Nationals enter All-Star break with rebuild showing progress

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Hours before they were set to pick second overall in the MLB draft — a selection that could help determine whether their rebuild is successful — the Washington Nationals finished the first half of the season with a 7-2 lopsided win over the Texas Rangers. 

The product on the field, on a day like this one, can be easy to ignore when building for the future. For those invested in the Nationals, it’s more tempting to imagine LSU’s Paul Skenes, the top pitcher in this year’s class, becoming the next Stephen Strasburg. Or LSU outfielder Dylan Crews, voted the nation’s top college player, proving to be the next Bryce Harper. 

But pay close enough attention — and you’ll notice that progress is taking shape. 

Yes, the Nationals are still one of the worst teams in Major League Baseball as they head into the All-Star break. But unlike last year, when Juan Soto trade rumors and near-constant losses put a damper on the early stages of a teardown, Washington enters the gap in a better place having seen growth from its core. 

That’s reflected in areas like pitcher Josiah Gray’s first All-Star nomination. Or in the surge of C.J. Abrams, who has hit .366 since July and went 3-of-5 in Sunday’s win. Even older players such as Lane Thomas (28) and Joey Meneses (31) have had encouraging moments, despite their lack of extensive MLB experience. 

Washington may be on pace for a paltry 65 wins — but that would be a 10-game improvement from 2022. 

“We see a lot upside,” manager Dave Martinez said recently. “There have been days where I’ve said, ‘Man, wow. If we can get them to stay right here for about three months, we’re going to be in great shape.’ But you know, they’re young. It’s going to be up and down.” 

Part of Martinez’s job is to guide young players’ through that inconsistency and put them in a position to succeed. Take Abrams, for example. After the 22-year-old shortstop struggled with a .216 batting average in June, Martinez made the decision to move Abrams to the top of the lineup in hopes that the switch would help the infielder focus on getting on base. That has worked so far, even if it meant moving a successful lead-off hitter in Thomas to second in the lineup. 

When Martinez talks about the Nationals’ rebuild, he likes to note that there are plenty of prospects still in the minor leagues. “You’re only seeing a touch of the players that we have,” he said last week. And there, Washington’s outlook is bright: According to MLB’s prospect pipeline, Washington has five players represented in the top 100. Right fielder James Wood (ranked fifth) and third baseman Brady House (71st) represented Washington in this weekend’s All-Star Futures game. 

But the success of the Nationals’ rebuild will also come down to the development of those like Gray, Abrams, catcher Keibert Ruiz and pitcher MacKenzie Gore. All four of those players were key pieces acquired in blockbuster trades involving Max Scherzer and Soto. 

Through that lens, there have been promising signs for each player. Gray has lowered his ERA by nearly two full runs en route to becoming an All-Star. Abrams, in addition to his offensive uptick, has cut down on the defensive errors that plagued him over the first two months. Ruiz already has more home runs (7) and RBI (36) than last year. Gore has experienced growing pains, but still has a high strikeout rate — which normally bolds well for a pitcher’s development. 

“We’ve proven we can beat good teams,” said pitcher Patrick Corbin, whose 7-inning, 1-earned-run performance Sunday helped the Nationals take the series against the AL West-leading Rangers. “We just got to continue to come each day to try and do it.” 

The Nationals may look different in the second half of the season, particularly if general manager Mike Rizzo trades productive hitters like Thomas and third baseman Jeimer Candelario for prospects. Rizzo said in a radio interview last month that he expects Washington to still be “very aggressive” at the deadline. Those trades might make the Nationals worse in the short term. 

After all, Washington’s rebuild is not over yet by any means. The team’s selection Sunday in the draft was also a further reminder of that.  Still, steps can’t be skipped — steps that include developing those out on the field. 

“Everybody is getting better and learning from what has happened so far,” outfielder Alex Call said. 

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