Washington Nationals best-case and worst-case scenarios for 2024 season

Mar 18, 2024; West Palm Beach, Florida, USA;  Washington Nationals starting pitcher Josiah Gray (40)
Mar 18, 2024; West Palm Beach, Florida, USA; Washington Nationals starting pitcher Josiah Gray (40) / Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals are one of about a half dozen teams for whom the 2024 expectations game has little to do with team success. Almost nobody actually thinks the Nats are going to be playing postseason ball this coming October.

For the Nats, the season is largely about individual development. Yes, they’d like to win more games than last season’s 71. Yes, they’d prefer to finish ahead of somebody – anybody, really – in the NL East.

But the real metric for manager Dave Martinez will be whether some of the Nats’ nascent talent can find a place among the game’s front-rank stars. That alone would make 2024 a success.

Best-case scenario for 2024 Washington Nationals

Candidates for that role more or less litter Washington’s roster, many of them having been obtained in trades that cost the team their signature stars over the past few years.

In that category, four players stand out. Pitcher Josiah Gray was part of the haul in the 2021 trade that shipped Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Dodgers. In two seasons since then, Gray has established that he can hold down a big league rotation spot…if you’re willing to tolerate a 17-25 record and 4.65 ERA. The record is explicable by his support – Washington was bottom 10 in runs scored per game last season. But the ERA needs to progress if the Nats are to advance in 2024.

Same story with MacKenzie Gore, obtained from San Diego in the Juan Soto trade. His first two major league seasons have resulted in an 11-14 record and 4.45 ERA. With those numbers, you can pitch in a bad team’s rotation for a long time. But you can’t be one of the aces of a good team. Gore and Gray are both capable of taking a full point off their ERAs; now’s the time.

The catcher, Keibert Ruiz, came with Gray in the Dodger trade carrying high expectations. In two seasons, Ruiz has produced a .255 batting average, a .690 OPS and lackluster fielding numbers. When they got him, the Nats projected Ruiz to be a cornerstone of their rebuild; he’s 25 now and it’s time to live up to those expectations.

Finally, it’s time for C.J. Abrams to break through. Abrams has been the regular shortstop almost since the day he arrived with Gore in the Soto deal. Highly touted, he’s hit .248 for Washington with a .295 on base average and .688 OPS atop very neutral fielding stats. He had an excuse, being only 21 when the deal went down. He’s 23 now and an established part of the Nats' future. He needs to play like that future will be meaningful.

Give Washington measurable improvement from those four core pieces, and while it may not constitute a playoff contender, their growth would make 2024 worthwhile.

Worst-case scenario for 2024 Washington Nationals

The worst-case scenario is, candidly, pretty grim. That downside begins if the realization takes hold around mid-season that few or none of the Gore-Gray-Abrams-Ruiz quartet are showing growth. In that dire case, upper management will be forced to consider whether the game plan they drew up when those deals were made needs to be scrapped and restarted from the ground up. Nobody in Washington wants that.

Unless you’re in love with Joey Meneses or Lane Thomas, most of the rest of the Nats picture is pretty ordinary. Joey Gallo has been signed to play first base, but at age 30, his 20 homers and 140 strikeouts are a known commodity that won’t move the needle of progress much. The same is true of Nick Senzel, picked up to play third after the Reds tired of his .239 average and lack of power.

Eddie Rosario is a journeyman outfielder who can be counted on to hit .250, which is not what an improving team needs.

Beyond Gray and Gore, the rotation of Patrick Corbin, Trevor Williams and Jake Irvin returns intact. This is a case where stability is not necessarily a good thing. The Nats were 27th in runs allowed per game last season, and Irvin – 3-7, 4.61 in 24 starts – is the only one of those three with growth potential. One more reason why Gray and Gore have to step up in class.

Most realistic scenario for 2024 Washington Nationals

The Gray-Gore-Abrams-Ruiz quartet has the look of a productive big league nucleus. Considering their talent, their age, the experience they’ve gained and the growing pains they’ve collectively endured, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect them to jointly progress toward real big league stardom this season.

Gray was an All Star last season, producing a 3.41 ERA over the first half before fading badly. Any of the four are capable of attaining – and maintaining – All Star status this coming year. That doesn’t mean they will, but they’re capable.

Their collective progress alone should be worth three to five games of improvement in the standings. Add another one or two games for Irvin, Meneses and Thomas – each a young talent with room for growth – and it’s not unreasonable to project the Nats to finish somewhere between 75 and 80 wins.

That won’t get them a playoff spot, and may not even get them out of the divisional cellar. But it will represent development, which is what 2024 is all about in Washington.    

Miami Marlins' best-case and worst-case scenarios for 2024 season (calltothepen.com)