NEW YORK — On Tuesday, in a room between the clubhouse and visitors’ dugout at Citi Field, as a steady rain kept drenching any remaining shreds of morale, Mike Rizzo, general manager of the once-again-last-place Washington Nationals, called it a “a daily grind to come here and lose baseball games.” And boy was he right.
Finishing a marathon, whether in first or last, is tedious and tiring work. So, too, is finding dozens of ways to trip and fall throughout the process. Remember when the Nationals made two errors on one play in mid-May, when reliever Victor Arano picked up a loose ball and fired it into center field, forcing Victor Robles to make a diving play against his own teammate? Remember when Josh Bell and Yadiel Hernandez were thrown out at home in the same inning, with Bell nursing a hamstring injury and Hernandez running straight through Gary DiSarcina’s stop sign?
Remember when the Nationals traded Bell and Juan Soto because they needed to maximize Soto’s ability to restock their farm system?
Remember when Lucius Fox puked on the field in April, perhaps sensing what was to come?
“I look at the season as a disappointment,” Rizzo said Tuesday, the eve of Washington cementing a 55-107 record for eternity. “I’ve always said that you are what your record says you are, and our record says we’re the worst team in the league right now. And it’s hard to argue with that. But the flip side of that is we’re in a process, and the process is tried and true. We’ve done it before. Not a lot of teams can say that. And the process is moving forward.”
From there, Rizzo laid out some reasons to be hopeful: The Nationals, he believes, have as much minor league talent as at any point since he joined the organization as the Lerner family’s first hire in 2006. Rizzo called greenlighting the Soto trade a “courageous move by ownership,” especially after it netted a six-player package that included five of the San Diego Padres’ top prospects. He seemed excited about putting MacKenzie Gore, Cade Cavalli and Josiah Gray in a future rotation, especially after that vision was delayed by an inflamed elbow (for Gore) and shoulder (for Cavalli), the cherries on top of season-ending injuries for Stephen Strasburg, Joe Ross, Sean Doolittle, Tanner Rainey, Will Harris, Jackson Tetreault and Evan Lee.
But as Rizzo noted, a 107-loss team is a 107-loss team. A third consecutive last-place finish should add to the frustration. Washington’s pitchers allowed the most homers, second-most earned runs and third-most hits in the majors. Patrick Corbin, the Nationals’ Opening Day starter, ended his year with 19 losses and a 6.31 ERA. Gray was tagged with an MLB-most 38 homers, topping the club record Corbin set in 2021. At the plate, the Nationals ranked 26th in runs per game and 28th in home run percentage. In the field, according to FanGraphs’ outs above average statistic, they were the worst defensive club by a sizable margin.
Nelson Cruz led the team in RBI with 64. César Hernández had the most plate appearances (617) and posted on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .629, logging a single homer after smacking 21 last season. Infielders Alcides Escobar, Ehire Adrianza, Ildemaro Vargas and Dee Strange-Gordon combined to throw 4⅔ innings. Paolo Espino nearly set a record by throwing 113⅓ without earning a win. He failed to reach the mark Tuesday, yielding back-to-back-to-back homers to begin his start against the New York Mets. He faced eight batters and recorded only one out before exiting in the bottom of the first.
The Nationals struck out 17 times in the loss. The Mets swept them by a combined score of 21-4.
And with MLB’s new draft lottery, they aren’t even guaranteed the No. 1 pick in 2023. They will share a 16.5 percent chance for that selection with the Oakland Athletics and Pittsburgh Pirates or Cincinnati Reds. Futility doesn’t go quite as far as it used to.
“It’s a terrible year,” Rizzo said Tuesday. “It’s no fun.”
Sure, the baseball looked a bit better down the stretch, mostly because the defense drastically improved with CJ Abrams at shortstop and Vargas at third. Joey Meneses, called up as Soto and Bell departed, was a fun and heartwarming revelation. The bullpen received encouraging performances from Hunter Harvey, Kyle Finnegan, Carl Edwards Jr., Andrés Machado and Erasmo Ramírez.
Squint hard enough and there may be fringe pieces of the Nationals’ next contending roster, the necessary complements to whatever Gore, Gray, Cavalli, Abrams, Keibert Ruiz and Robert Hassell III might become. But after the deadline, when it occasionally seemed as if they’d taken a sharp turn in the right direction, their record was 20-38, a 105-loss pace. The season will be defined by the miscues big and small, by every out the Nationals ran into on the base paths, by every play that could have been made by an average defender, by every high-pressure at-bat that left them empty-handed.
No matter how improved the farm system is, just about everything at the major league level was grim. And when Manager Dave Martinez confirmed Tuesday that his whole staff will return for 2023, it felt like a veiled admission, at long last, that all this losing was part of the plan.
“The [perception] is it’s always the coaches’ fault,” Martinez said. “That’s not necessarily true.”