Nationals

Why the Nats' rebuild likely won't take longer than most

Nationals

It has been a jarring trade deadline for Washington Nationals fans as they saw their favorite team tear down its roster, trading away key members of the 2019 World Series-winning club, including Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Dodgers.

Seeing Scherzer, in particular, suit up in a different uniform has been about as strange as any legend in any sport who left the team they are most associated with. And the Nats weren't even Scherzer's first MLB team.

Now, it's officially time to take their lumps in what is the very beginning of a rebuild. The losses will mount, no question. They are so depleted that even the pedestrian Phillies just swept them. Yuck.

Don't get used to that, though, because although rebuilds often take a long time (hello, Orioles), they don't always have to, especially when you have the track record team president Mike Rizzo and the Nationals do.

Rizzo has already proven he can keep a competitive window open by reloading and then reloading again. It's how they built a division-winner in 2012 and then replenished over and over until they won a title seven years later.

That's not easy to do. Many executives can build one winner. Rizzo has essentially built one and then found the necessary pieces to keep it going and improving until they finally reached the mountaintop.

Next, Rizzo will have to do something even more challenging, which arguably separates the very good team architects from the truly great ones, the all-time greats, the Hall of Famers. He has to build a second championship contender.

 

Only the very best in their sports can do that. Bobby Beathard, formerly of the Washington Football Team, along with Joe Gibbs built three Super Bowl-winning teams with three different quarterbacks. Jerry West in the NBA helped craft two dynasties with the Lakers, then another with the Warriors. Theo Epstein in MLB ended the curse for the Red Sox and then for the Cubs.

Rizzo is already a legend in D.C. If he builds another champion with essentially an entirely new cast of characters, his name will be in discussions with sports' best.

The good news is he doesn't have to start from scratch. The Nationals have a better farm system now after the trades they made to deal Scherzer, Turner, Kyle Schwarber, Daniel Hudson and others. And they have Juan Soto, one of the best players in baseball who is only 22 and not yet earning a contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Nationals also have a unique history working in their favor. They are, for the most part, unusually good at projecting free agents, both those on the open market and their own. They saw things other teams didn't in Scherzer, Daniel Murphy and even in smaller deals like the ones for Schwarber and before him Brian Dozier.

They were proven right by letting guys like Jordan Zimmermann leave. The same may be said someday about Anthony Rendon, who just had season-ending hip surgery as a member of the Angels.

The Nats' projection models are better than most and once they feel it's the right time to go for a player, you can trust their approach because of their past. Chances are, they will make sound decisions and they aren't afraid to spend big money if it's the right guy. Just look at Scherzer.

There is also the Nationals' past success in the trade market to consider. They pulled off deals that were very impressive in hindsight like the one to get Turner and others to acquire Howie Kendrick, Wilson Ramos, Gio Gonzalez, Denard Span and Tanner Roark.

Having money to spend in free agency can create shortcuts to contention. They don't have to find all of their building blocks in the draft or the international prospect market. They can develop a cadre of young players and then strike when they feel ready to compete for the NL East division again.

Perhaps some of those building blocks will emerge by the season's end. There are now ample opportunities for at-bats and innings and already guys like Luis Garcia and Carter Kieboom are taking advantage. Who knows, maybe someone figures it out now that the pressure of high expectations has been relieved.

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The Nationals, though, do have some obstacles in their way. They may have two bad pitcher contracts on their hands in Stephen Strasburg, who can't stay healthy, and Patrick Corbin, who for the second straight season is carrying an ERA above 4.60. 

 

Strasburg, though, has a long track record before last season of being a top-shelf pitcher. And Corbin's career has always been a rollercoaster. The Nats could have seen this seesaw trajectory just by looking at what he did before he got here. If his past is any indication, he will probably pitch like an All-Star next season.

Those two could be seen as negatives, but also potential positives. If they correct course, the Nats will have two aces to build around. Ideally, they could fill in the gaps with their newfound pitching prospect depth.

Rizzo and other Nationals executives have alluded in the past to not believing in tanking. They like to win and have time-tested strategies for doing so.

Don't expect them to take their time getting back.