The money is there for Mike Rizzo to spend!

After the Washington Nationals won 69-games in 2010, Ted Lerner greenlighted a nine-digit contract for Jayson Werth — the largest in franchise history at the time. After the Nats just won 71-games this season, you have to wonder if general manager Mike Rizzo sees it as the right time to start increasing payroll significantly. According to Nats’ current principal owner, Mark Lerner, it is Rizzo’s decision as to making moves this offseason.

“It’s [Mike Rizzo’s] call as to how he wants to fill the holes … a free agent or whatever, he knows the gameplan he wants to follow … whatever he desires. He knows he has the resources … to build a winner.”

— Lerner said in an exclusive team interview at the end of the season

While Lerner did say he personally didn’t know if this year is the right time to go after a big fish free agent, he said it was Rizzo’s call. There are significant holes to fill — and some will be filled internally — and some through new acquisitions. The latter requires lots of money for the players who will move the needle. Rizzo has always said that he builds his teams around starting pitching, and that would make 2023 another failure — because as a whole — the starting pitching was horrible. On the other hand, the team did improve .95 runs per game in starting pitching over last year when the Nats were last in MLB. Thank the much-improved defense for a big assist in the ERA improvement.

This season, the starting rotation finished with a combined ERA of 5.02 for  6th worst in MLB. If you adjust for defense, they would have been worse. The bullpen had an MLB worst in K/9 by a large margin, at 7.86 K/9 because they just could not miss enough bats. Thanks to a better than average defense, the bullpen ERA was fourth from the worst at an identical 5.02 as the starters. Call that consistently bad. And don’t think this bullpen was overused as a group as they ranked 14th in usage with only 599.0 innings pitched which equated to an average of 3.69 innings per game.

“It all starts with starting pitching. Our starting pitching needs to get better, that’s for sure.”

— Manager Dave Martinez said last year

The good news is that there were many DFA’s during the season, and the addition by subtraction will continue. The goal is to have a 4.20 ERA or better for your starting pitchers. That would rank your staff in the Top-12 and almost a lock for a playoff berth. So if you want to keep a player like Patrick Corbin in your starting staff, you better be able to sign a free agent to counter-balance the drag he will put on that ERA. That might take a Blake Snell or Jordan Montgomery type of acquisition. But even Martinez was not sure what role Corbin would have next year:

“I think this winter, [Patrick Corbin] needs to come up with an identity for himself, and what he wants to do moving forward.

— Martinez said last week

Let’s say Josiah Gray, MacKenzie Gore, Jake Irvin, and Corbin are all locks for the 2024 rotation. That is a combined 4.54 ERA extrapolated for a full-season based on 2023 actual results. The Dodgers had a 4.57 combined starter’s ERA for 2023. That 4.54 could be doable if the bullpen and the Nats’ offense improves. Team balance is a key. But the target should be for a 4.20 ERA.

Expect Corbin’s 5.20 ERA of this season to decline further as a starter just based on normal age regression — but optimistically, Gray, Gore, and Irvin could all improve. Also, the team hopes to have starter Cade Cavalli to return mid-season from his UCL injury. You can expect Trevor Williams, Jackson Rutledge, and hopefully DJ Herz to be rotation depth if needed. By the way, the 2024 season is the final contract seasons for both Corbin and Williams. The team is sending Thaddeus Ward to the Arizona Fall League to pitch as a starter.

In the bullpen, you could see the team making no moves and returning at least seven of their bullpeners from this year to include Hunter Harvey, Kyle Finnegan, Tanner Rainey, Robert Garcia, Jordan Weems, Jose Ferrer, Andres Machado, and shifting Williams to the long-man role. Ferrer, Joe La Sorsa, and Ward all have remaining minor league options which helps. Obviously you would love to see the team add a blue chip closer this offseason — but chances of that are probably lower on the team’s priorities.

On the team’s offense, much of that improvement could come from the team’s farm system with top prospects James Wood, Dylan Crews and Brady House as the anticipated moves in 2024. That is how many playoff teams made their marked improvements in 2023 by making aggressive top prospect promotions that paid-off. The Nats offense took a severe hit after they traded Jeimer Candelario in July. Overall, the Nats’ power production was 8th worst in MLB — but the Nats had a higher OPS than the Yankees!

Some think the Nats greatest need is getting another big bat due to the Nats need for more home run power. Stone Garrett is recovering from a broken bone in his leg and might not be ready for Spring Training. Besides Lane Thomas, CJ Abrams, and Keibert Ruiz, the Nats were below average in all other positions offensively. While Joey Meneses didn’t provide the big slugging percentage or high OPS, he did have a knack for driving in runs where he was 8th for designated hitters.

Home run power is not the total answer, especially when you look at both the Diamondbacks and Marlins. Both of those teams were a mere 15 home runs better than the Nats, and Arizona and Miami both made the playoffs. The key goes back to team balance. Better pitching is where it has to start. That is getting back to basics. You have to think the Nats can get 15 more home runs by coaching up their players, and a few tweaks to the roster.

“Starting pitching is the driver to me . . . We’ve built our [rosters] based on having a guy in the middle of the diamond who gives us a chance to win every day.”

— Rizzo said after the 2018 season

There are no easy fixes to a rebuild. The Nats made amazing progress this year. What they do this offseason could shape the future of this franchise.

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