Championship calibration or recalibration?

It was just two and a half weeks ago that super agent Scott Boras was in Nationals Park to introduce another of his high profile clients as an incoming Washington Nationals player. The path to the next D.C. baseball championship could once again include Boras as a central figure. When Boras got the microphone at Dylan Crews‘ introductory presser, he said “We all built a championship here, and we did it with core [Boras] players” that he represented at different points in Nats’ history. We? Huh? This time around Boras represents Crews, James Wood, and MacKenzie Gore as obvious key pieces to the next championship for the Nationals. Is this a championship calibration or recalibration?

The next championship has so many pieces up in the air that we do not know if they will include general manager Mike Rizzo, principal owner Mark Lerner, or field manager Dave Martinez. They could, but as of now, Rizzo and Martinez are in the final year of their contracts and Lerner did not say whether or not his team is still for sale. So while everything is in a new calibration, the only one who might be part of the next championship might be Boras — because that guy just doesn’t seem like he is going away.

“I’m giving [the owner] a barometer for championship calibration. This is not running a business — this is where [an owner] is going to have to take some risk. To win a championship, you’re going to have to go over budget. You’re going to have to take a risk. You’re going to have to sign a player and give him the extra year because the competition is there to do it. That’s why when they talked about TED LERNER — Ted Lerner went out and signed Max Scherzer and gave him a record contract, record years, and he was annihilated for it! They told him that was a mistake. That was an overpay! Those types of owners that do that — and base it on a reasoned thought. But really it’s the will. It’s like a player who has a will to perform, to win, to do things.”

— Boras once infamously said

So let me get this straight, Boras is giving Lerner a barometer for championship calibration? What exactly is that? He does not just hand the team players. He just represents them. We learned after Jayson Werth was signed that the Nats got him by throwing in an extra year above what any other team was willing to do. But doesn’t that just translate to overpaying the player? Probably. And that is what the Nationals might need to do this offseason — if this is the offseason that the Nats treat like their offseason between 2010 and 2011 when they signed Werth.

” … We all built a championship here, and we did it with core [Boras] players ….”

Scott Boras said at the Crews introductory press conference

The current core of players includes Gore as the only active Boras client on the roster, and non-Boras players like CJ Abrams, Josiah Gray, and Keibert Ruiz make up the rest of the core. The superstar prospects in the system are Crews and Wood as Boras’ players, but also non-Boras players like Brady House and Cade Cavalli make up the future core. The bigger question could be as to signing a key starting pitcher in free agency. Will that be a Boras client or do the Nats look elsewhere? Most agree you sign the best players regardless of the agent — but some teams like the Atlanta Braves have tried to steer clear of Boras.

Opening up the budget and going for it in 2024 like Ted Lerner did prior to the 2011 season in getting Werth was the game changer. That move signaled that the once lowly Nats were stepping up in a big way, and Werth was a World Series champion, credited for changing the clubhouse culture to a winning culture. Will Mark Lerner send up the same signal?

“We’re all in. … Just like we did the last time with Werth [in free agency], at the right time, we will be back in the free agent market again. … Trust me, nobody wants to win more than me.”

— Lerner said before the season started

A lot has changed since March when most expected this 2023 Nats team would lose over 100 games and 2024 was going to be another tough season. But now there is more hope and optimism. Will this offseason be the right time to get your next Werth? That is the multi-million dollar question. If it is the right time, don’t expect the free agent signing to be an outfielder like Werth. This team needs an ace pitcher. They don’t come cheap. There are some other holes to fill too. If it is not the right time to push the budget, then winning might not be coming in 2024.

Lerner says the “fans are really going to like what they see in the next couple of years” and that sounds just wonderful. Winning can obviously return sooner than later by spending big and trading away prospects like Rizzo did to sign Gio Gonzalez prior to the 2012 season — but don’t you want to retain your top prospects and not feel like you constantly have to trade them away? This time around, the Nats need to, at the very least, build bullpens from within, and try to add their next ace from the free agent market. The other key will be retaining young players like Abrams early in the process like the Atlanta Braves have done with their young core. Inevitably, some players will head to free agency — the key is to keep the players you want for the long-term.

“Guys come and go, and fans fall in love with somebody else, somebody new. It’s tough, but they do — and they got to understand that it’s part of the game — an unfortunate part of the game, but we got to keep going.”

— Martinez said two years ago. Could he be one of the guys to come and go?

In an ongoing poll, the fans want to retain Rizzo and Martinez. The vocal part of the fan base want them both gone. Is any team ever happy with their GM, coaches or ownership? Again, as of right now, Lerner has to decide sooner than later what the team will do with Rizzo. From there, Rizzo has to decide on Martinez and the coaching staff. This offseason starts in just 50-games which is now less than two months away.

Last year, Rizzo and Martinez did exit meetings with each returning player and gave them a list of what they needed to work on in the offseason. Then Rizzo and Martinez began their autopsy over the cause of death of another failed season. Yes, in rebuilds you know that losing is a by-product, however you still need to go through the process of identifying the issues in order to improve. Last year, there was a lot of parting ways with players in order to improve. That was addition by subtraction. Victor Robles was retained and was one of the team’s best offensive players in April, but oddly his defense stats turned negative. He was struggling with back issues and has spent most of the season on the injured list. The team is only 12-23 in games he started in 2023, and 37-40 in games he didn’t start. In fact, when Robles went on the 10-day IL before the team went to San Diego on June 23, the team has gone 21-17 since that point. Of course there is no correlation from Robles to his replacements to why the team is playing better.

It seems fairly obvious at this point that the Nats’ will decline Robles’ 2024 option for $3.3 million and allow him to go to free agency. There will obviously be a few players that won’t return for 2024, however, there should not be as much turnover as in previous years from the MLB roster. Only Robles, Patrick Corbin, Stephen Strasburg, Matt Adams, and Sean Doolittle remain in the system from the World Series season. Change happens because that is the cyclical nature of the business of baseball. Sometimes you have to force change. Like Martinez said, “it’s part of the game — an unfortunate part of the game, but we got to keep going.” Martinez and Rizzo have both said they want to return next season.

“I love it here. I’m happy here. The [Lerner family] gave me my first opportunity to be a general manager when few, if any, would have. So I’m indebted to them, and I work extremely hard for them.”

— Rizzo said several years ago

The championship recalibration is underway, and hopefully we get decisions, sooner than later, on the management of the team — while also getting a clearer direction of what the Nationals will do in this offseason that begins at about 6 pm on October 1.

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