At the end of a 19-9 month of June, the Washington Nationals were two games above .500, in second place, 2.0 games out of first in the NL East. They fought their way back into the race in the division after starting the season 21-29 in April/May, but then a number of injury issues set the club back in July, and with the Nats 8-17 on the month as the trade deadline approached, the front office in D.C. decided it was time for a change.
“It’s a difficult decision to make,” GM Mike Rizzo explained after trading away seven players who were on expiring contracts (Max Scherzer, Brad Hand, Yan Gomes, Daniel Hudson, Kyle Schwarber, Josh Harrison, and Jon Lester), and one (Trea Turner) who had a year-plus of team control remaining before free agency, in return for 12 prospects he hopes will help reboot the organization after a decade of fielding competitive teams.
“But oftentimes the decision is made for you, and this year it was,” Rizzo said of the decision he arrived at last week.
“We recognized where we were,” he said, “... and what work we had in front of us, and we decided to begin a building process that will allow us to compete at the highest level.”
The Washington Nationals have acquired...— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) July 30, 2021
• C - Keibert Ruiz
• RHP - Josiah Gray
• RHP - Gerardo Carrillo
• OF - Donovan Casey
...from the Los Angeles Dodgers in exchange for RHP Max Scherzer and SS Trea Turner.
// https://t.co/tamHmiiYSm pic.twitter.com/1M21IYe6ou
“That’s always our goal,” the GM added.
Rizzo took over as GM in 2009, the club made the postseason for the first time in 2012, and made it again in 2014, 2016, and 2017, before winning it all in 2019, but two seasons later, it became clear to the GM and President of Baseball Operations in D.C. that the needed to get a reboot going.
“We were never here to win and run,” he said. “We want to be continuously great and like we’ve showed over the last ten years or so, we’ve won as many games as anybody in all of major league baseball, as many championships, as many titles, and culminated in a World Series championship.
“That’s always our goal. We’re winners over here and losing doesn’t come easy to me or to those people in the clubhouse and it’s always — always our goal to put a classy organization and team on the field that has Washington across their chest.”
There were numerous factors that went into the decision to do what the Nationals did last Friday, with the team eight games under .500 at that point, in 4th place in the NL East, 7.5 games out of first in the division, but the bad news the club and starter Stephen Strasburg received didn’t help.
The 32-year-old, 2009 No. 1 overall pick and 2019 World Series MVP, was diagnosed with neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome, which required a season-ending surgery, and the hope of getting the starter (who signed a 7-year/$245M deal after the title run) back did influence the final decision to, as Rizzo put it, “take a step back, refocus, reboot, and start the process,” of building another championship team again.
“I think it factored in,” Rizzo said of the hope of Strasburg returning evaporating.
“It wasn’t a big factor in our decision-making process, because if we were going to Stephen back this year, we were going to get him back late in the season.
“We thought it was going to be like a mid-August kind of — late-season acquisition for us to get Stephen back.
“I think that when Kyle [Schwarber] went down, when Schwarbs went down and we had a rash of injuries after that, with Joe Ross and we lost [Starlin] Castro and that type of thing, there were a lot of things that were kind of going against to at least add at the trade deadline. There was a time when we were playing extremely well, we were optimistic about being a buyer in it, and then when the bottom fell out kind of in July, we had to reassess and that’s the reason we went dual paths earlier in the trade deadline season.”
When they chose the reboot path, Rizzo said, the obvious choice was to deal the expiring contracts on the big league roster.
“When you’re in this mode,” the GM explained, “... when you’re in this position that you’re going to reboot and try to stack the minor league system, the most intriguing players to trade often are players that their contracts are running out.
“So all but Trea Turner, contracts were going to expire this year. We can make decision on any and all of those players if we want as free agents after the season, so our thought process is this, you trade players on expiring contracts, you gather a prospect base with them, and then after the season when they become free agents, you can pick and choose who you want to target to go after if you want any of those guys back on your team.”
Rizzo and Co. in the Nationals’ front office aren’t exactly reinventing the wheel here, which he acknowledged.
“We didn’t invent this process, it’s — obviously the players with the expiring contracts are the most tradable players that you have, and we really like the prospect base that we amassed by trading those people. They were very popular on the trade market, and we’re excited about what that brought us and how quickly it can help us rebuild into a championship-caliber club again.”
Doing what they did, Rizzo said, jumpstarted their reboot process, with an influx of talented players added to the existing prospect pool in the organization, which had been depleted in the years of success on the field, and late-round draft picks that come with it, along with an assortment of trades they made using some of their prospect capital.
“When we were in it, and when we were buyers at the deadline, which we’ve been almost every year that I’ve been the General Manager, you have to let go of your good prospects,” Rizzo told reporters.
“We were never afraid to trade a good prospect to help the big league club win. We were constantly in win-now mode, with an eye on that season, but a global view of trying to be consistently good over an amount of years, and I think we achieved it beautifully.
“You’re talking about a 10-year run of as good a baseball as anybody in the league, with championship banners and hardware all over the place, so I’m proud of what we’ve done here, I’m proud of what we’re going to do here.”
It is, he admitted, going to be a different experience than fans in the nation’s capital have had in the last decade.
“It’s going to be fun to be a Nationals fan and come to the ballpark,” Rizzo said, “and I know our fanbase understands how this thing works, because they’ve been through it before, but they haven’t been through it for a decade.
“We had a decade of excellence, and we’re going to take a small step backwards to take leaps forward, and I think we have things in place that are going to expedite that process, and we’re going to be a tough team to play in the very near future.”
The Washington Nationals have acquired RHPs Richard Guasch & Seth Shuman and C Drew Millas from the Oakland Athletics in exchange for C Yan Gomes, INF/OF Josh Harrison and cash considerations.— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) July 30, 2021
// https://t.co/m4tSsBhz7P pic.twitter.com/DiokvI13Wf
Was the decision to take this path a tough sell to an ownership group that wants to put butts in seats and compete for championships as well?
“We’re in this together,” Rizzo said. “Every move we make, every deal I do, they’re in on the plan. We mapped out a strategy and a game plan to attack this trade deadline. We mapped out a global plan, our 1-3-5-year plan like we always do, and we decided because of the way that we were playing that it was time to sell some of our players that were leaving after this year and try to restock the farm system, and get ourselves some young impact players not only for next year, but in the future years.
“So you’re looking at some of the trades we did were for longer-term assets, and longer-term players that will be here several years down the road, but there’s quite a few players from the trade deadline that are going to impact this team, not only this year, but next year and the year after. We felt that we got ourselves some good young players that are future impactful players, but the futures for some of these guys to impact the team are now.
“And that was kind of the blend and the balance that we created at the trade deadline.”