In football, they called it the “run and shoot” offense, and several MLB teams seem to be running the baseball version of it. The Tampa Bay Rays have toolsy athletic position players that will take advantage of your weaknesses with some old-fashioned small ball coupled with the long ball. The Rays lead the Majors in stolen bases and are second in home runs, and the Diamondbacks and Reds are trying to replicate this type of success. Arizona is fourth in stolen bases and sixth in extra base hits. The Reds are second in stolen bases, and 10th in extra base hits.
Whether or not this is the way of the future, there is the theory that having base stealers puts added pressure on the pitchers, and that leads to mistakes. Having havoc wreakers on the basepaths is not anything new — but having a few players in the starting lineup that wreak havoc is new to baseball. We have seen that Tampa, Arizona, and Cincinnati have multiple ways to beat you. But can these teams win the World Series? Earl Weaver‘s philosophy started with great pitching and that was a cornerstone of his teams. That aligns with Nats’ general manager Mike Rizzo.
“The key to winning baseball games is: pitching, fundamentals, and three-run homers.”— Weaver once infamously said
Manager Dave Martinez‘s teams have been spotty on Weaver’s keys to winning. How do you turn that around? Get better pitchers to improve the pitching, get better players and coaches to improve the fundamentals, and get power hitters and better coaching to hit more home runs. In order to get those three-run homers you need runners to get on-base. But has baseball evolved to how teams score runs and prevent runs from scoring? Analytics has certainly changed the game.
The Reds lost 100 games last year, and looks like they could make the playoffs this year. Their turnaround is really about their offense and being able to close-out wins, but they have the fourth worst pitching in the Majors. This is also a problem with the Orioles as they have the eighth worst starting pitching in the Majors. But somehow these teams are winning games, and the question is whether it is sustainable. The Pittsburgh Pirates got out of the gate with a first place hot start but faded as their pitching started to fail. The Orioles are in a slide in the last two weeks, and the Reds could ultimately fail if their offensive machine goes into a collective slump.
All of this could lead you to believe that proper team balance like the Rays and Diamondbacks have would be the right way to go. The Rays, Diamondbacks and Reds are all in the Top-7 of run scorers. But baseball has shown before that balanced teams win World Series. Maybe the Royals of 2015 were the exception to the rule.
Can the Washington Nationals become a team that can compete next year? Can they do what the Reds have done and add a few players to transform their team? With James Wood, Robert Hassell III, and Brady House as top prospects that could help in the future, the Nats will also add on a Sunday a No. 2 overall draft pick that could be transformative to this team.
It seems like 2025 would be the year for the Nats to compete, however, Rizzo has shown that he is not afraid to promote young phenoms like he aggressively did with Bryce Harper and Juan Soto when he added them to his MLB roster as teenagers. Rizzo and the Lerner ownership has also shown in the past that they have been proactive spenders in free agency. Could Rizzo get aggressive with a 2024 roster, and can he spend enough in free agency to impact the team?
If the Nats draft Dylan Crews, the outfield could be Crews, Wood, and Lane Thomas to start the 2024 season, but what about the pitching then? If you draft Crews, then Rizzo is going to need to dive deep into free agency for an ace, and they don’t grow on trees — and many teams are also competing for that ace pitcher.
All of this leads to why many believe Rizzo will go to Skenes if he is available at pick No. 2, and then look to Hassell to pair with Wood and Thomas for his outfield. That would allow Rizzo to spend his free agent money for a DH and first baseman to round out his lineup with shortstop CJ Abrams, second baseman Luis Garcia, third baseman House, and catcher Keibert Ruiz. While House probably will not be ready to start the 2024 season on the MLB roster, the Plan B might be to go with Jake Alu who is currently playing third base at Triple-A Rochester. Another solution would be to extend Jeimer Candelario‘s contract then shift him to first base when House is ready.
Yes, there are many “ifs” there. Free agency is tougher than ever to count on to go in your favor. The draft is certainly going to set a new direction, and we will definitely revisit this after the draft.