The Nationals Finally Managed To Retain Some Guys
9:06 AM EDT on August 22, 2023
The Washington Nationals moved Monday to extend the contracts of manager Davey Martinez and team president Mike Rizzo. Rizzo built and Martinez managed the 2019 outfit that won a World Series (the franchise's first and only); those two plus the refurbished beater that is Patrick Corbin are effectively* all that is left of that team's core of players, not even four full seasons after their summit run. With the Nationals indefinitely up for sale in what turns out to be a tepid buyer's market for professional sports teams—one that of late has priced out all but a tiny handful of the world's wealthiest vampires and a few terrifying sovereign wealth funds—Rizzo and Martinez have been suspended in professional limbo, riding out lame-duck option years and running a team stripped down to the studs. The Lerner family, reluctantly still holding the deed but absolutely done footing the bill, finally chose the status quo over pretending to mount a search for baseball's best and brightest.
*We are not talking about Stephen Strasburg. You leave him alone!
Martinez and Rizzo are probably not who most Nats fans would've chosen to make lifers from the team's brief glory days. There's somewhere north of a billion dollars worth of former Nationals superstars out there adorning other teams' rosters. Not all of these guys are thriving: Juan Soto, despite an OPS in the top 10 of the league, has become the face of whatever strange gift for losing bedevils the star-studded Padres, to whom he was traded ahead of the 2022 deadline; Max Scherzer, now with the Rangers, appears finally to be on the back slope of his career, encouraging recent performances notwithstanding; Trea Turner, now on a long-term mega-deal with the Phillies, is trying to salvage what has so far been the worst season of his career; the less said about Anthony Rendon, the better. Still, Nationals fans would've been happy to hold onto any one of them, at just about any price, and more was lost in those departures than a handful of beloved players. As the Nationals got all the way out of the business of employing veteran superstars, they definitively closed the book on the time when it was possible to believe the Lerner family might be one of the few ownership groups willing to spend money for a winning baseball team. Now that they're determined to sell, God knows when Rizzo will be allowed to build up the team's payroll again.
It's not all doom and gloom. The 2023 Nationals are, surprisingly, a lot of fun. They're 20–14 since the break. Their young pitchers—MacKenzie Gore, Jake Irvin, and All-Star Josiah Gray—compete and show promise. They're up to second in the National League in hits and batting average on the season. C.J Abrams, a key prospect from the Soto trade, is up to fifth in the majors in stolen bases; Keibert Ruiz, a key prospect from the Scherzer/Turner trade, is in the 100th percentile in strikeout percentage. Do not ask about their defensive responsibilities! As a team the Nationals don't walk much and they've hit the second fewest dingers in baseball, but they scrap and they run and they hit it where they ain't, and they have whatever Bad News Bears-esque charm comes from constructing a middle of the order out of Joey Meneses, Dominic Smith, and Stone Garrett. I have been accused by a coworker of being "Guardianspilled" for enjoying this brand of baseball, but I cannot help myself. God forgive me, I asked for a return of action-packed small-ball, and that's what I've gotten. The Nationals are not going to come close to making the playoffs, but Martinez is doing the absolute most with the shifting collection of dirt-cheap bozos and trumped-up teens he's been given during this period of riding out the team's last remaining* expensive contracts.
*No! We are still not talking about Stephen Strasburg, dammit!
Meanwhile, trading away two of the best hitters in the game and one of the era's great pitchers predictably has allowed Rizzo to accelerate the restocking of what was considered before the 2022 season to be a catastrophically barren farm system. Talent evaluators are no longer noisily retching when asked to assess the team's organizational depth. Several hot-shot blue-chippers are expected to surface on the big club over the next couple of seasons, forming what Rizzo has called "the foundation going forward" and "the core of a championship club." The Nationals now find themselves perhaps a little bit ahead of schedule in this rebuild, with an entertaining baseball product on the diamond and a talent-rich farm system headlined by a pair of consensus top-10 prospects.
But it's very hard to take any of this seriously as anything more than the coat of paint that a realtor puts on a house before it hits the market. Almost none of whatever is likable about this team today is nailed down. The Washington Post reported that however happy anyone in charge is with the current state of the team, retaining Martinez and Rizzo is "more about projecting stability to potential buyers than because of recent success." If an investor owner is someone who has paid for the privilege of stewarding a baseball team, then the Nationals are functionally leaderless, one of the handful of teams in the league whose owners genuinely do not give a rip about the baseball product. The present owners do not want to own the team or spend any money on it; all that can be known of the eventual next owner is they will be absorbing an ungodly mountain of debt for the privilege of joining a fraternity of owners that considers the paying of market price for good players to be an actionable violation of established customs.
It's taken four years of last-place baseball, but the Nationals have finally identified a couple of guys from their flash of relevance who they can afford to keep. The guys just happen to be a combined 120 years old and decades removed from their own playing careers, but it turns out to be a hell of a lot cheaper to keep a couple of wily old middle managers than to retain the cool and good players* who make the game.
*Shut up shut up shut up.