Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo talked during the Winter Meetings about all the things that came together that allowed the club to bounce back from a 19-31 start to claim the first Wild Card spot, which got them into the postseason, and, eventually, allowed them to battle their way to a World Series championship.
“They counted us out,” Rizzo said. “They knocked us down. We had injuries early, we didn’t perform like we wanted to, but not one person pointed a finger, no anonymous quotes, no clubhouse lawyers, no backbiting. Loyalty. And that’s why we’re here today.”
The clubhouse culture, and the relationship between the players on the club, allowed them to stick together and battle back after the rough start to go 74-38 from late May on and win five elimination games in the postseason on the way to the first World Series win by a D.C.-based team since 1924.
So, how do they go about recreating the vibe and the chemistry in the clubhouse that led them where they got in 2019?
“Obviously you need a certain type of player, certain type of person in the clubhouse,” reliever Daniel Hudson said in an MLB Network Radio interview this winter when asked about recreating what made last year’s Nationals special.
“You need certain — all different types of cultures, backgrounds in the clubhouse, and you need to have one or two or three vocal leaders, guys that have been around for a long time, like we had — everybody has been talking about how we had the oldest team in baseball, but I also think — and I think a lot of guys said it throughout our run, that if they had a young team, there was no way that they pull themselves out of a 19-31 start. So to have guys like [Ryan Zimmerman], to have guys like Howie Kendrick, to have guys like Matt Adams and [Max] Scherzer, and just guys that have been around the block, have seen everything that’s possible in this game, except for, obviously, until we won four in a row on the road [in the World Series], it’s just one of those things where everybody’s tugging from the same side of the rope, and it’s tough to create.
“I think that you just have to let it manifest itself and get the right people in there.”
As of this moment (8:51 EST on January 2nd), Hudson, Zimmerman, and Adams are still free agents. Kendrick returned on a 1-year/$6.25M deal.
There’s mutual interest with Zimmerman, the so-called Face of the Franchise continuing his 15-year career in D.C., and there is a bench spot still to be filled if Adams wants to bring his left-handed bat back to the nation’s capital for more backup work at first base.
But there have already been changes to the club that won it all (losing Anthony Rendon to free agency chief among them) and the roster the Nationals have on Opening Day will look decidedly different from the one that won it all just two months back.
“Do I want all our guys back?” manager Davey Martinez asked rhetorically when he spoke to reporters at the Winter Meetings early last month.
“Absolutely. Is it going to happen? I don’t know. But these guys, they’ve got to think about their families, and things always change. So what I do know about our group of guys, our ownership, [Rizzo], myself, we’re very competitive, and we’re going to put a team out there that can compete in 2020.”
Rendon is in LA. Gerardo Parra, the mastermind of the dugout dance celebrations and the Baby Shark phenomenon, signed on to play in Japan. Brian Dozier is a free agent. Asdrúbal Cabrera is a free agent as well, though still unsigned.
Stephen Strasburg, who’d tested the free agent market before coming back “home” to the Nationals on a 7-year/$245M deal, talked in the press conference announcing the contract about his comfort-level in D.C. playing a role in his decision to stick with his one employer as a pro.
“Having a great support system here is key,” Strasburg explained. “Having Max here. Even Aníbal Sánchez that we brought here. [Patrick] Corbin. [Pitching Coach] Paul Menhart. The group of people that I’m able to be around helps me achieve that and helps me focus on what I can do to continue to be successful.”
“I knew where I wanted to be,” Strasburg added at another point, “... and I trust that moving forward the team is committed to winning and that we want to go out there next year keep going right where we left off.”
Rizzo said during the same press conference that it took a village to win it all and it will take the same type of effort to try to repeat.
“It took Stras, it took Max, it took a bunch of guys to come together when everybody was shoveling dirt on us this year,” Rizzo explained. “They proved that if you believe in yourself you can do special things.”
Zimmerman, who is on record saying he’ll either play for the Nationals in 2020 or play more golf, talked during the World Series in October about the work Rizzo has done to make sure to get the right guys in the clubhouse.
“He’s huge on chemistry and clubhouse stuff, not bringing in bad teammates, not bringing in bad guys,” Zimmerman said.
“Before he makes really any sorts of moves he’ll will reach out to us and ask if we’ve heard anything about this player or that player. So he’s big on that kind of stuff.
“I think we’ve always had good groups of guys here. And obviously talented, as well, but when you get that blend of talent and guys who are in it for the right things, you get special groups.”
Martinez, who’s entering the third year of the 3-year/$2.8M deal he signed with the club in late 2017, said his approach in 2020 will be the same one he pushed throughout 2019.
“Status quo really,” Martinez said. “We went 1-0 all year. The message is going to be clear: ‘Hey, we’re not going to sneak up on anybody this year, that’s for sure. So we’ve got to be ready to go from day one.’ With that being said, I want them to understand, ‘Hey, we’re going to do business like we’ve done in the past, and we’re just going to try to go 1-0 every day.’ Why change something that works?”