Before the lockout began in early December this winter, and as soon as they could once it came to an end in mid-March, the Washington Nationals carried out their plan to build a team which can potentially compete this season if everything ([stresses]: “Everything!”) goes right and they catch other clubs by surprise early in the organizational reboot period the team kicked off with their sell-off at the trade deadline last July.
“When the bell did ring [once the lockout ended], we — like every other team — hit the phones hard and there were a lot of phone calls going back and forth, and like we usually do, we have our checklist of things we’d like to get done in the offseason,” GM Mike Rizzo told reporters on the first day of Spring Training last month.
While acknowledging the need for starting and bullpen depth, and suggesting that a boost to the lineup was not out of the question (before the club added a couple starters, in Aaron Sanchez and Aníbal Sánchez; who was just announced as part of the Opening Day rotation this week, a reliever in Steve Cishek, and then added a big bat in DH Nelson Cruz), Rizzo said the main focus this year would be on player development on the roster, and getting the in-house talent playing up to their potential so the club can see what they have, while trying to compete for a postseason berth.
“What I’d like to see is the progression of our young players and I think that’s an important part of our process here,” he explained.
“We need to get our young players competing at championship-caliber performances. To me that’s our No. 1 priority.”
Roster moves this winter were viewed in that light.
“We take this a little bit different than we’ve taken it each year, but we’re trying to make moves to win games,” Rizzo said, “and we know where our landscape goes and what our big picture looks like, but 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 ten-year-window of being one of the best teams in baseball.”
Cishek, Sanchez, Sánchez, and Cruz (among others who joined the organization) all signed on in the immediate aftermath of the lockout, providing examples of what Rizzo and Co. in the Nationals’ front office had planned this winter (veterans on one-year deals who can help if the club is in a competitive place come late July; or can be traded if not), but the GM in D.C. still declined, as he did last season, to offer any sort of timeline for when he thinks the club will compete for championships again.
“I don’t know, it’s kind of hard to put a tangible number on it,” Rizzo said.
“We’ve been through the process before, and 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’s 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.”
Starter Joe Ross has since suffered a setback in his build-up — (after an ACL tear which did not require surgery ended his 2021 season in August last summer) — with a bone spur in his right elbow surgically removed, which will delay his progress, and Stephen Strasburg, who had surgery for neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome last summer, plans to take his time and build up as usual this spring as he works his way back, but the Nats’ GM said in March that he thought the depth was there, pitching-wise, at the major league level and down in the system.
“We’re going to see what our depth is all about, and we’re going to see some pitchers in the big leagues this year that will be exciting — young and exciting — and guys that are going to take that next step and help us into this next realm of championship years.”
As for the roster they’ve assembled overall, and what the identity of the team they’ve put together will be?
“We’ve got a good mix of some really young, up-and-coming prospects and some really good, grizzled veterans that are good, quality people,” Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies yesterday.
“I think it’s a good mix of old and young, and I think we’re going to play an exciting brand of baseball, and you know, [manager] Davey Martinez’s teams, they leave it all on the field.
“Our expectations are to perform admirably, to win, and we’re — we want to be one of the 12 teams in the playoffs, and that’s what we’re looking to be, and we want to surprise people, we want to shock some people and get in the tournament, and once we’re in the tournament, you never know what happens.”