5 takeaways for Nats in '22: Soto a leader, rotation plans and more

March 13th, 2022

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Nationals camp buzzed on Sunday with players, coaches and staff reuniting for Spring Training at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. General manager Mike Rizzo and manager Dave Martinez addressed offseason moves and their outlook for the season ahead, including these five key topics.

All about Soto
For the first time since 2005, Washington opened Spring Training without Ryan Zimmerman on its Major League roster. While there is no replacing “Mr. National,” the team will look for a leader to step up in place of the 37-year-old veteran.

That person is 23-year-old Juan Soto. In only four seasons, he has amassed a resume of accolades far beyond his experience, ranging from head-turning statistics to Silver Slugger Awards, an All-Star selection to a second-place finish in the 2021 National League MVP race.

“Zim was the face of the franchise and was a quiet leader in the clubhouse. His presence was felt. We need some other guys to fill that void,” Rizzo said. “To me, this is Juan Soto’s team. He’s the face of the team. He’s the face of the franchise. He might be the face of Major League Baseball. It’s his team. He’s going to be a young leader, but he’s going to be the leader of the club.”

Soto becomes a free agent in 2025, and questions about his future in Washington continue to buzz years in advance. This offseason, ESPN’s Enrique Rojas reported the Nationals had offered Soto a 13-year, $350 million contract extension prior to the lockout. Rizzo referred to the slugging right fielder as “our No. 1 priority.” 

“We're going to attack a deal with Juan Soto,” said Rizzo. “I want him here for the long term. So we're going to continue to talk and try and make him a Nat for a long time.”

Sorting out the starting rotation
Stephen Strasburg
is eyeing a healthy 2022 after undergoing season-ending thoracic outlet syndrome surgery in ‘21. He threw bullpen sessions during the offseason, and he is slated to toss a live BP on Tuesday. Martinez noted Strasburg’s improved fluidity, and he said the ‘19 World Series MVP “wants to attack Spring Training as if it was just a normal Spring Training.” Hampered by injuries, Strasburg has thrown just 26 2/3 frames over the past two seasons.

Fellow starting right-hander Joe Ross will have to wait longer to get back on the mound. Ross experienced soreness and pain in his right elbow as he ramped up from a season-ending partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament. An MRI revealed bone spurs, and he underwent a minor scope procedure on March 7. He is projected to return in six to eight weeks.

In the meantime, the Nationals will have to determine their rotation, which includes returning starters Patrick Corbin and Josiah Gray. Erick Fedde, Paolo Espino and Josh Rogers, who made starts last season, are expected to compete for a spot. Younger arms, including Cade Cavalli -- the Nationals’ No. 1 prospect, per MLB Pipeline -- will have the opportunity to make their marks in Spring Training, too.

“I think that if Opening Day was today, we'd be happy with the five guys we've got,” Rizzo said. “We're always going to look to upgrade our depth, but if we had to go with our pitching staff today, we would be optimistic about it.”

Closing in on a closer
The Nationals landed one of their free-agent targets in right-handed reliever Steve Cishek. Martinez lauded the veteran for being able to stretch innings and pitch in the back end of the bullpen. Going even deeper into the ‘pen, Martinez is weighing options for the closer role. One of the candidates is Tanner Rainey, who is looking to bounce back from a rocky 2021 season (7.39 ERA) and return to ‘20 form, when he recorded a 0.74 WHIP.

“I’m going to be honest with you, I would love for Rainey to take that role if he’s ready,” Martinez said, adding, “We’ve seen the good Tanner, we’ve seen the not-so-good Tanner. For him, he understands that he has to be consistent, he’s got to pound the strike zone and he’s got to stay healthy. … If we have one or two guys that could pitch that ninth inning, it would be awesome -- and I’m hoping that he’s one of them.”

Center field competition
Former Gold Glove Award finalist Victor Robles is vying to regain his starting job in center field during camp. Martinez is eager to see the speedy 24-year-old in action after he last played with the Nationals on Aug. 30. Lane Thomas, who emerged as a breakthrough player after being acquired at the Trade Deadline, took over the starting role for the remainder of the season.

“I’m hoping that he comes to Spring Training ready to go,” Martinez said of Robles, whose batting average dipped to .203 last season. “There [are] no guarantees. He’s got to come out here and play and compete for a job. But I want him to be our center fielder, and he knows that. I’ve told him that. But we need him to get on base. We need him to play good defense every day. We need him to make smart baserunning decisions. He understands that.”

Outlook on 2022
Following a roster overhaul last season in which a bulk of veterans were traded, the Nats entered Spring Training deep with young talent and prospects. Their goal remains to build toward a contender with this new chapter of players.

“We feel that we have a good blueprint of getting us back to that championship form in the near future,” Rizzo said. “But we’re about winning games this year, and we’re going to be quietly plugging away to win each and every game we have. There [are] 12 playoff teams, and we want to be one of them -- that’s what I’m looking at this year. As regards to the championship window, it could start at any time. We’re making moves towards that end. But we’re still trying to win every baseball game that we play.”