Star level, was taken on for the now-retired Jon Lester. Riley Adams, who hits .320, may support Ruiz, but also learns to hit for years as a DH; His prize: replacement Brad Hand.

Believe it or not, Thomas and Adams are the dearest. Half of the Nats’ current roster — including Joey Meneses, Stone Garrett, Kyle Finnegan, Hunter Harvey and Jordan Weems — were free agents or waiver wire applications.

Thomas, Meneses and maybe Garrett remind me of Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Wilson Ramos in the first half of the last decade in terms of overall offensive value. None of them made an all-star team at the NL East champions of years 12, 14 and 16. But all were solid core players.

Finnegan, Harvey and Weems all have ERAs under 3.00 and have hit the 100mph mark at times this season.

Zimmerman once told me that fans “want a $200M player in every position” but that a team with 90+ wins needs a lot of “good players, not superstars” to maximize the overall roster. Rizzo’s front office, particularly when it comes to everyday players and substitutes, is a master at it.

In 1,275 plate appearances as Nat, Thomas has an OPS+ of 116 – 16 percent above the league average. Between the ages of 26 and 30, Zim’s OPS+ was 117. Thomas’ baserunning and defense combined are at least as good today as Zim’s was then.

The Nats should be happy to control Thomas until 2025 and should look to extend him for a few years rather than sell him as a prospect. “Good players” at reasonable prices are not easy to come by.

Perfect example: Meneses. Did you enjoy LaRoche aged 32-34 when he averaged 26 homers and 83 RBI with an OPS+ of 118? As a hitter, Meneses, 31, is the same age as LaRoche, if not better.

And the Nats may have pulled another joey out of the hat in Garrett, 27, who did little until 2021 except hit in the lower regions of the minors. He then smashed AA and AAA grade balls with a ton of RBI in 2021 and ’22. He’s only had 305 MLB bats to date. But his .823 OPS means he should get plenty of chances this year to show if he belongs. He’s fast and enthusiastic, making sliding catches…and still hitting.

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With all this good news, what’s the problem? Aside from Gray and Gore, the Nats have a shortage of high-ceilinged young starters. And their current team is at the bottom end of MLB in the ERA and very prone to home runs.

Vet Patrick Corbin has come in handy after three poor starts in April. Jake Irvin could be a fifth starter or long man in the future. And the promising Cade Cavalli, who missed this season after elbow surgery, should be back in 2024.

The Nats can and should “appeal” to others in the rotation pipeline. But adding launch slots through free agency or trade is their next big priority in rebuilding. It’s time. And the first signing doesn’t have to be the killer final piece like Scherzer’s signing.

For now, enjoy the Nats’ improved record and most importantly, their cohesion, resilience after one-sided losses and their enjoyment of the game under manager Davey Martinez.

These are dog days in August, followed by a September countdown to the question, “Can we please go home now?” Some nat opponents with established careers or big bank accounts will lack motivation.

The Nats, each of them, albeit in different ways, will play with something they have to prove. On the surface, they might not look like dangerous late-season promoters. But if you want to get back to the top, you have to climb many rungs one after the other. The Washington Nationals are showing promise a year after being MLB’s worst performers

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