The Rebuild: How did we get here, where do we go?

Photo by Laura Peebles for TalkNats

Here we go again. For those of us who have followed this team since then-mayor, Anthony Williams, uttered those magical words “…there will be baseball in Washington in 2005,” this is not unfamiliar territory, if unwanted. When this team moved here, they were barren from years of cheap and horrible mismanagement by the MLB stewards. The Lerners purchased the team and built a winner in six years, in spite of having Jim Bowden’s inept leadership until he resigned, shamefully, in March, 2009. A decade later, we were World Champions. Since that magical run, we have run into hard times. We have gone from the top of the mountain to the depths of the worst record in baseball, quickly. What happened?

I want to dispel one myth right away. This team wasn’t dismantled immediately—it was only after crashing in 2021 that it was clear we were not going to compete. They went out and acquired Will Harris in 2020; Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber in 2021. The latter two were very good here. In 2021, they had a ~$170m payroll—not the top of the league, but hardly Oakland A’s territory. After a hot two-and-a-half weeks in June 2021, this team cratered. Outside of that amazing 14-2 June run, this team was a paltry 34-53, prior to the trade deadline—including a sweep by the wholly inept Orioles. It was time: this team was that unholy triumvirate: old, expensive, and unproductive. We had two decisions—continue like the post-2009 Phillies and continue until the bitter end, prolonging the pain, or burn it down. Rizzo smartly decided to burn it down, by making the difficult, unpopular move of trading Trea Turner and Max Scherzer; and then the even more unpopular decision to trade Juan Soto.

How did we get to sink to such depths? Quite simply, our player development in the last 8-10 years has been terrible. The free agent moves and trades have been largely successful: the Turner heist from San Diego/Tampa Bay, Adam Eaton, Josh Bell, Max Scherzer, Howie Kendrick, Sean Doolittle, Daniel Hudson, Josh Harrison, Yan Gomes, among others. The problem is, with all those moves and trades, there are costs. We saw players like Lucas Giolito and Jesus Luzardo exit. We also haven’t drafted worth a damn in over a decade—partly because we were picking much later in the draft where finding successful talent is more difficult. We did not have the pipeline to replace lost free agents, injuries, trades, or retirements.

Since drafting Giolito, our most successful draft pick was Nick Pivetta (5.9 bWAR)—traded for the reviled Jonathan Papelbon. Only Luzardo, traded for Doolittle and Ryan Madson in 2017, has any real promise. He’s still only 24, and had started to show his promise, netting 2.0 bWAR, albeit over 100.1 IP. No one from the 2020 draft has made the major leagues yet. Picks after the first round is a total wasteland. There is no one they can really point to as a success since Michael A. Taylor in 2009. (Side Note: Robbie Ray was a 2010 pick; but only found success much later, on his third team).

This team needed an influx of young, controllable talent. It became clear that Turner and Soto were going to go to Free Agency—more so the latter with Scott Boras as an agent. But this is less about who left, than who never showed up: players like Carter Kieboom, Seth Romero, Erick Fedde, Andrew Stevenson, Mason Denaburg, and anyone selected after the first round the last thirteen years. All of them are complete busts like Romero and heading that way like Kieboom.

Sinking big money into Turner and Soto would have only prolonged this process. Yes, it would have been fun to see those two in a Nats uniform their whole career—but how does this team look, long-term, if we hold onto those two? Remove every top prospect or young major leaguer not named Luis Garcia, Cade Cavalli, Elijah Green, or Brady House. Those two trades yielded: Robert Hassell III, MacKenzie Gore, CJ Abrams, James Wood, Jarlin Susana, Keibert Ruiz, and Josiah Gray. With Soto and Turner, this team was still uncompetitive in 2021. Also, Soto and Turner do not keep Stephen Strasburg healthy or make Patrick Corbin good again. Bad drafting, development issues, injuries, age, and regression meant they had to be traded.

So, what now? First and foremost, more important than any free agent acquisition, the continued increase in analytics and development staff is crucial. Yes, we are behind the times, yes, it has certainly contributed to our downfall (the Austin Voth quote after going to the Orioles was very telling…and painful). But general manager Mike Rizzo has been one to make corrections where corrections are needed—going back to the 2015 when injuries derailed our season, he overhauled the medical staff. While he has been slow to implement a state-of-the-art analytics staff, we have begun that process, and it should be a multi-year process.

The biomechanics expert will be a boon for someone like Gray. He has stretches of brilliance, striking out four-to-six over his first few IP, followed by inexplicable wildness and a mammoth homer or two. Getting him to repeat his mechanics (something manager Dave Martinez has mentioned before), and find some consistency, he will be a very good pitcher. Darrell Coles, the current hitting coach, is a proponent of analytics. Jesse Doughtery of the Washington Post, wrote back in April, when Coles was hired, he wanted an analytical coordinator to help correlate the data for hitters. Pitching coach Jim Hickey works directly with unsung Game 6 hero Jon Tosches to help interpret and put data in players hands. In April, the staff was back to its pre-pandemic size of 12. In November, they added 18 new positions, increasing the staff by 150%. The continued integration of useful data and analytics in players’ hands will only help speed this process.

Rizzo and company’s detractors will point to the lack of development from the team and staff which is a fair criticism—we have failed to develop very many players over the last few years. However, is that development or player selection? In an interview with The Athletic’s Keith Law right after the Soto trade, he believes it is the latter (he also referred to the trade as a potential Herschel Walker trade). After all, they did develop both Soto and Turner.

Rizzo did help build a team that was one of the winningest teams in baseball for almost a decade. And there is increasing evidence the Nationals have made progress this past year in development—Jeremy De La Rosa cut his K-rate from a Danny Espinosian 34% in 2021 to 25.6% across two levels. Even at Wilmington, where he struggled over a small 32 game sample, he was still at 27.8%. While high, is still a marked improvement over his ’21 season. He is also just 20 years old. TJ White was a 5th round pick last year, and in a short time is a popular sleeper pick for Top 100 rankings. Only 19, he improved throughout the season. After a dreadful May (.071/.133/.095 and a 56.5% K-rate—that’s not a typo), he slashed .274/.371/.456 with a 22% K rate, and an 11.8% walk rate. Cristhian Vaquero’s age-17 season, he walked (33) almost as many times as he struck out (38). This is especially pertinent when considering Elijah Green’s immense potential. His biggest drawback is his issues with contact.

The Nationals are demonstrating their ability to reduce strike outs, at least at the lower levels. If this can continue, it will bode well for our development. Pitching development is another question—the Nationals haven’t developed a successful pitcher since Stephen Strasburg, who was pretty much a can’t miss prospect. Before that, it was Jordan Zimmermann, drafted in 2007. Rizzo and his staff must correct this. Like the hitters, though, there are signs. Cavalli steadily improved throughout the year at Rochester last year: 1st 5 GS: 7.36 ERA; the 15 starts after that: 2.36 ERA. It would help if Jackson Rutledge continues his strong finish (2.72 ERA over 7 GS). It would also help if we land Chase Dollander this summer in the draft. At the major league level, Garcia had a 102 OPS+ last season, continuing to improve. And people want to criticize the Nationals over the failure with Voth—what about crediting them for turning Lane Thomas (103 OPS+, 1.6 bWAR) into a useful major leaguer, at the very least?

By trading everyone that wasn’t nailed down (i.e. Corbin), Rizzo jumpstarted this rebuild. Looking back at the first time we lost 100 games in 2008, our farm system did not look like this. In hindsight, the best players we had in the minors then were Zimmermann and Ian Desmond. We had nothing other than Ryan Zimmerman on the major league roster. No one had the potential of current top-100 prospects Hassell, Wood, or  Green. That doesn’t include someone like Susana (touching 103!),  House,  Vaquero, or White. Neither did we have anyone at the major league level with the potential of Gray, Ruiz, Abrams, Gore, or Cavalli.

Also in 2008, the Nats ended up shuttering their Dominican operations because of the corruption. I bring this up because we ended up winning the division just four years later. It stands to reason, we will be back in contention faster than that.

Also, this is not the time to foolishly chase mediocre-at-best talent. I don’t think the Cubs did themselves any favors by giving Jameson Taillon four years. Jose Quintana for two years would have been a nice get—but I don’t think we would have won out over the Mets, and I wouldn’t want to give him more than what he got there. Signing players like Trevor Williams and drafting Thad Ward in the Rule-5 draft are better moves, for us, at this time. We are going to need to get Cavalli and Gore meaningful innings, but will also limit those innings this year, as they are both coming off injuries. Getting them experience is more important than some over-priced, mediocre pitchers like Taillon. Relying on pitchers like Williams, Ward, and Paolo Espino, and others to fill innings without the financial commitment is more valuable.

I still believe this ownership group—assuming it is still the ownership group in three years—will spend. They have in the past, and they will when the time comes. However, again, this is not the time. We need to build the foundation first. The losing will be difficult; however, embrace the process and enjoy watching the kids grow. We have a lot of talent, and we still need to draft better and continue the improvements in development from the minors through the MLB roster. This is just the beginning.


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