Sometimes, you don’t know you were in the good old days until you’ve left the good old days.
It was a swift rise for the Washington Nationals in 2012. Take On Me rang around a ballpark where several exciting, young, homegrown talents plied their trade, and it felt like the start of a new era following seven underwhelming seasons after the team moved to the nation’s capital.
Nine years, four division titles, one wild card berth, and one World Series title later, the Nationals executed a sell-off at the trade deadline that was jarring to the majority of fans.
Suddenly, an organization that had been annual contenders began looking to the future.
In reality, the Nats’ front office knew that using the trade deadline to reload their farm system was a possibility if things went south on a team with question marks coming into 2021.
“You’re constantly evaluating that and this was certainly one path that we envisioned that could happen,” Nationals’ Assistant GM, Mark Scialabba, told Federal Baseball.
“We are always trying to forecast different strategies for a few years out. You’re always evaluating what is in your system, what is coming, looking at payrolls, and commitments, and from a strategic standpoint, try to figure out Plan A, B, C, having contingencies, and knowing what the options would be depending on how we play.”
But how did an organization that was parading down Pennsylvania Avenue less than two years ago get to the point of trading away franchise icons like Max Scherzer and Trea Turner?
In a recent piece in The Washington Post, some in the front office admitted that it felt as if there were deeper deficiencies than just the talent on the major league roster, leaving the organization on shaky foundations.
“Members of the front office also felt this was a way to patch deficiencies that could no longer be hidden by the team’s success.
“One was a minor league system hurt by not only trading prospects for immediate help in recent years but also misses in the draft, missteps in player development and a lack of investment in staff and resources, according to three people with knowledge of the club’s inner workings. Another issue was signing starter Stephen Strasburg to a seven-year, $245 million contract in December 2019, in the afterglow of the World Series, which clogged the payroll and complicated efforts to sign Turner to a long-term extension. Another was not locking up Turner before the price rose considerably and the sides drifted apart.”
As evidence of this, players picked by the Nationals since the 2013 MLB Draft, the draft after the team’s first winning season since the franchise moved to D.C., have actually contributed a negative total of -0.2 fWAR to the team that drafted them entering the 2021 season.
Nationals 2013-Present Draft Picks fWAR contributed to the Nationals
|Hitters||fWAR Pre-2021||Pitchers||fWAR Pre-2021|
|Hitters||fWAR Pre-2021||Pitchers||fWAR Pre-2021|
|Andrew Stevenson||0.7||Austin Voth||0.8|
|Tres Barrera||0||Koda Glover||0.6|
|Jake Noll||-0.1||Erick Fedde||-0.1|
|Carter Kieboom||-0.8||Seth Romero||-0.1|
|Hitters Total fWAR||-0.2||Pitchers Total fWAR||0|
That’s not a typo, coming into this year, the Nationals had gotten a negative fWAR directly from players they have drafted with picks since the team started consistently winning.
Meanwhile among all players — not just those who were drafted by the team — who made their major league debut with the Nationals since 2016, here’s a list of those that have contributed at least 1.0 fWAR in total between then and the start of the 2021 season: Juan Soto, Victor Robles, and Wander Suero. End of list.
Despite producing arguably the best hitter in the major leagues, the Nationals have yet to get any other significant contributions from their farm system in the last six years.
Not having a young, controllable core makes it tough to build a contender in the big leagues.
Almost all contenders get numerous contributions from players who earn the major league minimum which allows for bigger spending to fill the rest of the holes with stars. Without that, a team would need to try and spread their money around to plug multiple holes, just as the Nationals have needed to do ahead of the last couple of seasons.
Part of that comes down to lower draft picks as a result of winning so many games. Part of it is because the Nationals needed to trade away the prospects they were able to develop to supplement their many contending teams in the heat of the postseason race.
Even with that in mind, is it fair to believe that the Nationals should have developed more from within than they have in recent seasons?
“It’s a combination of a number of factors,” Scialabba said of whether the organization could have done better on the player development front to extend the competitive window.
“It’s a process that involves a number of groups, we have to scout well, we have to develop players well, we may miss and make mistakes in certain processes and can do a better job in that area, but it’s a combination of a number of factors.”
“I think we also have to realize that when we develop players to increase their value and then they get traded, we also are doing our job. We might not see them through here, but if we’re increasing their value during the process and they get traded, that is part of the job as well.”
Regardless of the reasons they ended up here, the lack of a foundation in the minor leagues made it a question of when, not if, the Nationals would start planning for their next window.
After a promising June that seemed to push them back towards contention in 2021, the Nats ground to a halt, dropping 16 of their first 21 games in July, leaving them nine games under .500 and 8.5 games behind the National League East-leading New York Mets.
With several expiring contracts and a star shortstop who appeared destined to test free agency in just over a year, the Nationals made the call to try and build a new foundation.
“It was extremely difficult,” Scialabba explained. “You always want to try to build a championship club and try to sustain success for a long period of time.
“It was a difficult decision, but I think we did make the right decision from an organizational standpoint to try to expedite the retooling process.”
Out went Max Scherzer, Trea Turner, Daniel Hudson, Yan Gomes, Kyle Schwarber, Josh Harrison, Brad Hand, and Jon Lester.
In came 12 new prospects the front office hopes will form part of the next championship core in the nation’s capital.
Noticeably, of the 12 new prospects that arrived, seven were in the upper minors in Triple-A or Double-A, and five had already made their major league debut with their previous club.
“We always want to try to get the highest impact-type players that we can get, that’s how you win championships,” Scialabba said when asked whether it was by design to acquire several near-big-league-ready players.
“If there are players that are closer to the big leagues, that’s a plus because there’s more information to go off of, from a scouting perspective, from an analytics perspective.”
“If we’re going for players that are further away, obviously, we’re still looking for high-upside, high-ceiling-type athletic players.
“I think it’s a combination of both, but we do want the highest impact talent.”
It’s early in the process, but Nationals fans are already getting a glimpse of that high-impact talent.
Josiah Gray, one of the centerpieces of the Scherzer-Turner trade is already turning heads in the major league rotation. Riley Adams and Lane Thomas, the returns for Brad Hand and Jon Lester, respectively, are off to hot starts at the plate.
Mason Thompson, one of two prospects acquired for Daniel Hudson, has had inconsistencies but has also teased electric stuff out of the bullpen.
It was also announced on Sunday that their new top prospect, Keibert Ruiz, the other centerpiece of the Scherzer-Turner trade, would make his debut for the team on Monday.
That’s a solid start when you put them alongside their already-established superstar in Soto as well as other players who were already with the organization and are now getting extended playing time to close out the season such as Luis García and Carter Kieboom.
Now it’s up to a player development staff that has struggled to produce talent recently, for numerous reasons, to make the most of the latest crop of young players to turn things around.
Following their deadline trades, MLB Pipeline rated the system as the 20th best in the league, up from dead last before the season.
Currently, it’s very top-heavy with four Top 100 prospects and then a gulf between them and the rest of the prospects in the system.
Internally though, the Nationals believe that some of the talented players that have stalled a little in the minor leagues can reestablish their stock and improve that current lack of depth.
“There’s certainly a number of players that were injured that haven’t developed as quickly as we hoped,” Scialabba said of the current state of the system. “We’re confident in a number of those pitchers that are still coming back from injury right now. Jackson Rutledge, Cole Henry, and Matt Cronin has done a great job this year, for the most part, and he’s on his way back.
“So I think there’s a lot of talent still very much in this organization that is going to be part of the future success.”
Not only have the Nationals had more than their fair share of injuries to prospects — remember when they genuinely had no healthy shortstop prospects above High-A that resulted in Humberto Arteaga starting at short in the majors for a game? — but they’re also a system with a lot of promising international prospects who come into the system at 16 or 17.
The likes of Andry Lara, Jeremy De La Rosa, Roismar Quintana, and Armando Cruz don’t rank highly at several outlets given where their ceilings are, not just because they’ve not played much stateside, but they’re also still developing physically, so it’s tougher to get a consensus.
Brady House and Daylen Lile, the team’s top two picks in the MLB Draft, are also just fresh out of high school and have the chance to improve their stock early on in their pro careers.
With that in mind, and knowing that the Nationals have the next few years in mind to try to develop their own talent as opposed to using it as trade bait to compete immediately, how does that affect how the Nationals will try to develop their prospects in the minor leagues?
“Sometimes you have more patience,” Scialabba explained.
“When you know that you’re going through a process to, I guess, rebuild or retool, to give players more opportunity to make sure they develop.
“Obviously, we want to develop players on a case-by-case basis but sometimes we expedite their development, at times, and that has maybe been a factor in the process as well.
“We just want to make sure we maximize each player’s ability and to do that, some players take a little bit longer to do that than others at certain levels. We want to make sure though that they have success, that they’re challenged, and sometimes players may stay at one level a little longer than others but we try to do that on an individual basis.”
Scialabba is speaking from experience. He joined the organization in 2006 and became the team’s Director of Minor League Operations in 2009, right as the team started its first rebuilding process under the guidance of Mike Rizzo, who had just taken over as General Manager.
That rebuild built them the core which would ultimately lead to the Nationals becoming one of the best teams in baseball in the 2010s and, eventually, to the franchise’s first World Series title in 2019.
Having been through the process before, what are some of the main things the Nats learned?
“Making sure everything is aligned, that you have a strong culture in place,” Scialabba answered.
“We’ve won a championship, we’ve been through really it all from an organizational lifecycle and it takes everyone working together. Our scouts, R&D, a front office, really working cohesively to fulfill our mission and to try to be on point and communicate properly. And also it takes a lot of resources and it takes a lot of help from everyone.
“You have to have, also, some patience to make sure you’re doing things for the long-term, but also you’re balancing trying to have success immediately, but also understanding that you want to see things through.”
Based on where they were then and where they are now, the Nationals would appear to be in a better spot currently than they were in 2009 when they were embarked on their first rebuild.
Their top prospect then was Jordan Zimmermann, according to Baseball America, followed by Ross Detwiler, Chris Marrero, Michael Burgess, and Jack McGeary.
Of those players, only Zimmermann was rated as a Top 100 prospect at the time by Baseball America. Now, the Nats have four in Keibert Ruiz and Josiah Gray, both acquired at the trade deadline, last year’s first-round pick, Cade Cavalli, and the recently-drafted Brady House.
No, there’s not likely to be a Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper on the horizon. However, with a potential high draft slot coming next year, and an international free agent class that could include two more top prospects, Washington has a huge opportunity to paint a promising picture for the future of the franchise, and one that can come to fruition quickly.
Lackluster player development helped lead the Nationals to the situation they now find themselves in. With the potential talent in the system now and to come in the near future, they have the opportunity to promptly turn things around during this rebuild...