At the risk of making premature proclamations – there’s still more than two weeks until Opening Day – I will do so anyway: Mike Rizzo and the Nationals are doing rebuilding right.
As a fanbase, we were spoiled over the last decade. Yes, we were heartbroken many times, too, but we cheered for a team that was committed to winning, executed that vision with a couple hiccups and won the ultimate prize to show for the effort.
However, years of poor drafting and trading away prospects for proven players took a toll and things went downhill fast after that magical 2019 season. The roster is a shell of what it once was and the makeover the team is experiencing now can be a bitter pill to swallow for many. It’s as understandable as it was inevitable.
The good news? The Nats are as invested in building another team capable of sustained success as they were to winning from 2012-21. Rizzo made an extremely difficult choice last July to unload everything not nailed down. Watching Max Scherzer, Trea Turner, Daniel Hudson, etc., exit was painful. It was also an absolute necessity.
The franchise was at an inflection point last summer. Rizzo could have decided to go for it, banking on his veteran roster to again overcome the odds – remember, they were only a handful of games out of the playoff race at the time. But he also realized that despite his team’s struggles, he had a lot of players who would be in demand. He could hope to defy the odds again, but if he bet wrong, he’s left at the end with a losing team, a handful of pending free agents heading out the door and a squandered opportunity to seriously jumpstart a rebuild. Or, he could cash all his chips in while they held value and make life easier going forward.
Fortunately, he chose Option B, against many fans’ wishes. Although it will take a few years to truly assess the haul Rizzo received during his Trade Deadline frenzy, the strategy was sound. If you’re going to rebuild, then you do it all the way. Liquidation sale. Everything must go.
So while you may not have liked it at the time, there are three key factors that should encourage you as a fan: strategy, competitive integrity and timing. I’m going to explain how everything the Nats have done since July make sense in the larger picture being painted.
There was a clear pattern and vision unfolding as we said goodbye to Max, Trea and the gang last July. Whereas most rebuilding teams tend to target young lottery ticket players in the lower minors for tanking and financial reasons, Rizzo took a different tack. He made a concerted effort to land near-MLB-ready talent. Many of the players he received had already played in the big leagues and only Aldo Ramirez (Kyle Schwarber trade) and Jordy Barley (Daniel Hudson) figure as longer-term projects in the low minors. By the end of 2022, it’s likely most prospects acquired will have played for the Nats already. Rizzo is not building for 2026. He wants to see what guys can do in short order so he knows how to build around them.
As a fan, you’re not going to have to sit through Baltimore Orioles-like 110-loss, fan-debasing seasons. Washington will put a competitive product on the field amid its rebuild. The Nats won’t contend this year or probably even in 2023, but they’re not going to embarrass you. If there was any question about that, the Nelson Cruz signing speaks volumes. Despite the current state of the team, the Nats were willing to spend $15 million to improve the club in the immediate term, knowing they can easily trade Cruz in July to improve its long-term prospects. So far, Rizzo is doing everything you’d like in free agency: upgrading the roster and filling holes with high-character players on one-year deals who can easily be traded in July. Not every rebuilding team is willing to spend money and have that foresight. In addition to Cruz, the likes of Steve Cishek, Ehire Adrianza and Caesar Hernandez all make the team better now, provide a positive influence in a young clubhouse and give Rizzo a little bit of trade powder come July. The reason he is doing this probably has a lot to do with my third point.
Anti-tanking measures have long been overdue in baseball, and relief is finally on the way via the updated MLB Draft Lottery. Check out the details of the changes here. The gist of it is, there is no longer any incentive to finish with the worst record in baseball for the No. 1 pick. The top six picks are now subject to a lottery among all non-postseason teams. The three worst teams have identical odds at securing the top choice and teams will not be able to stack high picks in consecutive years. The system encourages improvement and discourages tanking. It’s a good start.
As far as the Nats are concerned, they have been able to secure bigtime talents in recent years, and last season’s dismal showing, which earned them the No. 5 choice in this year’s loaded Draft, won’t count against their chances of securing a high pick in the 2023 Draft, either.
Put it this way, the Nats could have a stretch in which they add Cade Cavalli and Brady House in consecutive years, then likely one of Druw Jones/Termarr Johnson/Elijah Green/Jacob Berry/Brooks Lee/Jace Jung this summer, plus a potential high choice next year. The Nats will be able to use the old system to their advantage just as their internal clock pushes them back toward contention over rebuilding. The days of teams trying to out-tank each other for the rights to a transcendent Draft prospect are hopefully over.
Reality is the Nats won’t win a lot of games this year. The Braves are still a juggernaut. The Mets look great on paper (seen that before), the Phillies are OK and the Marlins are a talented riddle. But the Nats are not going to insult your intelligence by purposefully fielding a team designed to maximize losses and cut expenditures. Mike Rizzo is actively trying to improve the team in the short term with moves that can also benefit the long term. Your time at the ballpark will be well spent and the team will give it a good effort every day. The vast majority of recent rebuilding teams could not say the same thing with a straight face. There’s comfort in that.