The Washington Nationals should have the year of 2025 circled as their year to really compete for a postseason berth. When Ted Lerner was running the team, he had a vision for the future of building a champion. You take your lumps when you are a bad team, and like any builder knows, it’s all about the process. Some have compared it to sausage making. Lerner had said it was not too different from building a business from scratch.
The team was a mess when the family bought it in mid-2006 with the worst farm system in baseball. It basically had Ian Desmond and that was about it. The team Lerner bought had a decimated farm system from the Expos’ years of bad drafts, awful decisions, and the Bartolo Colon trade in 2002 that cost the “future” team Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore and Lee Stevens. After the season, the Expos traded Colon with only 17-games pitched in a Montreal uni, for a haul of nothing. None of those players were around when the Expos became the Nats two years later. That Colon trade gave away a haul reminiscent of the Juan Soto trade. Cleveland got three minor leaguers in Lee, Phillips, and Sizemore and before you know it, each had gone to multiple All-Star games after the trade.
One of Lerners first internal messages was that they had to rebuild the farm system through being a bad team. It was the only way. Tanking is what some call it and 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 were tanked years. The bad press and the personal insults that were hurled at Lerner did not sway him from the plan. President of Baseball Operations, Stan Kasten, did the public speaking for Lerner and often referred to it as “The Plan.”
Lerner’s first draft in 2007 yielded Jordan Zimmermann and his third draft yielded Stephen Strasburg, and his fourth draft yielded Bryce Harper, and his fifth draft got him Anthony Rendon. The Nats were spending money on the farm with record deals for both Strasburg and Harper. But they didn’t start really spending the big money on the MLB team until after the 2010 season when they inked Jayson Werth to a 9-digit deal.
The mistake that Lerner made back then was not being more transparent and promising the fans that they were going to spend big money when it corresponded with winning. Spending on the MLB team before then would have ruined the plan which called for extreme tanking. But the fans did not know back then what they would see in the future years as the Nats would outspend all teams from 2015-2018 in total payrolls. They are repeating that same public relations mistake today. They are not talking to their customers and being transparent. By not talking, they have lost customers, and lower attendance that will hit them in their wallets. For those who do not know, the customers are not only the fans, but also the advertisers are customers that are crucial to any team.
The Lerners made their money through being visionaries and building properties that would be in great demand. But the business of sports marketing and commercial construction are different. There is nothing pretty about the first stages of construction. Clearing and demolition leads to excavation and shoring up the site before you can begin pouring the footers and setting the foundation. Sometimes you get dealt a bad hand and hit rock or bad soil — or even worse some hazardous materials below the soil. The Nats’ patriarch, who passed away last month, knew that building anything has its risks.
Two of the prized arms that Lerner saw drafted in the tanking years, Zimmermann and Strasburg, both went down with torn UCLs. It felt disastrous at the time. Maybe this will give some comfort to those who think a Cade Cavalli arm injury is a repeat disaster. While it’s bad, these are still tanking years. So long as Cavalli is pitching like a winner in 2025, it is just part of hitting some rock in the ground. It’s a setback. It happens.
Building the Nats really was not much different than constructing a Tyson’s Corner tower. It takes a plan that you must stick to even if it is painful at times. But marketing and good public relations has been lacking for far too long with this baseball team. The Lerner family should have more than enough credibility to lay out the plan and speak to 2007-2010 with 2011 as the transition year before eight straight years of winning from 2012-2019 that culminated in a World Series title.
By signing Keibert Ruiz to an 8-year deal with two team options is a good start, the Lerners need to tell the fans that they will be looking for their Jayson Werth equivalent in the next offseason to transition the team to winning. But some forget the team also signed Adam LaRoche after Werth. Those were building blocks to what would come next, as the team melded top prospects like Zimmermann, Strasburg, Wilson Ramos and Ian Desmond with veterans like Ryan Zimmerman and others.
This time around, the Nats really do have a better farm system. By tying up players in the early years of team control like Ruiz, they might have learned from their mistakes that if you wait too long, star players usually leave. A rebuild like this gives you the opportunity to learn from your previous mistakes and general manager Mike Rizzo deserves credit for getting Ruiz done. They should repeat this with several of the star prospects to create a continuity that might take this team into some winning years that could extend beyond eight.
By communicating “The Plan II” with more transparency, you can build up some positivity and with that win back some of those customers. Again, be honest and deliver a powerful message. Nats’ principal owner, Mark Lerner, did send out a nice message via a blog post, but it certainly did not reach enough people. Call for a press conference and flank yourself with James Wood, Robert Hassell III, Elijah Green, Cavalli, Brady House, CJ Abrams, Ruiz, and MacKenzie Gore. Create some hype. Show off what you built because few teams have what the Nats have tucked away on the farm and a World Series trophy that’s less than four years old. Unfortunately, the Lerners will feel the pain of this rebuild in their pockets as attendance is dropping year over year now and probably will again in 2023, and could drop below two million fans.
“Tonight’s game should be especially fun with several of our top young prospects like Cade Cavalli, Elijah Green, James Wood, Brady House, Daylen Lile, Armando Cruz, T.J. White and Darren Baker, among others, dressed and ready to play,” Lerner wrote.
Some skeptics will tell you there are no sure things in counting on prospects. While that is true, if you have enough, some will work-out and some may not. In that Expos trade, each of Lee, Phillips and Sizemore became stars. It can happen. But you will have to wait and see what happens with these Nats’ top prospects. Rizzo told you what he thought.
“I’m optimistic. I’m excited about this time in our developmental curve with the organization,” Rizzo said last month. “When you guys do get out there on the [Minor League side of camp], those prospects — it’s an exciting time. It’s the best group of upside players we’ve ever had here. I’ve been here since ‘day one’, and I’ve never seen it like this before.”
“You filter in — there’s 22, 23 and 24 year-olds [on the MLB roster], I think you see what we’re trying to accomplish here. That’s the first rung on the ladder to get back to a championship.”
In January, Rizzo used the word ‘lush’ at his Hot Stove event to describe his farm system, and said it was the best prospect group the team has ‘ever’ had.
“This is the most lush and successful prospect list that we’ve ever had. It’s the most talented players we’ve ever had in the farm system at one time.”
There are evaluators who agree with Rizzo, and Baseball America ranked the Nats’ farm system as their seventh best in baseball. It’s not the top farm system now, but should be Top-5 by the end of the season. Maybe even higher if several prospects have great seasons. Drafting at №2 in this year’s draft should help too.
If there is one thing you do not do is to lie to the fans. You don’t tell them you will significantly escalate the payroll like Orioles GM Mike Elias did, and then do basically nothing. The Lerners and their top lieutenants have never really talked up the team. It is time for that to change. Time for some excitement towards the future. This offseason is the time to significantly escalate the payroll and target a top free agent starting pitcher, and it is time to tell that to your customers.