One of the reasons why Mike Rizzo has established himself as one of the best executives in baseball is his ability to look ahead. Just about every time a big-time player is about to leave in free agency, or is aging out, the Nationals have someone waiting in the wings.
Rizzo has stayed ahead of the curve sometimes by drafting and developing players, but also by using free agency and trades. And sometimes the moves have happened so far in advance, few connected the dots at the times they occurred.
Sometimes, he has even been lucky. Like, the Nationals could not have predicted Ryan Zimmerman would stop being able to throw the baseball from third to first in 2014 when they drafted Anthony Rendon in 2011, right? Yet, there Rendon was, ready to step in to take over at third base in 2015.
Most of these types of moves have clearly been intended and thought all the way through. The 2014 trade for shortstop Trea Turner and pitcher Joe Ross set them up well for when Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann left in free agency after the 2015 season. They also signed Max Scherzer in January of 2015, who has proven more than adequate as a replacement in the rotation.
In 2018, the Nationals executed a trade to get outfielder Adam Eaton from the White Sox. That came in handy one year later when Bryce Harper left in free agency. Eaton gave them enough production to start for a World Series-winning team, and at a much cheaper price.
The Nats also had Juan Soto developed and ready for when Harper was set to hit the open market. Between Soto, Eaton and Victor Robles, it made their decision to let Harper go much easier.
At the moment, the Nationals are in shape to do the same thing with infielder Carter Kieboom. Rendon left in free agency, but the Nats were ready with a top-20 prospect ready to take his place.
Thinking ahead like this is what the best organizations in sports do. Imagine if the Redskins had been developing a quarterback when Kirk Cousins wanted out. Or if the Wizards had someone ready to take Otto Porter Jr.'s place at small forward in 2017. Instead, the Redskins let Cousins go for essentially nothing and the Wizards had to overpay Porter to keep him.
By thinking ahead, the Nationals keep their payroll low and their window to compete wide open because they find cheaper, younger replacements. And by doing that they can also be more selective in whom they keep, not feeling the need to re-sign a player just because they have nowhere to turn.
All of this brings up a natural question: what is next? If the Nats are always thinking two steps ahead, what's the second step we aren't seeing?
Scherzer is one to keep an eye on. His contract only runs through next season and even if they re-sign him, they will need to add pitching. He turns 36 next month and can't be counted on to pitch at a Cy Young level forever.
Eaton has a $10.5 million option for next season. But even if that is picked up, they will need an outfielder for 2022 at the earliest.
Turner is going to be a free agent in 2023 and could command a major deal. Affording him may not be easy with Soto and Robles contracts also down the line.
As for Scherzer, nothing can really be counted on yet in terms of his replacement. The Nats keep spending first round picks on starting pitchers, but none of the recent ones have conveyed into something substantial.
Free agency offers no gurantees, either. The 2020 class is headlined by Corey Kluber (club option), Trevor Bauer, Robbie Ray and Marcus Stroman. The 2021 class is loaded with big names, but age will be a factor with most of them. The group includes Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Noah Syndergaard, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke.
For Scherzer, the Nats may need to look for a trade similar to the ones they used to acquire Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister years ago. As for Eaton, the Nats are likely to be in good shape with their outfield no matter what. They have two young guys in Soto and Robles, with Soto already being a certified star and Robles well on his way towards becoming something special.
They seem to have the most concrete plan in place for the event Turner leaves. They have Kieboom, who is a natural shortstop, and also 20-year-old prospect Luis Garcia, who may be an established big leaguer by the time 2023 comes around.
Some of these decisions may seem far away, but it's never too early to plan and you know the Nationals front office is thinking in these terms.
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