Two philosophies on building a Nats’ roster aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive

When a general manager speaks about not blocking prospects versus a manager’s desire for competition for roster spots, they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Mike Rizzo, the Washington Nationals’ President of Baseball Operations, gave several interviews at the Winter Meetings earlier this week in Nashville, and a key point is that he was not going to make a free agent acquisition that would block a top prospect. But he has been clear in the past that he has no problem promoting prospects, even as teenagers, if they prove to be ready which would give his manager a better roster without regard to service time manipulation that many teams partake in.

Case and point is that Bryce Harper debuted at age 19 ½ in a Nats’ uni, and Juan Soto was a few weeks older than Harper when he debuted for the Nats in 2018 — and then became a key player in the Nats’ first World Series the following season. It is why we have confidence that if Dylan Crews, James Wood, and/or Brady House are ready in the 2024 season — any one, or all of them could make their debut regardless of age. House just turned 20 in June, Wood just turned 21 in September, and Crews turned 21 in February. But it could be the emergence of a 19 year old like Cristhian Vaquero to push a promotion.

“Players, they tell [us] when they’re ready by their play on the field. We’ve never had a problem with moving [young] players quickly to the Big Leagues if they can perform up there — and we will have no qualms about putting them there now.”

— Rizzo said this week

The Winter Meetings overall were a dud besides the Soto trade from San Diego to the Yankees. Tons of rumors, including some fake news, and not one deal that exceeded $80 million in total. Not one Top-10 free agent was signed. All the Nats did was fill minor league spots and do some dumpster diving with former top prospect, Nick Senzel, and a Rule-5 pick of Nasim Nuñez who typecasts as an extra on a bench of Mendozians. While Nuñez has some loud tools with his speed, arm, and defensive range, he struggled at times to hit Double-A pitching as a 23 year old this past season. With 11 career sacrifice bunts, you better hope he can do that, and maybe even get some bunt hits.

If you want the good news on Senzel, he was one of the best platoon hitters in baseball slashing .348 /.389/ .619 with a 1.008 OPS against southpaws. He was also much better on the road versus at his home hitter’s park in Cincinnati. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he was dreadful against RH pitching and was sub-Mendoza at .164 and a .497 OPS. Of course Senezel will start against lefties, but can they fix this 28 year old to hit some right-handed pitching?

If you remember in 2018, Senzel was the No. 7 ranked prospect by Baseball America out of that 2016 draft, probably the worst draft class in baseball history. If you look at the Top-30 picks, you will see Carter Kieboom in that same first round. An unfortunate coincidence, Senzel and Kieboom, have identical career WAR values — both at -1.8 per BBRef. Not good at all. The Reds selected Senzel at No. 2 overall in that draft, and the Rizzo decision at the end of Spring Training could come down to a DFA of Senzel or Kieboom. Per Jon Heyman of the NY Post, Senzel’s deal was signed at $2 million with a $1 million performance bonus. It is a low risk deal for the Nats, and gives them a player who can play all outfield positions, third base and second base.

“We’re in a tough situation, because we want to get our young guys up here, and we don’t want to take too many spots away from those guys when they’re ready — but yet we’ve got to compete at the Big League level.”

— manager Dave Martinez said

Martinez’s job as the manager is to win as many games as he can, and his philosophies differ slightly from Rizzo’s where a field manager is in “win now” mode, while his boss has to think for the long-term.

Both Martinez and Rizzo are looking for players with positional flexibility. That helps in roster construction and future configurations in case a player has to be moved to another spot in the field. That certainly is an advantage for the acquisition of Senzel.

We’re not going to block any prospects from playing and developing at the Big League level, but we’re certainly going to try and infuse some talent into the roster to compete at a higher level [in 2024].”

“We’re not going to block guys, but if we’re fortunate enough that we have this influx of guys knocking on the big league door — then that’ll be a good day for us here.”

— Rizzo said in two interviews this week

That Rizzo quote about not blocking any top prospects might hold true in the outfield too. They do need a left-handed outfielder as their five outfielders of Lane Thomas, Stone Garrett, Victor Robles, Jacob Young, and Alex Call are all right-handed and so is top prospect Crews. The Nats have two top prospect left-handed outfielders in Wood and Robert Hassell III — and you wonder if Rizzo will look for a one-year deal on players like Joc Pederson, Joey Gallo, Michael Brantley, Eddie Rosario, Austin Meadows, Jesse Winker, and Travis Jankowski. They all have their own pluses and minuses, and you’d think Rizzo would prefer one year deals. Only Pederson would push the needle and he is rumored to have a deal in place already with another team.

One under the radar signing was for Juan Yepez on a minor league deal, and he will be in Spring Training and hopes to make the roster. What works against him is that he is a poor fielder in the outfield, and that would limit him to first base or DH, where he would fit. Being a right-handed batter does not give him a platoon advantage, and that all makes him a long-shot especially since he struggled with a .546 OPS last season with the Cardinals.

If you fail to develop the prospects, you have to go the “pay for play” route for older players with MLB track records, and Rizzo was honest about it that sometimes you have to pay up for those types of players.

“You either have to develop it — or go find it — and pay for it.”

— Rizzo said this week

But let’s be real. The biggest need for this team is starting pitching. There is no ace ready to go in the Nats’ minor league system at this moment with the ability to help the Big League club. If Rizzo does not get a top starting pitcher this offseason, then it could be a fail. Let’s just call it what it is. You could sugarcoat it as if the need isn’t there for a team that trotted out a No. 4 starter with a 5.20 ERA, and a No. 5 at an horrific 5.55 ERA.

“We’re always looking to get better starting pitching-wise. We’re looking for a top of the rotation guy like we always have been to supplement the younger pitchers below him. That puts everybody down a slot, makes everybody much more comfortable.”

— Rizzo made that quote at the end of the 2011 season. We hoped Rizzo would have said that now.

With only 22 days remaining in December, the Nats have a lot of work to complete their Spring Training roster, and then let the real competition begin.

This entry was posted in Analysis. Bookmark the permalink.