The Washington Nationals were a first place team for a small sliver of hope in May, and that turned out to be more of a tease. People who were buying into Fool’s Gold were not seeing the true stones. They were wishing on the second coming of 2019 miracles. This team was stuck in neutral and had to decide to go into reverse or drive. They could have pushed ahead and won the weak NL East by buying early in July at the cost of selling more of their weak farm and patching the weak spots. They wisely sold in late July and started the “retool” as the Nats braintrust shifted into reverse.
Last week the Nationals had their first sell-off ever, and went deeper than most ever imagined.
“We have to get our ducks in order and we have to make good, intelligent trades and deals to retool this thing, to get back in the hunt and win some more championships. That’s our goal,” Rizzo said last week.
He made it clear this was a “retool” and not a teardown and “rebuild” as some have called it. Some even called it a “fire sale” but it really wasn’t that. The criticism from many fans called Rizzo a failure and a charlatan, and the Nats owners, the Lerners, were lambasted once again with the cheapskate label. While Rizzo is far from perfect, this was the same guy called a genius less than two years ago when he was hoisting the World Series trophy.
“The worst possible thing is to sustain mediocrity,” Mike Rizzo said on a ZOOM call with season ticket holders. “We had a tough decision to make. …We didn’t feel like we were one player or two players away from winning a World Series at that time. … We felt no shame in taking a step back to take two steps forward in the near future to build this thing back up the right way.”
While Rizzo said other team’s replicated “The Plan” the Nats had in motion from 2009-2011, he said that is what the team is going back to with that blueprint. He would not elaborate as to where we are in that process. The word “blueprint” is lingo from the building industry. The Lerners are builders. Rizzo must be the architect to use an analogy. He has claimed he is not rebuilding and that he is “retooling” which just seems like a nicer word.
“We have a plan in place. Timetables are tricky,” Mike Rizzo. “We are ready to build that next championship caliber club. We are positioned much better today then we were before the trade deadline to contend for a long period of time.”
Rizzo spoke glowingly about his first round draft picks from 2019 and 2020, Jackson Rutledge and Cade Cavalli and said both were near MLB ready except for Rutledge’s minor injuries. With five top prospects including the recent signing of the № 11 overall pick in the draft, Brady House (№ 89 Baseball America Ranking), the Nats have four in the Top-100 prospects in their farm system with House and Cade Cavalli (№ 26), Keibert Ruiz (№ 15) and Josiah Gray (№ 57) and Rutledge is not far from the Top-100. Ruiz and Gray came over in the blockbuster trade with the Dodgers.
While it looks like the Nats have some future stars, they have to figure out what they have with players like Victor Robles, Yadiel Hernandez, Andrew Stevenson, Carter Kieboom, Luis Garcia, Tres Barrera, and Erick Fedde.
Evaluating the talent you have now is a difficult task as to not fall in love with your own players. Nobody knows how to fix Robles, or if they do, it isn’t working . On a weekly basis he makes mind-boggling plays like getting picked-off first base yesterday. His batting average has dipped under .200 making him a Mendoza level batter with poor baserunning skills, and a player who makes bad baseball decisions in what some call a poor baseball IQ. He looks to be nothing more than a bench outfielder u til he proves us wrong.
On Yadiel Hernandez, it looks like leftfield is what he was made for, and his evaluation should continue to see if he can consistently hit. He is currently batting .307 with power, but the issue is he is 34 years old in October.
With Andrew Stevenson, you have a bench bat who is now the Nationals all-time hit leader in pinch-hitting spots. He is now the fastest player on the team after Trea Turner was traded. Stevenson is also a good glove in the outfield but has a weak arm. His issue is that he is constantly exposed as a poor batter when he gets starts. He swings at high fastballs for swing and miss and just can’t lay off of inside breaking pitches. Good pitchers expose him all the time. How can the same guy hit .360 as a pinch-hitter but only .181 as a starter?
For the outfield, Soto is the fixture in rightfield and the core of the team. The team needs a legitimate starting centerfielder. And due to Hernandez’s age, they should really try to re-sign the younger Kyle Schwarber. Save money for the bench and go with Hernandez. The tough decision is choosing between Stevenson and Robles, and most likely the team will keep both and alternate starts with them in 2022 since it is a transitional year and hope one of them figures it out.
“Well, I like to say we have a long-term deal with [Soto] now — it’s a three-year long-term deal. That’s a good thing, to have an excellent player on your team for [at least] three years,” Rizzo said after the trade deadline. “Hey, obviously, Soto is a benchmark type of player. He’s the core of our team, and we would be remiss if we didn’t aggressively try and sign him long-term. It’s an important part of what our plan is.”
Honesty. Three more years at the very least.
The team is evaluating what they have in Kieboom and Garcia. Both are still young, and have shown well at times.
We have seen the best and worst of Kieboom in the same game. When the pressure is off, he looks like a star with great presence in the batter’s box then you see him in the ninth inning lose that confidence and fail. He did the same thing with a bad throw in the ninth inning to open the floodgates for the Phillies last night. Truthfully, this feels like that Fool’s Gold and while pyrite is great to look at, it isn’t valuable. I’m not sure what you do with him and said for years now he is not a third baseman. He probably takes a bench spot as a utility infielder and hope something snaps into place. But don’t be surprised if Rizzo once again claims he is a starter. Oh boy.
“We all know what’s at stake,” Kieboom said. “I think, what’s understood doesn’t need to be explained. We don’t talk about [pressure]. We just go and we show up every day, and we do our job.”
The 21-year-old playing the middle infield looks like a keeper. Garcia looks like Juan Soto at times but needs to consistently show the hit tool. The power came out of nowhere and he is a borderline shortstop who could be a star at second base. This should be the kid you ride with at second base next year and see what you got. Against the toughest lefties, that is when Kieboom should come off the bench and start at second base in 2022.
Maybe the Nats should keep Alcides Escobar as a placeholder for 2022 and roll the dice for the Trea Turner in free agency after the 2022 season. It is a gamble, but the team has youth in Armando Cruz in the system now, and that kid is a future Gold Glove, and a star if he continues to hit. Of course, House wants to stay at shortstop but he looks like a future star third baseman.
For third base, there will be plenty on the free agent market like Eduardo Escobar who would be a nice pickup there as a stop-gap pickup.
The team now has their catchers of the future between Keibert Ruiz and Tres Barrera. Add to that the recent acquisitions of Riley Adams and Drew Millas that the Nats addressed a weakness. The team will go into the off-season with Ruiz, Barrera, Adams and Jakson Reetz on the 40-man roster.
At some point in the season, the Nats might carry Ruiz, Barrera and Adams given that there will probably be a DH in the NL, and if Ruiz is as good as advertised, the switch-hitter could take some starts in a variety of ways.
“It’s one of the key positions in all of baseball, and like when we acquired Wilson Ramos in a trade, you can see what having that particular position, having an impact at that position, can do for a baseball team,” Rizzo said Friday “[Ruiz] was a focal point of what we were trying to do at the trade deadline, and we identified him, and he was the main cog that we were trying to get.”
The bullpen was supposed to have been a strength in 2021. Rizzo acquired closer Brad Hand in the off-season to add to a ‘pen that boasted the riches of Daniel Hudson, Will Harris, Tanner Rainey, Kyle Finnegan, and Wander Suero. Today, only Finnegan is active. Hand and Huddy were traded last week, and Rainey and Suero were both shipped to Triple-A to learn how to pitch. Harris might be lost forever with injuries after thoracic outlet surgery. On the same day yesterday, Finnegan and Rainey had blown saves with their respective teams.
Yesterday, Ryne Harper and the newly acquired reliever Mason Thompson combined for back-to-back zeroes in their innings of work. But as we’ve seen yesterday, Kieboom makes and errant throw and Finnegan melted down and it was same ole stuff, different day for the bullpen.
“Harper came in did a great job,” said Martinez. “Then Mason Thompson came in and got two big outs, threw the ball well, so we got to keep battling. I told boys, ‘Hey, keep your heads up. You know, good things will happen. Just keep playing hard.’ We got to work on a bunch of different things. But I’m seeing a lot of positives.”
With the addition of Gabe Klobosits, the bullpen has to figure it out so Rizzo knows where to add. They still have Matt Cronin who is currently injured in Double-A and Holden Powell below him as future back of the bullpen arms they are developing. In the short-term, this is where Rizzo should be adding two top arms from free agency because as we’ve seen, they are the players who are easiest to trade at the deadline, and if you push hard enough, you might get a haul like the Cubs did for Craig Kimbrel.
The team is still figuring out what they have in Erick Fedde who looks like a pitcher who sometimes is close to figuring it out and sometimes just far from good. The former first round pick of the Nats lacks a putaway pitch. He is just another homegrown pitcher from the Nats system without a changeup.
The team immediately called up the newly acquired Josiah Gray who was acquired in that blockbuster trade with the Dodgers without him ever pitching in Triple-A Rochester. He is a work-in-progress who looks like the team’s next Jordan Zimmermann, but then again, so does Cavalli and Rutledge. They all have similar repertoires (fastball, slider, curveball, changeup) and each of these pitchers named here needs to improve their secondary pitches and their changeups.
Rizzo said he is “cautiously optimistic” on the future of Stephen Strasburg who he said is already feeling better one week after thoracic outlet surgery to relieve pain in his trapezius and neck. Nobody knows what they will get from Strasburg in the future, and the same from Patrick Corbin. With $58.3 million, call it $60 million a year, invested in that duo, the Nats have a ton of dough tied up in two players who failed the team in both 2020 and 2021. Strasburg barely pitched due to health issues and Corbin has pitched like a scrub. With a 5.74 ERA, Corbin gives the Nats little chance to win games. Unless Corbin does some soul searching and comes into the 2022 season with a true repertoire of pitches, he might be destined for the bullpen. Strasburg has five years remaining on his contract beyond this year and Corbin has three. This is where the heartburn is for the team.
The team also controls Joe Ross for the 2022 season, and he will be in the final year of team control before free agency. Right now the rotation is Corbin, Fedde, Ross, Paolo Espino and Gray.
So as we see, the team built on pitching that had the most expensive starting rotation in baseball history at over $100 million last year, is a huge question mark with the uncertainty of the team’s number one and number two spots in the rotation due to Strasburg and Corbin after the departure of Max Scherzer.
How can you project a starting rotation for this team right now for 2022 with all of the question marks starting with Strasburg and Corbin? Do you sign a № 1 starting pitcher from free agency and not count on $60 million duo?
The team has $125 million committed for next year, and sadly, nearly $70 million is committed to 3 question marks of Strasburg, Corbin and Harris. The rest of the money committed is for player benefits and only has arb deals for Soto, Josh Bell, and Ross committed with smaller amounts for players who Rizzo can keep, trade, or non-tender. Spend money for Schwarber, a third baseman, a closer, set-up man, and a top of the rotation pitcher, and who knows what can happen if you spend to $190 million. Do nothing and you will get more baseball like we have seen since July 1.