The Washington Nationals knew they were not going to be a contender this year short of a miracle. With a 16-game win improvement over last year, there are reasons for optimism — even in a season where the Nats finished in last place in the NL East — but nowhere close to the bottom in baseball.
Optimism can be found in this year’s two World Series teams: Arizona Diamondbacks and Texas Rangers. They lost 110 and 102 games respectively just two seasons ago. Their unique paths to this World Series had different strategies. The Diamondbacks are more of the old-school story of building from the farm system while the Rangers took the more modern method of spending big on up-the-middle talent and starting pitching — but when former Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom was lost for the entire season — they looked like a fail before the season began. Texas had a player payroll at $195,869,490 to begin the season.
With new Rangers’ manager Bruce Bochy he kept them competitive until GM Chris Young could make two sizeable July trade deadline deals to get Jordan Montgomery and Max Scherzer — but then Scherzer was injured and was actually a non-factor in the postseason so far. With Montgomery and Nathan Eovaldi, the Rangers had a formidable top of the rotation for a playoff run — even though their bullpen seemed to be shaky at best. Eovaldi was signed as a free agent before the season in a $16 million a year deal. Their up-the-middle free agent signings before the 2022 season of Corey Seager and Marcus Semien proved huge this season. The pair combined for a 14.3 bWAR this season, and while both have been great in the postseason, Adolis Garcia has been their guy and he makes league minimum. The 30-year-old from Cuba was a gift wrapped freebie from the Cardinals kind of the same way Lane Thomas was for the Nats. Add in homegrown Leody Taveras and Josh Jung with Jonah Heim who was an O’s draftee that Texas got in a trade, and Nathaniel Lowe in a trade from the Rays, and former Nats’ farmhand Dane Dunning — also acquired in a trade — and you have how the Rangers were built by Young.
So how were the Arizona Diamondbacks built? They were just ahead of the Nats in team payroll so it was not by spending big in free agency. Mostly they were a GM Mike Hazen team built by player development through the draft, IFA, and trades. None bigger than Corbin Carroll from the 2019 draft and picked just one ahead of Jackson Rutledge. While Ketel Marte was acquired in a trade with the Mariners, he was developed in the DBacks system and turned into their NLCS MVP. Zac Gallen was acquired one-for-one for Jazz Chisholm Jr., and Merrill Kelly was a freebie free agent that the Diamondbacks developed. Alek Thomas was a home grown second round pick from 2018, and another product of their development system. That is basically the pattern here with the Diamondbacks. There are no big free agent signings. Arizona’s big deadline signing was closer Paul Sewald from Seattle. The world was kind of introduced to Kevin Ginkel yesterday — a 22nd round from the Diamondbacks 2016 draft.
While many would say that two Wild Card teams making the World Series is more of a fluke, it really shows the crapshoot that the postseason is in reality. This is why there is hope for the Nationals because with their low payroll, they can do a little of what the Diamondbacks did and what the Rangers did. Kind of like ordering from the ala carte menu.
With 71-wins already in the books, there has to be more optimism for next year. There are other teams to look at for optimism. If you go by the Reds with their 62 wins last year, the Marlins with 69 wins last year, and the Diamondbacks and the Cubs with 74 wins last year — each team this year had at least 82-wins. So the DBacks went from 110 losses in 2021, to 74 wins in 2022, and 84 in 2023. That is year-over-year improvements of 22 games and 10 games. That is an average of 16 games of improvement. If the Nats could do that, they’d win 87 games in 2024. If. A big IF.
The ongoing question is what will the Nats do over the offseason to improve. They can kind of do what the Diamondbacks and Reds did and have top prospects fill the holes, and should do what the Rangers did and get two big free agent pitchers like deGrom and Eovaldi, and one more meaningful bat. The Diamondbacks already had two very good starting pitchers atop of their rotation, and they developed a third in-house with a 2020 5th round with Brandon Pfaadt. The Nats do not have an ace.
The quicker way for the Nats to greatness would be spending like the Rangers — but the trap is making sure you don’t end up like the Mets and Padres. Even the Phillies fell short of their expectations. They are all playing golf now.