In a mid-September visit with 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies, Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo talked about offseason plans for the rebooting Washington ballclub, and the hard work he and his front office staff had ahead of them.
With a 100-loss season in the books at the time he spoke, Rizzo said they had pieces in place to form the core of the next competitive team in the nation’s capital.
“Your core group of guys that we’re trying to build around is going to be [Keibert] Ruiz, and [CJ] Abrams, and [Luis] García, and then you’re going to have guys like [Josiah] Gray, and [Cade] Cavalli, and [MacKenzie] Gore,” the GM explained, “and the bullpen is young and controllable, so you’re going to see a lot of guys back, but beyond that, we’re going to go after this thing and see if we can improve ourselves for next year, and we’ve got a lot of young guys that we’re going to have to protect from the Rule 5 Draft, so there are going to be guys added to the roster.”
In addition to the players added to the 40-man to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft, Rizzo said, there would be some turnover from the roster which ended the 2022 season.
“There are going to be a lot of players that are going to become free agents that are going to go off the roster,” he said, and last week Steve Cishek, Will Harris, César Hernández, Erasmo Ramírez, Joe Ross, Aníbal Sánchez, and Nelson Cruz did go on the free agent market (with Sean Doolittle a free agent for a minute before he re-signed with the Nats on a minor league deal).
“It’s going to be a very fluid winter and offseason,” Rizzo added, “and we’re looking forward to making some headway and to really improving this club with guys that we have on the current roster, going outside the organization to get new players, but we’re not forgetting about the good, exciting core group of guys we have in the minor leagues that are going to ultimately step up and be part of the core group of guys. So, it’s kind of a mixture of all those things.”
Over the final weekend of the regular season, Rizzo talked with reporters to discuss the state of the organization as they wrapped up a 55-107 campaign.
How would the club, which kickstarted their reboot at the trade deadline with the prospect haul they received in the Juan Soto/Josh Bell deal with the San Diego Padres, approach the offseason?
“We’re going to attack it,” Rizzo said.
“First of all we’re going to do an autopsy of the organization after the season to see where we’re at. We’ll have a discussion with ownership to see where our parameters are, but suffice it to say we’re not comfortable with losing 100+ games, and that’s something we want to avoid again in the near future, and we’re going to put together an offseason that we’re going to be aggressively attacking the free agent market, the trade market, the international market, and any other market that helps us acquire impactful players that helps us get better sooner.”
“We have to better ourselves,” he added.
“We have to see where our deficiencies are, where we can strengthen our roster, and like I said before, all these different venues, trade markets, free agent markets, international markets are going to explored to get better.”
Both Rizzo and incumbent Nats’ skipper Davey Martinez talked at the end of the regular season about the need to add starting pitching and a big bat or two to the lineup:
10/4/22 Rizzo on need for pitching - “We understand that starting pitching has to be better than it is right now. We also understand that we’ve got a good group of young arms that we’re going to count on and we’re going to have to count on in the near future.”
10/5/22 Martinez on pitching depth - “We get Cade healthy, MacKenzie Gore, who’s going to leave here healthy, they’re going to get a chance to come in Spring Training and compete. You’ve got Josiah who learned a lot, you’ve got Patrick [Corbin], who I really felt like over the last 6-7 starts he was getting back to what he was, so you’re talking about adding maybe 1-2 more starters and I think with doing that, with CJ and Luis in the middle, Victor [Robles] playing center field every day, you know, I think we’re definitely going to get better.”
10/5/22 Martinez on needing to add a bat or two + starting pitching - “Yeah, we have to find 1-2 guys, but I think some of our younger guys you’ll start seeing a little bit more of the power come out, but for me it’s all about the starting pitching ... if you had that 1-2 guys in the middle of the lineup that can drive the ball, and I think Joey [Meneses] can be one of those guys as well, we got something. But if we don’t have starting pitching it will be tough.”
Rizzo was asked in the final days of the season, how the potential sale of the team would impact the club’s spending and payroll?
“We’re business as usual,” Rizzo said in early October. “We’re going to go through the end of this regular season and do our postseason work and try to explore every way to get better. We’ll get our marching orders and our directions from above when we get them. But until then we’re business as usual like we’ve done every year.”
“It’s always frustrating to lose,” he added.
“It was never good, it wasn’t fun in ‘09, ‘10, or ‘11 for me. It’s not fun now, but what keeps me going is seeing what’s on the horizon, putting our plan in place and sticking to it. It’s the most important part of what we’re doing right now. We have to believe in the blueprint, and stick to the plan, and to have the support from above us to do that has been huge, and I think that it’s something that the fanbase has embraced, and I think they trust the process, because they’ve seen it before.”
The process, which Rizzo says often is similar to what they did when he took over as GM in 2009, and made the first postseason appearance in 2012, is to assess what they have in-house, then develop that talent and add to it when they’re ready to compete again with free agents or trade acquisitions which fill whatever holes exist at that point. But not rushing the process is important in the GM’s mind.
“I think that we have an idea and a timetable of a big picture,” Rizzo explained, “… but it’s the small minute details that build that big picture. And we’re certainly not going to get ahead of ourselves, and that is what I mean by we have to stay the course and be true to the plan, and I think that good things will happen.”
A day later, in another visit with 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies, Rizzo went into more detail about how they will go about assessing when it’s time to spend big (and smart) in free agency again to supplement the talent base they’ve built.
“I think you’ve seen a big step forward this year when you look at a core group of a young, -year-old catcher in Ruiz, and 22 at shortstop in Abrams, and 22 at second base in García, and you’ve got [24-year-old] Gray, and Cavalli is , and Gore is 23, I think that you see that’s 6-7-8 young prospects that will be with us for a long time, and then you tack on those prospects that are coming [James Wood, Robert Hassell III, Brady House, Elijah Green]… and then it’s time to make your trades, and add your free agent signings, and those type of things, and that was the blueprint we used back in ‘09, ‘10, and ‘11, when we ... bottomed out and slowly creeped up and before you know it we’re on a 10-year run of winning four division titles, and a Wild Card, and a National League pennant, and a World Championship, and that’s how we did it, and that’s how we plan to do it again.”
Talking at the GM Meetings in Las Vegas last week, Rizzo, following a month-plus in which they’ve presumably conducted their planned “autopsy” of the organization and assessed where they stand, the big question for the General Manager in D.C. was where things stand with the potential sale of the team and how the ongoing talks could affect the front office’s ability to spend and build this winter.
“We’ve been told to do business as usual,” Rizzo told reporters, as quoted by Washington Post writer Jesse Dougherty, and that, he said, is how the club will approach things. He did acknowledge the fact that some uncertainty remains compared to previous offseasons:
“‘What has changed is the uncertainty of what’s the final payroll going to look like — and what’s the ownership group going to look like down the road?’ Rizzo said. ‘As far as coming here and coming to the winter meetings, we’re going as we always have with the Lerners as ownership, trying to just do what we can do to move this process along.’
At this point, Rizzo said, there are not too many challenges to overcome with the ownership situation in flux, but at some point they’ll need some guidance from above:
“[T]here’ll be a time where we’ll need some clarity to make some finite, concrete decisions,” Rizzo told the WaPost reporter, but, he added, more important than anything as they go through the offseason is sticking to the plan:
“I’m antsy. I’m anxious. I’m competitive. I hate the way the season went,’ the GM said. ‘But you have to be true to the process, and rushing it just compounds the problem.’”