A few weeks ago, a spotlight was shined on three nonplayoff teams in the American League that could still consider 2023 a successful season. This week, it’s time to do the same thing in the National League. Find, identify, and explain which teams can find silver linings despite the circumstances.
One notable change will be the number of teams mentioned. The AL had three teams worth mentioning. The NL has just two.
The Chicago Cubs seem like a surefire snub on the surface. After missing the playoffs three times in the last four years, the Cubs rebounded with an 83-79 record and a second-place finish in the NL Central. Between shortstop Dansby Swanson, second baseman Nico Hoerner, designated hitter Christopher Morel, and starter Justin Steele, the Cubs finally found their first core in a post-Theo Epstein era.
However, separating the Cubs from the two teams on this list is the number of unanswered questions. Notably, will outfielder Cody Bellinger be on the team in 2024? The former NL MVP was immaculate in his lone season with Chicago, leading the team in numerous offensive metrics — home runs, RBIs, batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+, total bases, and wRC+. Though the Cubs are trying to re-sign Bellinger, it’s hard to compare the Cubs as a winner in 2023 without him. If Bellinger is elsewhere, it’s an almost incomparable loss to the Cubs. One that indicates 2023 success might lead to a 2024 disappointment.
The same argument can be held with the departure of starter Marcus Stroman. Though Stroman’s 3.95 ERA would indicate otherwise, the starter’s loss would be massive. The right-hander was a stable presence for Chicago’s pitching staff and pitched much better in the first half of the season with a 2.96 ERA. Stroman’s regression has less to do with his play and more to do with an August rib injury. Even with the signing of Shota Imanaga, Chicago’s starting rotation is thin without Stroman. Starters like Drew Smyly, Jordan Wicks, and an inconsistent Jameson Taillon will have to anchor the rotation and eat up innings otherwise occupied by Stroman.
Finally, even the Cubs’ front office would disagree with the perception that 2023 was a success. The organization fired manager David Ross to start the offseason. It’s the type of move no team makes if they’re content with where the organization is headed. Replacing Ross is former Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell, who is unquestionably an upgrade. But the problem is Counsell is the most significant addition the Cubs have made so far this offseason. 2023 was a stepping stone the Cubs have yet to leap off of.
Other teams like the New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals, San Diego Padres, and the San Francisco Giants are all impossible entries. Each of them entered the season with either postseason or championship expectations. Missing the playoffs, no matter the silver linings is an inexcusable failure.
The Pittsburgh Pirates were a possible third, but with shaky play from their top prospects and without Oneil Cruz, it’s hard to gauge what the team considers 2023. A step in the right direction? Yes. A success? That might be a bridge too far.
That leaves us with the Colorado Rockies. If anyone can tell you they know what the Rockies are or what they’re trying to achieve, they’re making it up as they go, just like the Rockies.
One cannot say the same for the two teams in this article. So, without further ado …
The Cincinnati Reds continually find themselves in a cycle: High-end prospects form a foundation, and the front office follows through as much as ownership will allow. Due to financial constraints, however, the Reds can never call themselves a true contender. Once these foundational players near free agency and the budget becomes unsustainable, the front office blows the team apart. In return, the Reds receive a bevy of high-end prospects that form the next foundation. The skeleton stays the same, but the face changes as the cycle begins anew. Rinse and repeat.
After plateauing in 2021 with a third-place finish in the NL Central, an 83-79 record that kept the Reds from the playoffs, and a $130 million payroll, Cincinnati entered that all-too-familiar territory again. Pitchers Wade Miley and Sonny Gray left during the offseason and were joined by position players Nick Castellanos, Eugenio Suárez, and Jesse Winker. The losses amounted to a combined loss of 14.5 bWAR and 12.6 fWAR.
The accumulation of these departures led to a 40-61 record on July 31, 2022. At the trade deadline, the Reds only furthered their descent. All-Star pitcher Luis Castillo, pitcher Tyler Mahle, third baseman Brandon Drury, and outfielders Tyler Naquin and Tommy Pham exited the team for their next stops.
The Reds finished 2022 with a 63-100 record, tied for third-worst in baseball. The once-promising Reds were no more. But in return, the Reds’ farm system did a complete 180. Entering 2022, the Reds had the 19th-best farm system, per FanGraphs. Now entering 2023, FanGraphs had the team’s top prospects ranked third in baseball. One year, the Reds are trying to compete. The next, they’re not. The year after that, they suddenly have one of the brightest futures in the sport. Such is the never-ending Cincinnati conundrum.
That ascension of young talent is a favorite in the Reds’ playbook, but it’s never been a shoo-in. If finding success in MLB were that easy, every struggling team would ditch their stars for prospects and thrive. So, for such a feat, how is it that the Reds pulled the rabbit out of the hat again?
Twirling the wand in Cincinnati is president of baseball operations Nick Krall and his superb youth movement anchored by previous years’ trade returns. During the team’s masterfully brief rebuild, the team acquired 2023 contributors Spencer Steer, Noelvi Marte, Christian Encarnacion-Strand, outfielders Will Benson and Jake Fraley, and pitcher Brandon Williamson. Those six players combined for 8.3 bWAR and 8.2 fWAR in 2023.
And that’s just the external players the Reds acquired. Internally, the Reds drafted or developed 2023 contributors shortstop Matt McLain, third baseman Elly De La Cruz, and pitchers Andrew Abbott and Graham Ashcraft. Those players combined for 9.6 bWAR and 8.6 fWAR in 2023. Between their internal and external additions, that’s a staggering 17.9 bWAR and 16.8 fWAR. For additional context, the players Cincinnati gave up to get all of these players totaled 5.4 bWAR and 6.2 fWAR.
It’s players like McLain and Steer, however, who warrant special attention.
McLain partly deserves such attention for how little he was talked about before the season. Despite being the 17th overall pick in the 2021 draft, McLain was not considered a top-100 prospect entering the 2023 season by MLB.com, Baseball America, or Baseball Prospectus. In their defense, McLain did not acquit himself to the minor leagues. The shortstop slashed a paltry .232/.363/.453 in 103 games as a 22-year-old at Double-A Chattanooga. McLain performed even worse in the Arizona Fall League later that year, slashing .190/.340/.317 around competition close to his development stage. It was fair to approach McLain as a wait-and-see candidate entering 2023.
Despite these concerns and struggles, the Reds sent McLain to Triple-A Louisville to start 2023. To say he rebounded is an understatement. In his 37 games before his May 14 promotion, McLain slashed an unreal .346/.464/.713. He hit 12 home runs and 12 doubles, tallied 10 steals, 40 RBIs, and 89 total bases. McLain also slashed his strikeout rate from 28% to 20.5% and increased his walk rate from 15.4% to 16.6%. He destroyed the competition, to put it mildly.
McLain was able to translate his success to the majors, as the 24-year-old slashed .290/.357/.507 with a .864 OPS, 16 home runs, 50 RBIs, and 14 steals in 89 games. McLain ranked first on the team in average, slugging percentage, and OPS while tying for first in wRC+. In other words, McLain was arguably the best offensive player on a playoff-caliber team as a rookie.
What makes McLain’s stats staggering is they could’ve been even better. An oblique strain placed the infielder on the injured list on Aug. 28, but it would cost the shortstop the rest of his debut season after the Reds shut him down in September. Had McLain finished the season, he would have overtaken teammate TJ Friedl’s 3.8 bWAR and led the Reds in the statistic. Friedl needed 138 games to amass that 3.8, while McLain had nearly equaled it in 89 games. It wouldn’t have been a question of if McLain would surpass Friedl. It’d be a question of when, had McLain stayed healthy.
Like McLain, Steer’s success seemingly came from nowhere. After arriving in Cincinnati in 2022 as part of the Mahle-to-Minnesota trade, Steer struggled. Steer posted a .211/,306/.326 slash line with a .632 OPS and a below-average 74 OPS+ in his 28 games played in September. The rookie’s ability to play first, second, and third base was the only significant upside of a disappointing, albeit small sample.
That all changed in 2023, however. Over 156 games, Steer slashed .272/.356/.464 with a .820 OPS and a 119 OPS. Steer also found his power stroke, mashing a team-leading 23 home runs and 37 doubles. He was the complete opposite of his past self, hitting the ball harder, faster, further, and more consistently than before. Steer sliced his strikeout rate from 24.1% to 20.9% to complement the other additions to his game.
Impossibly, Steer accomplished all of this while adding more defensive versatility. In 2023, Steer played 73 games at first base, 47 at third, 16 in second, 45 in left field, and three in right. Steer took to the outfield beautifully for a player who spent 257 games of his minor-league career as an infielder and just one game as an outfielder. In those 48 games and 322 innings as a major-league outfielder, Steer had 76 putouts on 77 chances and failed to record a single error.
It’s an impressive offensive and defensive ascension for Steer and an impressive developmental job by the Reds. Steer was never a top-100 prospect, let alone a top-10 prospect in the Twins organization. In 2022, Steer peaked as the 11th-best prospect in the Twins system, according to MLB.com. Now he’s a super-utility player with a plus bat coming off a sixth-place finish in the NL Rookie of the Year race.
The Reds’ gobsmacking young talent is accompanied by how little it will challenge the team’s financial constraints. Of the players mentioned as part of the Reds’ trade return, nine were first- or second-year MLB players. Even Fraley, the only true veteran of the group, just hit arbitration for the first time. Yet he agreed to a $2.15 million deal for the upcoming season. The depth and age of this team will give the Reds an almost unforeseen level of financial flexibility that makes Cincinnati one of, if not the, biggest winner of the 2023 season.
Krall has already seized on that financial flexibility. So far this offseason, the club has signed first baseman-third baseman Jeimer Candelario following the best season of his career, Nick Martinez as either starting pitching depth or a back end of the bullpen option, and starter Frankie Montas to shore up the rotation. The last notion might seem far-fetched as Montas is coming off an underwhelming 2022 stint with the New York Yankees and a shoulder injury that all but cost the right-hander his 2023 season. But before his trade to New York, Montas had a 3.70 ERA in six seasons with the Oakland A’s. There is a real chance the Montas the Reds receive is closer to that pitcher, not the one who flamed out in the Bronx.
Even with these additions, Cincinnati’s payroll is only at $93.7 million, according to Spotrac. And while Krall said the team has most likely made its big splashes, this limited payroll allows the team two options. Krall said the team is likely done with any more signings. That does not rule the Reds out of the trade market, specifically for Chicago White Sox starter Dylan Cease. Linking Cease to Cincinnati is not a wild goose chase. The team has already reportedly discussed a deal with Chicago previously this offseason. With Cease’s market stalling, Cincinnati still makes sense as a viable option due to its reformed farm system.
But supposing Krall meant no major signings or trades are yet to come, Cincinnati’s $93.7 million payroll allows them further flexibility come the trade deadline. The club can take on expensive one- or two-year rentals in a way they haven’t before to help them either make the playoffs or outright win their division.
Which path, if either, Cincinnati chooses is undetermined right now. But in one season, the Reds reinstated themselves into the NL conversation. They went from one of the worst teams in baseball to a team with an 82-80 record that wasn’t eliminated from playoff contention until Game 161. They are and cannot be afterthoughts. Fans have to hope this isn’t the start of another vicious cycle of disappointment and then dismantling.
Over the last five seasons, the Washington Nationals have gone through it all. They found a franchise cornerstone in outfielder Bryce Harper only to watch him leave for a division rival. Then, they impossibly replaced Harper’s production with a 20-year-old Juan Soto. Other additions helped soften Harper’s exit, notably starter Patrick Corbin’s signing in free agency. Soto and Corbin combined with established stars like Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Trea Turner, and Anthony Rendon to win the Nationals their first World Series in 2019.
Even with Rendon leaving for the Los Angeles Angels that winter, there was a pervasive feeling the Nationals were built to last. If not, remain at the level they had just achieved. That assumption was wrong.
By 2021, the Nationals found themselves at rock bottom. By the trade deadline, the team was 48-55 and fourth in the NL East. The Nationals responded by trading Scherzer and Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers. As the rest of the season went on, other problems followed. Corbin finished with a 5.82 ERA, allowing 111 earned runs and 37 home runs, the most in baseball. Strasburg had failed to find his way back to the field and needed thoracic outlet surgery to fix a nerve issue in his neck. And Soto, the youngest and now best of the bunch, had yet to agree to a long-term extension.
One year later, the Nationals entered the trade deadline at 35-69. Nothing had changed. Things had gotten worse. Corbin regressed further, Strasburg was out for the year, and Soto refused a reported 14-year, $440 million contract. With team control expiring, the Nationals traded Soto to the San Diego Padres, closing the book that only seemed to be starting years ago.
Washington finished 2022 with an abysmal 55-107 record. It was the worst record in baseball and the franchise’s worst season statistically since moving to the nation’s capital in 2005. PECOTA’s win projections didn’t foresee better days ahead, predicting a 61-101 record for Washington in 2023.
The 2023 Nationals, however, reminded people what they say about preconceived assumptions. The team outperformed those projections by 10 wins, finishing a respectable 71-91, their best record since their championship season. Though the Nationals finished fifth in the NL East, they were only four wins behind the fourth-place New York Mets. While the difference between these projections and reality wasn’t mammoth, what makes the Nationals a winner in 2023 is what they found.
Given how instrumental the Scherzer-Turner and Soto trades were in decimating Washington’s former core, examining how that return has led to their current core is the best place to start.
To acquire Scherzer and Turner, the Dodgers gave the Nationals pitchers Josiah Gray and Gerardo Carrillo, catcher Keibert Ruiz, and outfielder Donovan Casey. Washington’s return resembles more of a haul, but Gray and Ruiz were and remain the standouts.
Unlike his counterparts on this list, Ruiz is not a comeback story. Nor is he a young player showing signs of transforming into a superstar. Ruiz has been an incredibly capable major leaguer since his 2020 debut with the Dodgers. Before 2023, “incredibly” might’ve been a bridge too far. But in 2023, Ruiz earned it. The catcher saw jumps in his hits, doubles, home runs, RBIs, walks, batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, and total bases. None of these jumps were gaudy, admittedly. But that’s not and never has been Ruiz.
In an age of boom-or-bust baseball, Ruiz is a bull. He started 112 games behind the plate in 2022 and 136 in 2023, limits his strikeouts, and doesn’t chase. Ruiz is a catcher no one talks about, yet every general manager would take on their team. And though it’s fair to summarize Ruiz as just a steadying presence, that’s who he is. It’s a badge of pride, not a knocking.
The same praise cannot be afforded to Gray, his teammate who went with him to Washington. Through his first two seasons in D.C., Gray looked like a bust. He finished with a 5.31 ERA in 2021 and a 5.02 ERA in 2022. Some pitchers can tolerate a poor ERA should their FIP point toward misfortune or poor play, but Gray’s 5.71 and 5.86 FIP in 2021 and 2022 indicated things were as bad as they seemed.
Worse, Gray could excuse his 2021 performance due to a lack of experience. He only made 12 starts. Factoring in Gray moving from one coast to another, going from a contender to a cellar-dweller, and having to find his way in a new locker room, 2021’s struggles are understandable. But in 2022, when Gray made 28 starts and had a season to adjust, that excuse disappeared while his poor play remained. There were no more excuses. Something broke inside a once top-100 consensus prospect.
While Gray didn’t leap into the upper echelon of pitchers, 2023 was a step in the right direction. In the first half, the right-hander went 6-7 with a 3.41 ERA and a 1.44 WHIP in 100.1. innings. These 18 starts were the best stretch of Gray’s career and led to a selection to the All-Star Game.
Though Gray’s making of the NL All-Star team is worth celebrating, two caveats cloud the confetti. Gray’s 3.30 ERA was 11th among all NL starters with at least 12 starts on July 2, when the All-Star Game’s rosters were announced. Gray made it to the team despite pitchers Blake Snell, Michael Wacha, Alex Cobb, Merrill Kelly, and Jordan Montgomery all touting a better ERA than him. Another caveat is Gray did not make the team thanks to the player ballot. He made the team due to an MLB policy dictating every team has at least one representative at the Midsummer Classic. There is a tangible argument that Gray made the team not due to merit but a mandate.
It’s a bitter truth complicated due to Gray’s second-half splits. Compared to the 3.41 ERA that led Gray to an All-Star selection, the right-hander had a 4.76 ERA in 12 second-half starts. It’s not just Gray’s ERA that saw an uptick in the second half. His WHIP, FIP, walk rate, and walks-per-nine increased, while his strikeout rate dropped 1.6 percentage points.
Not everything is doomed, however. Gray’s 3.91 season ERA and 110 ERA+ were the best of his career and the best on the team. Likewise, he finished second on the team in strikeouts. Gray also drastically decreased his home-run rate. From 2021-2022, Gray had a 6% home-run rate. That number was nearly halved to 3.2% in 2023. At just 26 years old, age is still on Gray’s side.
Who Gray is long-term, the pitcher of the past, or the pitcher in the first half of 2023, is debatable. Yet it even being a debate worth having after how horrendously Gray started his career is a positive development for a Nationals team desperate to find contributors moving forward.
Thankfully, Gray and Ruiz can look towards the Soto trade for more contributors. In exchange for Soto, the Nationals received pitchers MacKenzie Gore and Jarlin Susana, shortstop CJ Abrams, outfield prospects Robert Hassell III and James Wood, and first baseman Luke Voit. With Abrams and Gore the only two yet to make the majors, their play is especially worth examining.
Gore’s 4.45 ERA through his 40 starts and 43 games played makes the southpaw a mixed bag. He’s not quite a disaster, but he’s shown signs of earning the prospect pedigree he entered MLB with. One frustration is even in the second half of the season, where one would hope to see Gore improve, his performance remained static. Through 18 starts, Gore garnered a 5-13 record, a 4.42 ERA, and 4.22 FIP, while opposing hitters posted a .268/.341/.443 slash line with a .784 OPS. In his nine starts in the second half, Gore went 3-3 with a 4.44 ERA and a 6.19 FIP. And while opposing hitters saw decreases in their batting average and OBP, they also saw an increased slugging percentage en route to a .798 OPS.
Gore’s calling card thus far in his career is his strikeouts. Through his first two seasons, Gore tallied 223 strikeouts, equating to a career 9.7 strikeouts-per-nine and 2.37 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Of those career strikeouts, 151 came in 2023 and helped Gore leap from the 52nd percentile in strikeout rate in 2022 to the 69th percentile in 2023, according to Baseball Savant. Other related jumps came in Gore’s second season, with his strikeout rate increasing from 23.3% to 26%.
More development is necessary for Gore to earn his part in the Soto trade package, but at 24 years old, time is still on his side.
However, the real success story of the Soto trade thus far is Abrams. The shortstop’s .245/.300/.412 2023 slash line underscores his second-half improvement as a power hitter and a base stealer. Over the first half of the season, Abrams only slugged .397. Despite being the 97th-best in baseball, it’s a respectable mark, especially considering his lack of MLB experience and 6-foot-2, 191-pound frame. In the second half, Abrams posted a .427 SLG, a 0.30 increase, and now the 75th-best SLG in baseball.
The impressive power surge only grows with the shortstop’s past. Abrams finished 2022, admittedly his debut season, with a .324 slugging percentage. If Abrams were qualified, it’d be the 125th-best SLG in baseball. In other words, in one season, Abrams almost improved his slugging percentage by .100 points. That .088 slugging percentage increase would’ve been the 18th-highest year-to-year increase if Abrams qualified in 2022, according to Baseball Savant.
Abrams also showed tremendous development as a base stealer. The 23-year-old nearly tripled his steals in the second half, going from 14 steals through his first 71 games to 33 steals through his last 70. Those 33 steals post-All-Star were the most in the sport. In context with the rest of the league, Abrams went from 30th to fourth, trailing only Ronald Acuña Jr., Esteury Ruiz, Corbin Carroll, and Bobby Witt Jr.
To warrant trading a generational player like Soto, the Nationals needed cornerstones. Gore and Abrams aren’t perfect players, nor are they close to sniffing Soto. Combined, Gore and Abrams posted 5.4 bWAR and 3.4 fWAR. Soto, by himself, had 5.5 bWAR and 5.5 fWAR. Yet Nationals fans can be optimistic about their future. Both players showed improvement in 2023 in just their second season at the major league level. Abrams is 23. Gore is 24. They have miles to go yet before the gavel lands.
Helping Gore and Abrams in the Soto trade are Hassell and Wood, who both remain top-100 prospects. Praise especially goes to Wood. The outfielder blossomed into one of the best prospects in baseball in 2023.
Entering 2022, Wood was not on any top-100 lists and ranked fifth in the Padres’ 14th-best farm system, according to FanGraphs. But by the close of 2023, Wood was Baseball America’s 11th-best prospect, MLB.com’s seventh-best prospect in their updated rankings, and Baseball Prospectus’ third-best prospect. The 21-year-old’s ascension is helped by a stunning .293/.392/.580 slash in Single-A and his .248/.334/.492 slash in Double-A.
Wood’s transformation serves as an exclamation mark for a Nationals farm system now ranked third by FanGraphs. With Wood, 2023 second overall MLB Draft pick Dylan Crews, 2021 first-round infielder Brady House, and 2022 first-round outfielder Elijah Greene, the Nationals have an absurd amount of talent in their pipeline.
It’s an intriguing future Washington will add to with the 10th overall pick in the upcoming draft. If everything goes right, this next team might reach the not-so-distant glory days. The Nationals will have to figure out how to make it last longer than they did last time.
Photos by Leslie Plaza Johnson, Mark Goldman | Icon Sportswire
Adapted by Kurt Wasemiller (@KUWasemiller on Twitter / @kurt_player02 on Instagram