Reboot Update With Mike Rizzo And Davey Martinez:
No one thought it was going to be easy, but when the Nationals kicked off their reboot with a sell-off of expiring contracts (and a year-plus of Trea Turner) at the trade deadline in 2021, did the front office in Washington imagine the 2022 campaign going like it has for the club, with the team in last place in the NL East, 44 games under .500 going into play in the series finale with the Baltimore Orioles (who started the night 74-67 and were trying hard to stay in the Wild Card hunt) last night?
“Well, we knew it was going to be painful,” GM Mike Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies on Wednesday morning. “We just kind of went back — like I said, we’re one of the few franchises in all of baseball that have gone through a full rebuild back in the early 2000s, and came out the other side with a World Championship. Not a lot of franchises can say, ‘We tore it down, we built it up and we went on a 10-year run of success before we had to tear it down again.’ So, we had a blueprint of what it was going to look like, we presented it to ownership and said, ‘This is what is to be expected, and this is where we’re going to be at, and this is how we’re going to come out in front of it, at the end of it,’ and enjoy the success and kind of reap the benefits of the painful years like we did in ‘09, ‘10, and ‘11, before we went on our run.”
Watching the Nats in 2022, however, Rizzo said, fans have gotten a glimpse of what the front office hopes will be the core of the next championship-caliber team in the nation’s capital.
”At least right now the fans can see what is on the horizon, and what’s in the future,” Rizzo told the Junkies. “When you see guys like [Keibert] Ruiz, and [CJ] Abrams, and [Luis] García, and [Josiah] Gray, and [Cade] Cavalli, and MacKenzie Gore, and you can see what those guys are doing in the minor leagues, like in Fredericksburg and that type of thing, there’s a sense of excitement each and every night, but also frustration that we’re not winning on a consistent enough basis.”
They are evaluating the talent they have in-house at this point, of course, and trying to find where they need to add to the roster as they continue to (re-)build or reboot as Rizzo’s said since the start.
“We’re looking for players,” manager Davey Martinez said this week when asked about what he’s focusing on down the stretch.
“We need players, right? Lane [Thomas] has done a great job. [Alex] Call, I’ve been playing him. He’s done a really good job. And I love his aggressiveness. I love the way he plays the game. His attention to detail. All that stuff. So he’s done well as of late, so he’s getting an opportunity to play. But these guys got to understand, come next year we got to field a team, we’re going to take the 26 best guys, as [Rizzo] always says, and as I always look for the 26 best guys, so these guys are getting an opportunity to show us what they can do, and this way we have an idea of what we want to do in Spring Training.”
Once the season ends, and they evaluate everything they saw, then the building starts up all over again, though it’s really always happening.
“We start adding pieces here and there, next thing you know, we’re back in the swing of things,” Martinez said, “and competing again for another playoff spot and another World Series berth, so and that’s how it starts.
“We’re looking at guys now saying, ‘We could possibly win with this guy, and this guy, and this guy, and this guy, now we just got to fill in the pieces.”
How many of the players who were in the lineup in recent games, Rizzo was asked by the Junkies, will realistically be part of the ‘23 roster, and the next championship contender?
“I think the easiest answer,” Rizzo said, “is your core group of guys that we’re trying to build around is going to be Ruiz, and Abrams, and García, and then you’re going to have guys like Gray, and Cavalli, and Gore, 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.
“There are going to be a lot of players that are going to become free agents that are going to go off the roster. It’s going to be a very fluid winter and offseason, 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.”
Cavalli Return Cold Water:
Cade Cavalli worked his way up from A-ball to Triple-A in his first full pro season, and he made his MLB debut at the tail end of his second professional campaign, but then there ended up being an issue with his shoulder, and the club is taking things slowly with the organization’s top pitching prospect.
Davey Martinez, the Nationals’ skipper, held out a possibility of the 24-year-old right-hander returning to the mound in the majors this season when Cavalli went on the IL with shoulder inflammation in late August, but mostly as a motivator, and realistically, he said before the second of two with the Baltimore Orioles in D.C. on Wednesday, just getting the pitcher on the mound, throwing before the end of the schedule is a more realistic goal.
Cavalli went to see a doctor for an update on his progress as he’s rehabbing his shoulder and got good news, but with the limited time remaining, it’s clear he likely won’t return to the big league rotation.
“He’s actually playing catch as we speak,” Martinez said on Wednesday afternoon, after they got good news from his doctor visit.
“So it went really well. Inflammation’s gone. He said he feels great. Doctor evaluated him.”
“Our medical staff put him through the gamut yesterday and today,” Martinez continued, “... so he’s out there playing catch. So we’ll see how he feels. This is great news for us. But with that being said, we still got quite a bit of ways [to go].
“But it’s nice to see him out there throwing again.”
But, realistically, while the idea of returning was good motivation, it’s not looking like it will happen.
“We’re going to try to — if everything goes well, try to get him on the mound,” Martinez said.
“And whether that’s a bullpen or if he feels really good, maybe a little sim game or something like that. But we definitely, I definitely want to see him, if we can, throw some, maybe one up-down, two up-downs on the mound and then send him home,” he added.
“I don’t think he’s going to be able to go out there and compete, because we want to make sure that when he leaves here, he’s healthy,” the fifth-year skipper explained further, “... and we put him on a program this winter and get him ready for Spring Training. So I haven’t talked to him yet about that. I want him to keep building. I’m sure that once he gets going, he’s probably gonna say that he would like to go out there. But we got to be really smart.
“We got to be really smart with these guys. So we’ll see how he progresses over the next week or two, and then we’ll go from there.”
Where is Robles?:
Victor Robles, who didn’t start last night, hasn’t taken the field since he was scratched from the lineup before the finale in St. Louis last Thursday with a stiff neck. Robles, 25, has had a tough season again, after struggling in 2020’s 60-game COVID campaign and grinding his way through a 2021 run which saw him optioned down to Triple-A for the final month of the season.
In 115 games and 349 plate appearances in the majors this season, Robles has put up a .224/.283/.304 line with nine doubles, two triples, and four home runs, with the lack of power, since he hit 17 HRs in his first full season in the majors (on the way to the World Series championship) in 2019, something that’s stood out for those waiting to see if he possibly turns this around.
Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo was asked about that lack of power from Robles in recent years, and the work the organization is doing to try to help him find it, during his weekly visit on 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s The Sports Junkies, and he went on at length about what has gone wrong for the one-time center fielder of the future in Washington.
“It’s something that we’re diving into analytically, and performance-based, and that type of thing,” Rizzo said of the decline in power numbers, and lack of solid contact for Robles.
“I think that when you look at ‘19, Victor was an everyday player on a world championship team, and had a good year, and the one thing that he hasn’t lost is he still has that defensive prowess. He’s got great range in the outfield, he throws well, and he can steal you a base and that type of thing ... what has kind of gone away is the consistency of hitting the ball on the barrel of the bat. I think that’s what has been inconsistent of him going forward.”
In attempting to diagnose the issue(s), and where it went wrong for Robles, Rizzo pointed to the follow-up to ‘19’s title run, and the way the ‘20 campaign threw everything into turmoil.
“I think few players were affected as much as Victor was by the 2020 season, where he took a break because of the COVID, never got on track, and ‘20 turned into ‘21, and he just hasn’t found his footing as of yet,” Rizzo explained.
“But we still have hope for the kid. He’s a -year-old player that still has great skills and great tools, but we’ve got to find an answer offensively for him to put the barrel of the bat on the ball more consistently, and until we do that he’s going to struggle, but he’s still young enough and talented enough that it’s definitely worth the effort to try and fix and make him a part of the core group of players for us.”
With No. 1 catcher Keibert Ruiz likely done for the season, the three catchers currently on the big league roster, (Riley Adams, Tres Barrera, and recently-called-up backstop Israel Pineda), are set to share the catching duties down the stretch this year. But in each of the last two games (Sunday/Tuesday), manager Davey Martinez went with the 22-year-old Pineda, who made his MLB debut in the series finale in Philadelphia and started the first of two with Baltimore in D.C.
“Just let him continue — it was his first game the other day, just let him continue to grow, learn our pitchers,” Martinez told reporters of starting Pineda again before the opener with the O’s. “I watched some of the games yesterday, I thought he did well. I really did, back behind the plate. I talked to some of the pitchers he caught and they said he presented a good target, they thought he did good, [Catching and Strategy coach] Henry [Blanco] talked to him about a few things that we noticed. But for me, just let him go out there, let him relax a little bit, and get him in there two days in a row, and let him go have some fun and see what he can do.”
Pineda worked his way up from High-A to Double-A, and played six games at Triple-A before he was called up earlier this month, and Martinez said the reports he got along the way said the prospect made big strides in his development.
“I know he’s progressed fairly rapidly this year,” the manager explained. “He went through a bunch of different levels. But he’s done well. I just want to let him continue to play, but with that being said, I know I need to get Riley back in there at some point. But I wanted to give [Pineda] a couple days in a row to go out there. I want to see him catch, so he’s going to catch while he’s here a bit, and we’ll go from there.”
In Tuesday’s game, Pineda threw out his first would-be base stealer (in two attempts to that point), cutting Gunnar Henderson down here at second in the ninth, as the O’s rookie tried to put himself in scoring position with one out.
“His throw was on the money. And quick,” Martinez said after the 5-3 loss to the O’s.
“What a release. Threw the ball well, so that’s awesome to see.”