Nationals

With new direction, Nats eye return to contention in ‘near future’

Nationals
Mike Rizzo

When Nationals’ General Manager Mike Rizzo sat down for his press conference Friday just over an hour after completing the biggest fire sale he had ever overseen in Washington, reminders of the club’s World Series title from two years prior were difficult to miss.

Rizzo’s championship ring sat on his finger and it took less than three minutes for him to hold it up to make a point. He wore a World Series-embroidered jacket, a choice that certainly appeared deliberate considering the temperature sat in the mid-80s for most of the day. Yet perhaps the starkest reminder resided in the message he conveyed: We will be back.

“There’s no shame in having to take a step back, refocus, reboot and start the process again and that’s what we’re preparing to do,” Rizzo said. “The players that we acquired today at the trade deadline and the last couple of drafts that we had and trade deadline acquisitions we had will be the core of this next championship-caliber club.”

It was a deadline sell-off of epic proportions. The Nationals traded eight total players, four of whom were on their World Series roster in 2019. Max Scherzer and Trea Turner, two foundational pieces Rizzo has built around for more than half a decade, were shipped to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the biggest blockbuster deal of the deadline. Brad Hand, Daniel Hudson, Kyle Schwarber, Yan Gomes, Josh Harrison and Jon Lester were all dealt as well.

 

In return, they acquired 13 prospects to give their farm system a much-needed boost after 10 years of steadily supplying talent for the major-league club in Washington. Five of those players have already seen success at the Triple-A level, two are in Double-A and the rest are long-term assets that will become the new focus for Washington’s player development team.

So, where do the Nationals go from here?

For the rest of the 2021 season, they’re going to see what they have in some of their younger players whose opportunities for regular playing time were blocked by established veterans. That means infielders Carter Kieboom and Luis García will be playing nearly every day. Catcher Tres Barrera will be given the chance to prove the hot start to his MLB career is no fluke. Relievers Kyle Finnegan and Sam Clay will pitch in more high-leverage situations.

Beyond this year, however, the Nationals don’t envision a lengthy rebuild that will force their fans to endure a string of seasons where landing a high draft pick takes precedence over putting a competitive product on the field.

“We started this thing in 2009 way below where we’re at today, as far as organizationally, and it took us three years to win 98 games,” Rizzo said. “So, we have a great plan in place, we’ve got great people out in the field, scouting and developing our players, and we’ve got a great major league staff, and a good stable of players that are going to impact the majors in the near future.

“You never put a timetable on it, but I’m a restless person and I don’t like to lose, and we’re not going to put up with losing for too long.”

For that plan to work, the Nationals’ top prospects both new and old will have to live up to their potentials. Catcher Keibert Ruiz (No. 16 on Baseball America’s Top 100) and pitcher Josiah Gray (No. 59) were the key pieces in the Scherzer/Turner deal. Both should be in the majors by next season, if not sooner.

“They’re going to get here and they’re going to get their feet wet and probably start off at Triple-A,” manager Davey Martinez said. “We haven’t talked about it yet; we just want to get them here. I’m looking forward to watching them play a little bit and then we’ll make decisions on when they’ll come up here, but those are two guys that we feel like are close, whether we see them here this year, or soon, or September, that’s a decision that Mike and I will sit down and make here in the near future.”

Recent first-round picks Cade Cavalli (No. 27) and Jackson Rutledge hope to join Gray as future linchpins of their rotation. The slew of other players acquired this week will each get their chance to help form the next roster that takes Washington to the postseason as well. Juan Soto isn't going anywhere just yet, and the Nationals will attempt to extend him and make him a permanent part of their future.

 

Rather than try to run it back with an aging core that would’ve only grown more expensive, the Nationals hit the reset button and changed the course of their franchise. It’s a longer view, one that will require patience and force fans to find excitement in development rather than pennant races. But it’s not a half-decade rebuild, either. Even more importantly, it’s not a prolonged stretch of mediocrity that puts the Nationals in middle-of-the-road purgatory.

“Patience doesn’t mean losing, believe me,” Rizzo said. “Patience means we know what’re doing. We’ve got a plan in place to not only win in the near future but sustain excellence throughout a decade and that’s what I learned in ’09 and that’s what we’re gonna employ here in ’21.”