Final homestand thoughts on the Washington Nationals for the future

Last year, manager Dave Martinez and G.M. Mike Rizzo spoke at a function for season ticket holders called the Ballpark Bash. There was an open mic, and they got grilled as the team finished with a Washington Nationals’ worst 107 losses. This year, there was no Ballpark Bash, and the pair avoided a grilling by those that pay to watch the team. It is ironic that fans ask tougher questions than the media. Instead, the team did a full-team autograph session this year for their season plan holders, and the Ballpark Bash looks to have been a one-and-done. As normal, Rizzo and Martinez did meet with the media for a traditional year-end homestand colloquy that was certainly more upbeat than last year.

“The team’s playing better than expected. I don’t think that it’s a successful season, but it’s a very encouraging season. Nobody wants to aim to win 70 games in a season. We want to win 97 games in the season. So that’s our goal. That’s always been our goal — but this is a good step in the right direction to that.”

“I’m really excited about what’s coming down the pike, and the players that are going to be the next core group of the championship team that plays in National Park.”

— Rizzo said

The future looks bright for sure when you consider that next core group. The 2023 team went into the season hoping that was CJ Abrams, Keibert Ruiz, Josiah Gray, MacKenzie Gore and Cade Cavalli — and almost immediately disaster struck in Spring Training as Cavalli went down with a torn UCL in his pitching elbow. When you are coming off of 107 losses, you cannot afford to take a hit like that because starting rotation depth was a huge issue. Fortunately, a minor league pitcher or two did step up as Jake Irvin, a 4th round draft pick from 2018, stepped up and started 24-games. Then Jackson Rutledge, the team’s 1st rounder from 2019, put up a great win against the Braves over the weekend.

That is the type of optimism you needed after the Cavalli injury, but unfortunately the veteran parts of the starting rotation had sub-par seasons from starters Patrick Corbin and Trevor Williams, who both have ERA’s well over 5.00+. There were other stumbles with Chad Kuhl, and Joan Adon, but definitely there were plenty of encouraging starts from Gray, Gore, Irvin, and Rutledge. You would think that only Gray and Gore are guaranteed spots for the 2024 rotation, but Irvin seemed to make a great case for himself if the team doesn’t sign three stud starting pitchers this offseason — which is doubtful. The hope is Rizzo can bag one great starting pitcher to where the rotation would be an Ace, Gore, Gray, Irvin, and a placeholder for Cavalli when he is ready to return.

But also consider a future core will include many of these top prospects that have been all over the Top-100 charts like Dylan Crews, James Wood, and Brady House just to name the Top-3. We got some pleasant surprises besides Irvin stepping up as outfielders Stone Garrett and Jacob Young both showed their strengths, and Lane Thomas ended up as the team’s Player of the Year. Rizzo also nailed it on signing free agent Jeimer Candelario who he flipped at the trade deadline. The team had seven walk-off wins on the season, and dominated in one-run games and extra innings. What they did poorly was lose too many blowout starts from Williams, Corbin, Kuhl, and Adon. With better rotation pieces, this could have been a playoff contender this year. Coulda, shoulda, woulda.

“I think that this season, I’ve seen a lot of improvement from a lot of players, which is important, especially the young players. What’s important to me is just take the next step. … Those players were developed here at the big league level by our coaches. So we’re proud of that.”

“I think that you can see when a player goes from A-ball to the big leagues in one season, you can see the progression there. You can see when you’ve got several 20 year olds and 21 year olds at the Double-A level, and playing well with that exciting team there at Harrisburg.”

“I think that you can see several picks from the ’23 draft that have performed very, very well in a very short sample size. We have evaluators out evaluating our own system all the time. We really think that there’s a lot of players that are going in the right direction. We all know about the elite, high-level type of players. But when you’ve got seventh-rounders and 24th-rounders and fourth-rounders that are making impacts at the big league level already, I think that shows what we’ve done as far as depth in the draft and depth in our development system.”

“The mid-goal is to continue this rebuild process in a positive way. To have our good young players take the next step in their progression … We think that we have one of the better, deeper, more impactful [farm] systems in the game which we will use at our big league level in the near future to help us get back to a championship-caliber club.”

— Rizzo said

There you heard some of the plan with no mention of the free agent market. That sounds a lot like how the Cincinnati Reds built up from a poor 2022 season to playoff contention this year. There was no media questioning about how the starting rotation will improve because the team has no Top-100 pitching prospects and their most promising two pitchers in Cavalli and Jake Bennett, coincidentally college teammates, are both going through the “Tommy John” elbow reconstruction protocol. Andrew Alvarez and DJ Herz seem to be the next two mid-level prospects who could move up. Obviously most of the rotation improvement will have to come internally, and mostly from each pitcher improving upon their 2023 seasons.

With Rutledge showing well, there could be a could pipeline of starters finally getting to the point where Martinez and Rizzo will have depth — but a starting pitching rotation hovering dangerously at a 5.00 staff ERA won’t cut it. What this staff needs is to be in the 4.20s for a starting staff ERA to be competitive. You accomplish that by bringing in an ace starter. If you don’t, then you are hoping on a wing and a prayer, and I am not sure the fans will buy off on that.

“You can see why there’s excitement, not only in our organization, but with the fan base. Because they see this timeline coming to fruition. They see the end of this rebuild tunnel, if you will — and we’ve been through this before. So there’s a timeline, and there’s a blueprint to how this thing works out.”

“And we hope that this rebuild mirrors the last rebuild that we can get to another decade of dominance in the very near future.”

— Rizzo said

Ah, the blueprint. While the fans certainly are more optimistic than a year ago as the team approaches a 15-win improvement this year, that optimism is more of a cautious optimism. They want to see more upgrades and ownership increase spending. They want a better fan experience. Certainly 2023 was better than 2022. Can you guarantee us that 2024 will be much better than 2023?

Attendance took a much expected tumble to just under 23,000 paid attendance per game in a year that the weather seemed to be the worst in team history. The team also had their attendance skewed because the Nats were the home team for the Little League Classic and was only credited with a crowd of 2,473. If the Nats matched their attendance from the day before, in a game in Nationals Park, the team would have exceeded 1.9 million and almost 23,500 per game. But still, that is much less than the 2.03 million fans from the year before.

The marketing of this team is poor. The public relations are worse. They stumble when they don’t have to and the media spent a good part of September bashing the team for off-the-field stupidity and a call to sell the team. How do you allow a potential Stephen Strasburg retirement turn into an avalanche of negativity? Well, that is exactly what happened. It should not have happened. Someone or someones should be fired. What an embarrassment. A positive turned into a negative is like a blown save from a 3-run lead.

When the team has positives, they have a long history of keeping it a secret. They keep mostly everything positive as a secret, from bringing top prospects to the stadium like they just did over the weekend with Wood and others, and even going back to the day Crews signed his contract was never an official event until he was spotted at the airport the day before, and just this past week that with a six-hour notice that fans learned that Sean Doolittle was having a retirement ceremony. Golden opportunities just continue to be a big swing and miss. Literally millions of dollars not taken advantage of — and that is cash that could be used to pay towards top free agents.

This is where it becomes a troubling cycle of just fumbling and stumbling. No ad patches on the sleeves of the player’s jerseys and the 16th year of no stadium naming rights. If this team ever sells, the new owners will sell every square inch of advertising right down to the four square inches on the jersey sleeve! Somehow Quikrete and Truist pay well for the Braves, and even the Yankees sold their sleeves for a reported $25 million a year. That is more than the Nats are paying Corbin!

They say winning fills ballparks — but truthfully, it is bobblehead days and special event days preplanned like Ryan Zimmerman‘s jersey retirement in 2022. Winning brings more season ticket holders and absent any big-name signings, it might be tough to get back the thousands who cancelled their season tickets once the rebuild began. But at least capitalize on special days at the ballpark. The team should be doing at least three celebrations in 2024: The 100-year anniversary of the Senators World Series win, some kind of mini-celebration of the 5-year anniversary of the Nats World Series win, and yes, a Strasburg retirement jersey day. Also, get the word out much quicker when you are going to debut Crews and Wood and House and others. They need an annual alumni day, and a throwback game, and create more excitement. The only creative thing the Nats did was the Nats x Commanders crossover game, and maybe the Commanders side deserves the credit for that.

The easiest excitement and a commitment to winning is to sign the 2023 Cy Young Winner Blake Snell. Yes, I’m calling Snell the Cy. He brings with him what this team needs most and that is an ace pitcher. From reports yesterday, the Padres are cutting payroll and will let Snell walk to free agency. The two most important signings would be to get an ace and get Abrams extended. Yes, I beat that drum last year. Don’t blow it this year. Those are commitments to winning. The Nats payroll might open with a projected AAV payroll at $4 million lower than on opening day of this year. There should be room to sign Snell even if he costs $37 million a year.

To see what Martinez did this year with this roster was his best performance as a manager next to his 2019 World Series season. He has shown that he can do more with less than his predecessor, and it is time to give him more.

“Look, we knew what we were up against this year. We wanted to develop players at the big league level. I think we’ve done that. We’ve done that really well. We got some guys that are actually really starting to play well, and starting to play consistently — and it’s been a grind.”

“We’re seeing some really good results out of these guys. So, we got to keep going. We got to keep going. The plan is to be better every day. Come back at the end of this year, reevaluate and [go] to Spring Training and try to tack on some more wins and get to those playoffs. But right now, the focus was to get our young guys better, and we’ve done that. They are getting better.”

— Martinez said

Let’s do this again.  Playoffs? Playoffs? Martinez believes that playoff contention is possible. He should. Contending for a playoff spot is no guarantee that you will actually make it. Look at the five teams contending right now for an NL Wild Card spot — only three will make it, and the other two will not. They all were in legitimate contention. As we wrote last week, “by adding just a few upgrades to this roster could make a 2024 Nats’ team a legitimate contender for a Wild Card team in the same way the Cubs, Diamondbacks, Marlins, and Reds are this season. Look where each of those teams were last year at 74, 74, 69, and 62 wins respectively.” Also do not think that those teams bought their way into contention — the Diamondbacks, Marlins, and Reds were all well into the bottom-half of spenders.

As Rizzo talks about better times ahead and happier fans, Martinez is correct that this team can be in playoff contention, and I will say it for him, “Get him an ace starter!” Go 1-0 about 90 times, and you should go to the playoffs.

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