Looking for roster improvement over the offseason proves actions didn’t speak louder than words!

After Washington Nationals’ general manager Mike Rizzo dropped a bombshell yesterday that the team most likely will not be signing another player (pitcher or position player) on a MLB contract, social media immediately exploded with frustration. The fans want someone to blame for an offseason that saw no starting pitchers signed to the MLB roster. Why? That is the multi-million dollar question without a clear answer — but follow back to all of the soundbites — and you find a lot of words of promise that did not turn into action. Clearly, actions speak louder than words.

The closest the Nats came to a viable starting pitcher signing this offseason was maybe going for an ex-starter on Feb. 2 when Robert Gsellman, a former Mets starter, was signed to a minor league deal. But Gsellman’s career as a starter in the MLB ended in 2020 when he had a 9.64 ERA and was converted to a full-time reliever. Last year, Gsellman played for Yokohama in Japan, and had a dreadful year for them. We don’t even know if the Nats view him as a starter.

Yesterday morning, a source told us that the Nats were still looking at starters, and we simultaneously followed up the tweet with, “Clearly it is now a matter of will they, and if they do, will it be an upgrade over what the rotation is now.” Yes, the feeling was they would be looking at minor leaguers or deep discounts.

“It’s never the plan going in. It’s just kind of how things filled out during the offseason. I just couldn’t find that starting pitcher that was going to impact us at this time, for not only the right amount of years — but the right salary at this time.”

— Rizzo said to the media yesterday

That quote felt like a gut punch, especially since Rizzo admitted that his plan was to sign a starting pitcher to take a rotation spot and that would have set-up a competition for the fifth starter spot presumably between Jake Irvin and Trevor Williams since veteran starter, Patrick Corbin, seems to be a guaranteed lock in the rotation for his final year with the Nats.

Of course there is competition with all 30 MLB teams for good starting pitching in free agency, and the Nats were rumored to be looking to sign middle-tier pitchers and lost out on most of them like Michael Wacha who signed with the Kansas City Royals at $16 million a year on a two-year deal. But standing here today, it is clear that there are still unsigned free agent pitchers like Michael Lorenzen, Brandon Woodruff, and Hyun-jin Ryu. Why would Rizzo seemingly throw in the towel now with so many unsigned free agents?

“Everyone needs starting pitching in the whole sport. We’re no different. You can never have enough of it, and we’re in search of it.”

— Rizzo explained at the Winter Meetings in early December

A statement of fact: The Nats got none of it. Right now, the Nats look to be going with the exact starters they had for most of the 2023 season, and have some prospect depth behind them with Jackson Rutledge and DJ Herz with Cade Cavalli on the mend and most likely not available until mid-season as he recovers from UCL surgery last year.

The blame game wonders, is that due to Rizzo’s inability to find that starting pitcher that just could not fit his parameters, or was it due to budget constraints by ownership? In order to look at that, you have to look at principal owner Mark Lerner’s own words at the end of the season:

“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.”

“ … We are totally in on building this back to where we all expect it to be, to where our fans expect it to be. … 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.”

— owner Mark Lerner said the first comment before the 2023 season and the second comment after the 2023 season

We won’t call Rizzo or Lerner liars — but Washington Times writer, Thom Loverro, went there yesterday when he wrote, “Nationals fans deserve better than owners who lie to their faces. I don’t know what else to call the hollow words …” Maybe a better word is ‘disingenuous.’

Why assume anyone is lying? But then you have to wonder how we ended up at this point. Just spending over bare minimum to add three free agents on MLB deals this winter netted the Nats: Nick Senzel, Dylan Floro, and Joey Gallo. Together they cost just under $10 million combined. Five years ago, this would have been a great pull of top prospects, but today, Senzel and Gallo never reached the evaluator’s projections to earn those top prospect rankings. They were both available this offseason as struggling hitters on the open-market after being cut by their previous teams. Floro is a reliever hoping for a rebound. Those bounceback candidates are a roll of the dice. Not one “sure thing” was signed — and that starting pitcher Rizzo talked about in December — was never acquired.

The hopes were that this year was going to be a redux of 2011 in which the team signed a star player like Jayson Werth and turned from a loser to a contender. That does not look to be in the cards for the Nats in 2024. Signing a Werth “equivalent” in this offseason had the fans yearning for a newly signed All-Star starting pitcher. Now, fans with broken hearts seemed resigned that their team will be destined for a fifth consecutive losing season.

The different evaluators and computer models all think the Nats will lose at least 95 games this year which would be worse than last year. In 2010, the Nats lost 93 games and Mark Lerner’s father, Ted, who passed away last year, invested in Werth and a 9-digit contract that got the team to third place in 2011 after occupying the NL East cellar for the previous three seasons. Of course in 2012, Werth and the Nats won the NL East crown.

When Lerner indicated he would be willing to spend on players that Rizzo coveted, the Nats’ owner also talked about his desire to win. The fans took it at face value, only to see payroll grow by about 10 percent over last year. Well, the payroll was already in the bottom half of baseball. Everything is relative. Moving up 10 percent is relative to the starting point. The team will be in the bottom half of spending again.

While nothing is an absolute indication that this Nats team cannot exceed expectations like last year, this is about entering the season with optimism that the team did enough to improve. Did they? No, they did not in my humble opinion, and the evaluators clearly agree, and especially in the PECOTA projections. That 104.1 loss projection is brutal. The Nats are penciling in two starting pitchers for this season, Corbin and Williams, who had ERAs north of 5.19 last year. How can you consistently win with that? Nothing would make me happier than to see the Nats win more than the 71-games they won in 2023. The easiest path to getting there would have been to upgrade the roster with a star player or two to add to what the team currently has.

“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. Players, they tell me when they’re ready by their play on the field. We’ve never had a problem with moving players quickly to the big leagues if they can perform up there. And we’ll have no qualms about putting them there now.”

“Our goal is never to win 71 games. Our goal is to win a division, to win a world championship, and I feel that we took a step in the right direction last year toward doing that.”

We’re going to try and facilitate another roster that allows us to take another step forward and get into the action with a terrific division that we have to deal with. We understand the challenges in front of us, and I think we’re a capable group. You’ve seen in the past what we’ve done, and I think that we’re going to be able to do it in the future.”

— Rizzo said at the Winter Meetings

Yes, the top prospects should not be blocked, and like the Cincinnati Reds pulled off last year, they added five top prospects to their big league roster throughout last season and fell just short of making the playoffs with 82-wins, a 20-win improvement over the prior season. So yes, that can happen if Rizzo is committed to promoting his top prospects. It just does not fix that this team was in dire need of an ace with no starting pitcher finishing with better than a 3.91 ERA last season. That ranked the Nats best starter’s ERA at No. 44 in the league. Josiah Gray was a solid No. 2 ERA — but far from an ace.

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

— Manager Dave Martinez said after the 2022 season. You could put that message on repeat.

Without a clear ace in the team’s minor league pipeline, the Nats just needed to spend on long-term starting pitching. Sure, easier said than done. Some of the best free agents are still available — and it was just a matter of being like Ted Lerner in 2015 — when he shocked baseball by signing Max Scherzer to a record contract. But here’s the difference: Ted made his own decisions — Mark has to get family approval to break the budget per a source — and sources tell us that one of the Lerner family members has been opposed to breaking the budget — a budget that seemed constrictive to begin with.

So if Lerner had a chance to give that year-end speech again, would he say the same words? Did the budget change things, or was he, as Loverro said, just lying? Or was Rizzo telling the truth and the right deal just wasn’t there? Maybe Lerner has an explanation for all of this.

We are not going to play judge, jury and executioner and assume anything — but if the Lerner family cannot agree on smart baseball acquisitions, is it just time for them to sell? The Lerners were officially exploring a sale of the team back in April 2022, and we broke the news in January 2023 that the team was not going to sell with any of the potential buyers at the time. You cannot force the Lerners to sell — this is just doing what is best for the fans that deserve an ownership group committed to winning. Potentially losing in five consecutive years would be painful to endure, but easier if we could see progress and light at the end of the tunnel.

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