When the Washington Nationals signed Jayson Werth to a 7-year, $126MM contract prior to the 2011 season, it was the first bold stroke of a young organization on the rise. “It kind of exemplifies phase two of the Washington Nationals’ process,” GM Mike Rizzo said at the time of Werth’s signing (per ESPN). “Phase one was scouting and player development, building the farm system. … Now it’s the time to go to the second phase and really compete for division titles and championships.” The Nationals went 80-81 in Werth’s first season with the team – and they haven’t had another losing season since.
Not until 2020.
But of course, this season is an anomaly in more ways than one. Despite being near the bottom of the National League, the Nationals are not prepared to enter any kind of rebuilding phase. Rizzo left that part of the timeline behind him in 2010.
In fact, they’re really not even in phase two anymore. The current Nationals graduated a couple years ago to the third phase, which just happens to be the most difficult phase of roster building: sustaining a winner. Having failed in that endeavor for the first time, Rizzo and the Nats face the challenge of bouncing back.
To do so, they may have to move on from some aging pieces of their core.
Adam Eaton could become a free agent if the Nats decline his $10.5MM option. Mighty Mouse firmly believes he would have turned his season around given more time, but he dug quite a hole for himself with -0.9 rWAR and a triple slash of .226/.285/.384 over 41 games. Andrew Stevenson made an oddly compelling case to be part of the outfield picture in 2020 with a .366/.447/.732 line across 47 plate appearances, while Michael A. Taylor reaffirmed the belief that he’s a competent speed and defense option in the outfield who very quickly becomes overextended in regular action. He slashed .196/.253/.424 in 99 plate appearances.
Kurt Suzuki still performs at 36-year-old – and he’s absolutely a core clubhouse culture guy – but he doesn’t sit so easy behind the plate anymore, and he can’t throw, and he’s a free agent besides that. His partner behind the dish, Yan Gomes, will be 34-years-old next year in the final year of his contract. Gomes is perfectly suitable in the role he fills now, but if he’s doing more than being Patrick Corbin‘s personal catcher and picking up 2-4 starts per week, he’s doing too much. The Nats tend to like their guys, so they’re probably planning to run it back with Suzuki and Gomes for another season. They could technically scrounge up enough money to make a run at J.T. Realmuto, though big free agent deals for position players isn’t usually their style. Still, he’d solve a lot of the Nats’ roster problems, and his stoic competitive focus is one brand of personality the Nats like.
The Nats have questions to be answered at first base as well. Howie Kendrick and Eric Thames both have mutual options for 2021, and both disappointed this year (except that Kendrick can do no wrong). Ryan Zimmerman lurks nearby as well, but his status is unclear after opting out of 2020. If he does play in 2021, it will be with the Nats.
All that said, the offense will be fine. It’s not a stellar unit, but their team 102 wRC+ is just a point lower than last year’s club. They’re 15th in the majors in runs scored, they’re the hardest team in the majors to strike out, and they have Juan Soto and Trea Turner returning to anchor a lineup that will feature a number of performers who could pop if they are able to grow into their potential, namely Carter Kieboom, Victor Robles, and Luis Garcia. That trio emptied their farm of intriguing bats in the near-term, so if there are going to new names on the roster in 2021, they’ll have to come from outside the organization.
The real problem the Nationals face is their pitching staff. Specifically, they have 40% of the team’s starts to figure out. Even more specifically: The magic may have run out for 36-year-old Anibal Sanchez, for whom the Nats hold a $12.0MM option they have to decline after he went 2-5 with a 7.38 ERA/5.76 FIP in 9 starts. He pitched better his last time out, and he started slowly in 2020 as well. But that’s part of the point. Sanchez’s re-emergence after returning from injury helped key their turnaround in 2019. They need more consistency from that fourth starter’s spot in 2021.
That’s the easy fix. The problem that’s much harder to look in the face is the condition of the three aces that took them all the way to a World Series title.
The Nationals have one more season of Max Scherzer as their elder statesmen, but after 2021 he could be a free agent. As successful as the Scherzer/Nationals relationship has been, the dude wants nothing more than to win, and if the Nationals put up another dud in 2021, Mad Max could very well turn mercenary. The fire that comes to Nats Park on Scherzday can’t be replaced, but sooner or later, the Nats are going to need a new way to scare the opposition.
Homegrown ace Stephen Strasburg and Corbin could age out of their primes by then as well. Strasburg will be 34-years-old in 2022, Corbin 33-years-old, and while aging into Los Viejos doesn’t necessitate a drop in performance (hello, Max), it does probably mean protected inning counts and watchful TLC, especially in the case of Strasburg.
It also means Washington will be without an ace starting pitcher in his prime for the first time since 2011. The Nationals spent their last two first round picks on big, flame-throwing starting pitchers with this exact transition in mind. Still, Sanchez’s decline and the collective failures of Austin Voth, Joe Ross, and Erick Fedde to secure their spots in future rotations have left a gaping hole in the foundational unit of the Nationals’ competitive infrastructure.
Strasburg’s mysterious nerve injury and Ross opting out has created two significant question marks to a rotation that already lacks depth. To make matters worse, Rizzo doesn’t excel at putting together a bullpen, and that doesn’t look to change anytime in the near future. When the Nationals contend, it’s because their starting five match up with other elite units around the game and shoulder a heavy load. Washington starters are bottom-10 in 2020 by measure of ERA, FIP, and fWAR.
Rizzo will have some money to work with this off-season if payroll levels stay consistent, but given the current climate, that’s anything but certain. They’re going to need to find a replacement for Sanchez someplace, however, because that guy is not in the organization right now. I’m a Ross believer, but Wil Crowe and Ben Braymer are just the next generation of Fedde and Voth. Useful as they are, they’re the definition of volatile assets, and that’s not what the Nationals have been about the last decade. Fedde and Voth are both out of options now – and though I want to do a deep dive into their numbers soon – I can tell you now that they’re not the answer. When the best players of an organization starts to fade, the depth must grow, and the Nats have never proven capable of building out their base in that way.
When Scherzer and Strasburg both pitch like aces, they cover a lot of warts. But Scherzer will be 37-years-old next year. Strasburg will return from a nerve-affected carpal tunnel injury that has no precedent (the other pitcher who had the same surgery – Brett Cecil – hasn’t pitched in the majors since). Corbin hasn’t pitched like the strong #3 he was in 2019. Sanchez hasn’t pitched like the strong #4 he was in 2019. The rotation may be the backbone of Mike Rizzo built teams, but this one is warped.
The Nationals know that Scherzer won’t be around forever. They also believe that Strasburg will step into that role as the veteran ace, leader, and tone-setter. Strasburg’s leadership takes a different form, but after his dominant performance in the 2019 playoffs, he’ll have the attention of the room whenever he wants it. Corbin is supposed to be the Robin to Strasburg’s Batman in the post-Scherzer era, but that’s where the pipeline ends. There is no backfill for Corbin’s #3 spot. There is no backfill for Sanchez’s savvy veteran #4 spot.
Rizzo and the Nats followed the blueprint through phase one, let Werth usher them into phase two, and they’ve ridden their superstars through a prolonged phase three. They always have a long-term plan, and they’re one of the better organizations in baseball at not panicking on a week-to-week or month-to-month basis when that plan doesn’t seem to pan out. They’re afforded that kind of patience because of the reliability at the top of their rotation, where excellence matters most. If the talent level in the rotation falters, however, so do the Washington Nationals. The worst part? There is no phase four.
Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)