It was absolute euphoria for Washington Nationals’ fans when the team won the 2019 World Series. After all, that’s what you play for, and at that time, the process, the coaching, the trades, and anything else that was controversial took a back seat to all the positive vibes and appropriately so. As the saying goes, “Who would complain about the parade route?”
In Oct. 2022 after 3 seasons with poor results which have seen the results deteriorated over time, it’s fair to look back with hindsight for three years and question if at that time the right approach was taken to produce a continuing contention window and ultimately another title run.
Judging by historical observations, general manager Mike Rizzo’s main focus and strategy was to continue the run while returning as much of the band as possible for the 2020 season.
I must confess that I applauded when Howie Kendrick, Yan Gomes, Asdrubal Cabrera, Daniel Hudson, Adam Eaton, and Ryan Zimmerman were all returning. On top of that, the team spent big for Stephen Strasburg in a new $245 million contract which set a record at the time.
Were all of those moves the correct read by Rizzo? Was that team likely to maintain a similar level going forward? Clearly using the benefit of knowing what has transpired the answer is no — but Rizzo had to make decisions without the benefit of knowing what would happen — so to judge fairly let’s take a walk back in time.
Let’s look at several truths about the 2019 team. The core of the team was comprised of aging veterans known as the Los Viejos, and then there was the youngster Juan Soto who was all of 21 years old. The team got off to a horrid start in 2019 exacerbated by critical injuries to Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon and others. Close to halfway through that season (which followed a down 2018 season) there were calls to start retooling the team with the feeling that the contention window had ended. Of course, we all know what happened in the 2nd half of 2019 and in the postseason as the Improbable season.
But let’s bring the microscope a little closer.
- The Nats were this |—-| close to getting bounced in the WC round.
- The Nats faced elimination FIVE times while trailing in each of these games before coming back.
- Players Kendrick, Rendon, Strasburg etc had insanely great postseasons.
This is not meant to minimize the incredible accomplishments at all. It was the highlight of this old fan’s life as a sport junkie by a wide margin — and I’ve been to many Stanley Cup parades and my football team has won a bunch of championships, no comparison.
What I’m trying to get at is: ‘how likely was it that this group could come close again?’
Objectively (this is just my opinion) the 2019 team was one of the weakest in the 8-year run and even if everyone including Rendon returned the strong likelihood is that the window was indeed coming to a close. Adding to this the team lost the player who was right at the top of the team in offense throughout the year and who could not be replaced adequately. I have no interest in re-litigating whether or not he could have been signed, fact is he wasn’t. Rizzo made a bit of a run at Josh Donaldson showing he really felt the team was still competitive.
Clearly, I feel that trying to go back to the well with the same horses (minus Rendon) was not a sustainable approach from a baseball perspective, but I must note that a championship team faces enormous fan pressure to defend the title with the group that won it, so this is not a criticism based article, just some fun discussion before the hot stove begins.
Could there have been a different approach that would have continued the run?
I don’t think so. The Nats could have traded Max Scherzer and Turner sooner extracting better and more prospects and from a baseball perspective that might have been the correct approach. I think that would have been wildly unpopular and probably not at all realistic. Should the team have signed Strasburg to the contract they did? Probably not. Should the team have brought back all the ancillary pieces without a realistic shot at contention? (And I must note that Rizzo felt he could go back to contention in 2021 not throwing in towel until the 2021 trade deadline). Debatable, probably should have focused on younger players.
My conclusion is that the Nats were doomed to have a big fall and by the end of 2019 there wasn’t much that could have been done to avoid the fall. Years of poor drafting and developmental failures put the team in a place from which it could not pivot. Going all in year after year was the only way to go, and in the end, it became necessary to start over from scratch, and here we are.