Asked halfway through the 2022 season about the number of veterans on the big league roster, and the logic of signing and playing vets over young players and prospects while the organization is a year and a half into their reboot, GM Mike Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies it was all about development, and making sure you don’t rush and potentially expose players before they’re ready.
“It’s because we bring players to the big leagues when they’re big-league-ready,” Rizzo told the Junkies, “… and that’s the answer. There’s a developmental curve that belongs here. We want to make sure that these young, good prospects are ready to pitch in the big leagues, and once they get here, they’re here to stay, and that’s always the equation we use when we’re talking about bringing people to the big leagues. It’s, ‘Are they ready to compete at the big league level, are they fully prepared, physically, emotionally, stuff-wise for the grind of the major league season,’ and that’s the only criteria we use to bring up a player, be it a pitcher or a position player.”
What happens if you bring a player up too early and risk having them face real adversity, and they suffer a blow to their confidence when/if they struggle, many of them for the first time in their careers?
“Depending on the makeup of the player, I guess you can mentally scar them a little bit,” Rizzo acknowledged, “but failure is a part of this business. But the thing is when you’re talking about competing at this level, there’s not a level beyond the big leagues. This is it. The greatest 780 players in the world are playing here every night. It’s a league that’s extremely competitive. There’s no working on changeups up here, or I got to work on my delivery or that type of thing. And until you’re fully-prepared and until your full arsenal is ready to compete at this level, we’re not going to bring you here, because we want you once you get here to be fully-prepared and to stay here for the rest of your career.”
There are examples (Joan Adon?) of how circumstances (injuries, availability) may impact the process, but ideally, you wait until players have mastered each level of the minor leagues before exposing them to the major league game. Rizzo and Co. in the front office in D.C. have promoted players aggressively in the past, but as a general rule, he preaches a cautious and measured approach.
Before the Nationals accelerated (in their assessment) their reboot with the Juan Soto (and Josh Bell) trade at the deadline this past summer, Rizzo talked about the next-gen Nats working their way up in the system and how the next stars fans will be cheering were grinding away in the system.
“I think you see the short successes that we’ve had here, even in 2022 right now,” Rizzo said, “where you’ve got a handful of good, young players at the big league level, you’ve got a minor league system that is playing extremely well and [playing] competitive games.
“We’ve gone from last year I think we were at a .390 winning percentage, to this year we’re playing at a .520 winning percentage pace, and you’ve got good, young players that are impact-type players at the higher parts of your minor league, and a system that’s really, really stacked at the A-ball and High-A level, which is important to our timeline, because when you look at the team in Fredericksburg and Wilmington, they’re playing great baseball and it’s fun to see those young kids that are 20-21 years old and really taking that next step with the names of Brady House, and [Jackson] Rutledge, and [Jeremy] De La Rosa, and those are the next guys you’re going to hear about in the very near future [and] that are going to be guys you’re going to be talking about them in the same way you talk about the Rendons, and the Harpers, and the Zimmermans.”
Rizzo reiterated the message after the trade deadline, and again at the end of a brutal 55-107 season in D.C.
The moves they made at the last two trade deadlines, and the players they added in the first-year player and international drafts since starting the reboot of the organization have, in his own assessment, accelerated the process. And though the Nationals dealt away a dizzying array of talented players, Rizzo stressed, all of the stars of previous teams were once prospects as well.
“They were all prospects at one time,” he explained. “They were all the [Robert] Hassell [IIIs] and the [CJ] Abrams of the world,” the GM said, naming two of the five highly-regarded prospects who came back in the Soto/Bell deal. “We traded — people forget, we traded for Trea Turner, and we traded a draft pick that we [drafted, signed, and developed] to get Trea Turner and Joe Ross and developed them within our system, and [Turner] spent six years here as a star big league player. And the list goes on and on. You look at that 2019 team, and you look at how that team was assembled: It was assembled by trades, drafts, and international signings, and that’s a kudos to player development and scouting.”
The latest moves, he suggested in a post-deadline talk with reporters, opened up more possibilities for how they build the next contender in the nation’s capital.
“I think the prospect capital that we received, I think it accelerates the process because it not only gives us the players to perform at the field, it opens up other avenues of revenues and payroll and that type of thing,” Rizzo said.
The trades they’ve made in the past two years also opened up spots on the big league roster for the young players already in and the ones they’ve added to the system.
CJ Abrams started at Triple-A so the young shortstop could transition to another organization for the first time in his career, as Keibert Ruiz did the previous year after coming over with Josiah Gray, pitcher Gerardo Carrillo, and outfielder Donovan Casey in the trade which sent Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to LA at the deadline in 2021.
Abrams came over from San Diego in the Soto/Bell trade along with Hassell III, outfielder James Wood, and pitchers MacKenzie Gore, Jarlin Susana, and big league bat Luke Voit.
“MacKenzie Gore has a chance to be a front-line starting pitcher to put in the mix with Gray and [2020 1st Round pick Cade] Cavalli and [2020 2nd Round pick Cole] Henry, and that group of young arms, and once [Gore] gets over this little arm injury [left elbow inflammation], then he should be able to come to the big leagues, and the rest of them are outstanding, exciting, high-end, impact possible prospects, and prospects come at their own pace. We brought three players at 19 to the big leagues in the past, so to me chronological age is not the factor. It’s when a player is ready to pitch and play in the big leagues, we bring them, and they all come and they all develop on a different timeline.”
The trades, draft picks, and signings of the last two years, Rizzo said at the end of the 2022 campaign dramatically changed the make-up of the organization and set the club on their way to getting back to contention.
“I think our system is different right now than it was a year ago. I think it’s deeper,” Rizzo said. “We’ve had two what I believe are successful trade deadline acquisition periods, we’ve had two successful drafts, we’ve done a good job in the international market. I think that our prospect depth is as good as it’s ever been here in the organization, and I think that the upside of our prospect list is probably the highest it’s ever been.”
Looking forward, Rizzo added, the possibility of a rotation fronted by Cavalli, Gore, and Gray has everyone in the front office in D.C. excited about the future.
“They’re three extremely talented young pitchers that have a huge upside,” Rizzo said at the end of the 2022 campaign.
“We’re going to give them every opportunity to continue their progression and performance next year, we’re going to be counting on them and others in our minor league system to take the mantle and become the next rotation of a championship-caliber club, and we’re going to supplement them with not only players from within our system, but players from outside of our system, and 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.”
When will they start to make the sort of free agent signings and additions which supplement the in-house talent and help the club take the next step? When it’s the right time in the assessment, and not a moment sooner.
“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 that I … mentioned, 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.”
“I think that we have an idea and a timetable of a big picture,” he’d said a day earlier, “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.”