Truth be told, a couple of weeks ago, I was prepared to write a piece about how it looked like the Washington Nationals were setting about their rebuild, or retool, the right way.
Once Major League Baseball lifted the lockout on March 10th, the Nationals were hot on the tail of several free agents with a clear view of what the team needed in mind.
“I think we need to build depth in our pitching both as starters and relievers,” General Manager Mike Rizzo explained at the start of Spring Training.
“I think that some of our targets going into the offseason, prior to the lockout and now post-lockout, [are] that we’d like to bolster our pitching, both starting and bullpen, and give ourselves a little more depth of versatile players on the field.
“And possibly — although we had a very potent offensive season last year, pre-and post-trade deadline — we would like to get another kind of veteran hitter that can help us score some runs, hit some home runs, and that type of thing.”
Within a couple of days of free agency re-opening, they started to address those needs.
Steve Cishek was the first domino to fall, agreeing to a deal on March 12th. The next day, Ehire Adrianza, Aníbal Sánchez, and Nelson Cruz joined the cause. And to round out the weekend, fan-favorite Sean Doolittle agreed to return, with Aaron Sanchez also arriving on a minor league deal.
They got César Hernández, who signed right before the lockout, and the other veterans who had proven major league track records, to join the team on low-risk one-year or minor league deals.
It was a fast and furious few days for the Nationals, and it seemed like a strategy was born.
Attack the free-agent market to bring in veterans who will help bring stability to what was a young clubhouse coming into the offseason, then either help the team sneak into a playoff spot, or to flip at the trade deadline for prospects if things don’t look promising in July.
“We take this a little bit different than we’ve taken it each year,” Rizzo explained at the start of Spring Training. “But we’re trying to make moves to win games, and we know where our landscape goes and what our big picture looks like.
“The moves we’re going to make are going to be with winning this year in mind, but also with a bigger picture to getting back to that 10-year-window of being one of the best teams in baseball.”
It’s a strategy more rebuilding teams should utilize and effectively try to buy more prospects via players who could be traded at some point in the season, rather than refusing to spend any significant sum on free agents and relying on draft picks to restock the farm system.
However, even with plenty of other holes that could be filled by that type of player, the team has been suspiciously quiet since the deal with Aaron Sanchez was confirmed on March 19th.
The move of most note for the Nationals since then was claiming Hunter Harvey off of waivers.
Now, what appeared to be an aggressive plan to add players on low-risk contracts to try and compete or trade mid-season seems half-complete and might turn out to be a missed opportunity.
The likes of Andrew McCutchen, Corey Dickerson, Tommy Pham, Matthew Boyd, Michael Pineda, Chris Archer, Mychal Givens, Alex Colomé, and Ian Kennedy have all been scooped up on one-year deals since the lockout ended. It’s not quite as straightforward as if the Nats matched those offers they would’ve joined, but even if they added two or three of that sort of players, those are moves that have a chance to pay dividends.
Even if they may have missed out on some marginal gains, the Nationals are trying to follow a plan where they didn’t have to go gung-ho to try and turn things around immediately. Instead, they want to be patient to create a solid foundation for many more years.
“We’ve been through the process before,” Rizzo said. “We feel that we have a good blueprint of getting us back to that championship form in the near future.
“But again, we’re about winning games this year, and we’re going to be quietly plugging away to win each and every game we have and there are 12 playoff teams and we want to be one of them, so that’s what I’m looking at this year.”
“In regards to the championship window, it could start at any time, and we’re making moves towards that end, but we’re still trying to win every baseball game we play.”
Based on how they’ve approached this offseason — the front office hasn’t made a single multi-year free agent signing while scooping up players off of the metaphorical scrap heap — that championship window is highly unlikely to open in 2022.
That’s to be expected. The minor league system was pretty bare before last year’s trade deadline brought a solid bounty of prospects into the farm, and even the quickest of turnarounds would be unlikely to take effect for a couple of seasons.
Maybe it’s nit-picking a bit, but with plenty of holes still on the roster, the Nationals may have missed a chance to build on what they started in loading up on potentially tradeable players...