Sixty-two days, that’s how long it’s been since the Washington Nationals altered the direction of the franchise with an overhaul at the trade deadline that made a Black Friday sale look tranquil.
General Manager Mike Rizzo shipped out pretty much everything that wasn’t nailed to the ground, dealing away the likes of Trea Turner, Max Scherzer, and more, conceding the team’s chances at winning this season in favor of building a foundation for future seasons.
That’s made the past two months a learning experience for these Nationals as the front office tries to gauge what they have remaining on the roster and in the farm system.
So, what exactly have we learned about these Nationals in that time? Well, here’s five things...
1: Selling was the correct decision
Following Wednesday’s loss to the Colorado Rockies, the Nationals are a dismal 65-94 on the season, with their record since the trade deadline a league-worst 18-39.
From a very simplistic point of view, the players the Nationals traded away at the deadline have combined for 6.8 fWAR for their new teams. Take those wins above replacement, put it onto the post-deadline Nationals and that would leave them at 25-32, giving them a record of 72-87, 14.0 games behind the NL East-leading Atlanta Braves.
Even if you want to go game-by-game and play things out with the players they dealt away or just with a simple eye test on how the Nationals have played since the deadline, it’s easy to see that keeping the players they traded away would’ve only been paper over the cracks.
In short, there’s no realistic way that the Nationals were going to come back from their 47-55 record and 8.0 game deficit in the division at the deadline to compete for a playoff spot.
Sure, it still would’ve been nice to see Scherzer record his 3,000th strikeout in a Nationals uniform, and it would’ve been fun to see Turner fly around the bases for another 15 months, but from a competitive standpoint, it would’ve been hollow victories on a mediocre team.
A sell-off had been coming for a while now. Doing it at this year’s deadline became an obvious choice and everything we’ve seen since then has justified the decision.
2: Offensive core looks promising
Maybe the most surprising thing that the Nationals have shown since the sell-off is that the younger players who have gotten an extended chance to impress are doing just that, making the most of the opportunity.
After a slow start, Keibert Ruiz is starting to make consistent, good contact, and looks like the backstop of the future. Lane Thomas has thrived in a near-everyday role in the outfield. Luis García has tapped into more power and is showing flashes of promise.
As a group, they’ve all come together and now look like a solid foundation moving forward.
Position players currently on the Nationals’ 40-man roster who are under team control for 2022 have combined for a .267/.366/.443 slash line and wRC+ of 117 since the deadline.
For context, the Houston Astros lead the league in wRC+ at 115, so the core hitters who are going to be back next year are combining to hit as well as the best team in baseball this year.
Obviously, there are a quite few caveats to this that bring things back to earth.
First, the sample size is just under two months' worth, not a full season. Especially for younger players, there are likely to be more peaks and troughs, and this may just be a peak for them as teams develop their gameplan against them.
The other is that how this translates to a whole offense, as opposed to just a core, over a whole season is how the front office fills out the rest of the roster that maybe brings that down.
Can this offensive core sustain its success as the team moves forward in its retool? It’s way too soon to say. That said, they’ve performed above expectations in the second half of the season and at least provide some hope in an area that didn’t necessarily look like a strength.
3: Once again, the bullpen is a bit of a tire fire...
...but this time it’s on purpose! Well, sort of. It’s actually because the relief corps is now mostly comprised of younger players who are trying to establish themselves as big league relievers but aren’t having much success just yet.
It would probably even be fair to say that there aren’t really any reliably good relievers in the bullpen, as currently constructed.
The two best of the group right now are Tanner Rainey, who looks great since his recall but wouldn't surprise anyone if he suddenly lost his command again, and Kyle Finnegan, who has generally been a solid seventh inning-type guy, but has shown cracks in the ninth since the deadline.
Then there are others like Patrick Murphy and Mason Thompson, both picked up this season, who have had flashes of being dominant relief arms, but have had varying levels of consistency in showing that potential. Maybe this experience in a low-pressure environment will aid their development long-term, but for now, there have been bumps in the road.
All in all, since the trade deadline, Nationals’ relievers rank dead last in fWAR, third-last in ERA, and last in FIP. To anyone watching, it’s been clear with the number of winnable games the bullpen has let slip that this has been the clear weakness of the new Nats.
There’s a chance that some of the above names can step up in the next few years and establish themselves as big league relievers.
Some even have the stuff to be a factor in the late innings.
However, very few of them have shown that as yet. Expect another wholesale makeover of the bullpen this offseason, especially at the back-end, even if it’s just reloading with pitchers on one-year deals that could be flipped at next year’s deadline for prospects.
4: This retool may not take as long as some think
All signals that have come from the Nationals’ front office since the deadline are about how much they hate losing and don’t want to wait around for a full-scale teardown and rebuild.
Obviously, they would probably say that regardless of the outlook of the team in the short-term and the long-term, but there have been a few signs that they may want to take the next step sooner rather than later.
The most glaring thing is that Juan Soto is inching towards his potential free agency after the 2024 season.
Mike Rizzo and Dave Martinez have often talked about the 22-year-old outfielder becoming the focal point of the retool, so it makes sense they want to compete again before he is set to hit free agency — especially when an extension looks unlikely.
Perhaps with that window in mind, several of the players the Nationals acquired at the deadline were already close to big-league-ready.
Keibert Ruiz, Josiah Gray, Mason Thompson, Lane Thomas, and Riley Adams are already with the major league team. Donovan Casey is at Triple-A and likely to be added to the 40-man roster this winter. Gerardo Carillo is already on the 40-man roster and finished the year at Double-A.
The team’s top prospect, Cade Cavalli, figures to be in the mix for some big league time at some point next season, even if it’s not right away as he still works on a few things at Triple-A initially.
What the Nationals hope will be the core of their next contending team has already started to arrive with others on the way in the next year or so, which is likely to accelerate the rebuild clock and could lead Washington to supplement that talent with free agents quickly.
2022 is probably too soon for this group, as a lot of those prospects will still be getting their feet wet. However, if everything continues to go as the Nationals hope it will, it could set a foundation for leaping back into contention in 2023 or 2024.
5: A lot of pressure will be on top pitching prospects
On that note, that brings us to our final point, and perhaps one that hasn’t been talked about a whole lot while the focus has been on how the prospects in the big leagues are developing.
Ever since Rizzo took over as GM of this franchise, the team’s emphasis has been on starting pitching. From Stephen Strasburg to Jordan Zimmermann, to Gio Gonzalez, to Max Scherzer, the Nationals have always seemed to have multiple aces up their sleeve on the mound.
Given how the past year and a half has gone, this is probably the first time in Rizzo’s reign that the team doesn’t really have much certainty in its rotation moving forward.
Strasburg has been hit with multiple injuries since signing his $245 million extension after the World Series win in 2019. The latest resulted in thoracic outlet surgery, something that could alter the rest of his career and there’s uncertainty about whether he will be healthy to start next season.
Despite a strong first season in the nation’s capital, Patrick Corbin has pitched to an ugly 5.50 ERA the past two seasons. Unlike Strasburg, he’s stayed injury-free and his pure stuff still looks strong, so maybe there’s a chance to turn things around, but it doesn’t look promising.
Those two pitchers will cost the Nats over $58 million of AAV through the 2024 season, potentially limiting the front office from investing a lot more money into the rotation via free agency.
That’s where the team’s pitching prospects come in. In theory, the Nationals could have a solid homegrown core to a strong rotation within a few years.
Cavalli has the top-of-the-rotation upside. Josiah Gray has the look of someone who could be a 2-3. Jackson Rutledge has work to do to get back on track, but if he can, could profile as a solid top-to-mid rotation start. Cole Henry, while further away, could grow into a future rotation member too.
The Nats need them to come through and contribute at the big league level on the major league minimum to try and balance out the Strasburg and Corbin contracts in the rotation.
If they can’t, then without the ability to spend big on free agent pitching as they did on Corbin and Max Scherzer, for instance, then a route back to contention becomes a lot more complicated.