News & Politics

5 Things to Know Before the Nationals’ Opening Day

Rising stars, potential surprises, and what to expect off the field.

The Washington Nationals' Sean Doolittle. Photo by Paul Kim/Washington Nationals.

We might not have Juan Soto, Anthony Rendon, Max Scherzer, or other heroes of the 2019 World Series-winning team anymore, but Washington-area baseball fans still get to enjoy the excitement of Opening Day at Nats Park.

The team’s first game of the season, against the Atlanta Braves, will take place at 1:05 p.m. Thursday at Nationals Park. The outlook for this year’s team, however, is far less optimistic than the triumphant era of a few years back, given the gaps in the roster and the uncertainty about the future ownership of the club.

Here’s are some things you should know before the 2023 season kicks off:

1. There are (exceptionally) low expectations:

Following a several-years-long stretch of playoff-level baseball, the Nats are now in the middle of a far less competitive period. After parting ways with many integral players from its 2019 World Series Championship, the club has entered the anxious years of waiting to see whether or not its crop of young prospects will pan out. As a result, the Nats are expected to flounder this year. In its 2023 Major League Baseball season preview, ESPN projected the Nats will finish the year with an abysmal 64-98 record. While that would be a minor improvement over last year’s record of 55-107, ESPN’s projections still put the team in a tie with the Oakland Athletics for the worst record in all of baseball.

2. We have some rising stars:

If such dismal forecasts come true, the best way for Nats fans to enjoy the season is by focusing on the group of up-and-coming players who, if everything goes to plan, will form the core of future winning seasons. As points out, such players include Keibert Ruiz, the 24-year-old catcher who arrived in Washington through a 2021 deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers; CJ Abrams, the lightning-fast 22-year-old shortstop who the Nats picked up in last year’s trade with the San Diego Padres; and MacKenzie Gore, the 24-year-old left-handed pitcher acquired in the same deal. Even in a losing season, these talented prospects should make things exciting.

3. We might see a good surprise:

So how could the 2023 Nats exceed their lowly expectations? Well, as ESPN points out, Joey Meneses could repeat his offensive performance of last year, when the rookie slugger stunned fans and opponents alike by hitting .324 with 13 home runs. As part of its season preview, ESPN predicted that Meneses could hit as many as 30 home runs this season. If the club is going to defy expectations and compete in the NL East, they’ll need all of those homers and more.

4. There are exciting things to expect off-field:

Given the gloomy outlook for the team, this might be a good season to explore the off-the-field amenities of Nats Park. As Washingtonian’s Anna Spiegel reported, the franchise is offering all sorts of new ways to enjoy your time at the stadium this year. You can, for instance, now pick up cold-cut subs from the Capo Italian Deli stand, get a plate of jerk chicken from the Jammin’ Island BBQ outpost, or treat yourself to burgers and fries from the Swizzler location. You can even avoid long lines by purchasing certain drinks and food items from one of the new self-checkout Grab-and-Go Marketplaces located throughout the stadium.

5. Future ownership of the team remains a mystery:

Regardless of any on-field expectations, questions about the team’s ownership will provide a backdrop of uncertainty at the start of the season. After the Lerner family announced last spring that it was exploring a sale of part or all of the franchise, a number of well-heeled figures—including Wizards, Caps, and Mystics owner Ted Leonsis, billionaire private equity manager Michael B. Kim, and the mortgage-lending titan Stanley Middleman—reportedly expressed interest in purchasing at least a portion of the team.

Following the death in February of the Lerner family’s patriarch, Ted Lerner, the questions about the future ownership of the team are as unsettled as ever, according to The Washington Post. In a February story exploring how Ted Lerner’s passing might impact a potential sale, The Post reported that “[m]ultiple people familiar with the process and the family’s thinking say any predictions about what the family’s next steps—whether moving forward with a complete sale, taking on a new minority partner or retrenching and reinvesting themselves—are premature.”

Senior Writer

Luke Mullins is a senior writer at Washingtonian magazine focusing on the people and institutions that control the city’s levers of power. He has written about the Koch Brothers’ attempt to take over The Cato Institute, David Gregory’s ouster as moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, the collapse of Washington’s Metro system, and the conflict that split apart the founders of Politico.