A few thoughts on what lies ahead for the Nationals

For most of the past decade, the offseason has meant pretty much one thing for Nationals fans: Watch carefully as general manager Mike Rizzo makes moves to improve the few holes on the team and eagerly anticipate the first workout of pitchers and catchers in spring training.

Not this winter. And not just because the business of baseball has been brought to a screeching halt by a labor stoppage.

When Rizzo pulled the plug on a 97-loss campaign that resulted in a last-place finish in the National League East in 2021, the change began. And when spring camp dawns in West Palm Beach - whether it's on time or delayed - Nationals fandom will enter a period not seen since the successive 100-loss campaigns of 2008 and 2009.

Big free agent additions? Not gonna happen. Yes, Rizzo may throw out some dollars, but he's going to be judicious as the Nats plow their investable capital back into the farm system and international signings. Granted, there are holes to fill - in the rotation and bullpen - and question marks about the infield, outfield and whether Ryan Zimmerman will be back for another go. But the Nationals are more likely to be frugal than looking to clean out the shelves of the supermarket. Taking the kitchen metaphor a step further, they will need to stretch their dollars to get maximum impact out of their budget; in other words, casseroles and pasta dishes rather than prime cuts of beef.

Significant trades? Maybe, if Rizzo gets an offer he likes - and deems it worth parting with some of his minimal chips for the long-term good of the team. It won't be anything like the deal that sent four top 10 prospects to the A's for lefty Gio González just before Christmas in 2011. Honestly, save for a few decent arms, there isn't a ton of prospect capital on the farm, which was a major reason for last summer's sell-off.

Excitement about guys ready to break through from the minors? If it happens, it will be minimal. As stated above, there aren't a lot of highly touted hitters or pitchers knocking on the door of the major leagues. The farm cupboard is mostly bare, and this is a natural progression in a rebuild: reinforcing the minors with bats and arms that might help out in a few years.

If that sounds ominous, I apologize for the harsh dose of reality. But the days of fortifying an already impressive rotation, bidding on the biggest bat or dealing away from depth to fill a specific need (see: Adam Eaton, 2016) are gone. Over. Done. Let's move on.

Fans are going to have to get used to seeing something they haven't seen a ton of from 2012 to 2019, when the Nats finished first in the National League East four times, second four times, reached the postseason five times and won it all in 2019: change. Yes, manager Davey Martinez will still preach going 1-0 every day, but there's a difference between a Broadway production of a beloved standard and the community theater or high school version. Both are working from the same template, but the versions look and feel vastly different. Maybe a line is missed or someone sings a tad off-key.

What starts at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches whenever spring training commences will be an exercise in patience and the ability to see long-range plans come to fruition. And that is going to take some getting used to, especially for a community that was entrenched in seeing the Nats methodically tweak themselves while they became a consistent winner.

With no ace atop the rotation - and let's be realistic, counting on Stephen Strasburg to come back from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery or looking for Patrick Corbin to fully rebound is asking for a lot - the pitching staff is going to be a work in progress. Back in 2008, six pitchers made double-digit starts for the Nats: Tim Redding (33), John Lannan (31), Odalis Pérez (30), Jason Bergmann (22), Collin Ballester (15) and Shawn Hill (12). Unless Strasburg is healthy and Corbin reverts to form, that's what could be in store in 2022. Well, that and a look at what Paolo Espino and Josiah Gray might do over a full season.

For all the talk about who will close for the Nationals this season, consider that if a team isn't winning a lot of games, a top-flight closer really isn't that crucial (and certainly not a role where a team in transition can invest a ton of money). Jon Rauch led the Nats with 17 saves in 2008 (a year after his 88 relief appearances led the majors), but was traded in June to the Diamondbacks for Emilio Bonifácio. In 2009, the Nationals signed Mike MacDougal in May, days after he'd been released by the White Sox, and the righty went on to save a team-high 20 games. Trust me, Kyle Finnegan and/or Tanner Rainey will be just fine. And if they're not, someone else will get a chance to impress.

Yes, there were bright spots out of the 'pen in those two dismal 100-defeat seasons. Tyler Clippard developed into a reliable rubber-armed reliever. The Nats extracted a lot out of guys like Saul Rivera, Joel Hanrahan, Ron Villone and Joe Beimel. But there were also nights when they had to roll the dice and take whatever they could get from the likes of Zack Zegovia, Mike Hinckley, Victor Garate and Brian Sanches. If you don't remember them, that only proves the point. So be prepared for a lot of player movement, guys getting a quick look-see and being dispatched if they don't produce, and an unusual collection of retreads, waiver claims. Young guys desperately trying to make an impression and veterans desperately trying to remain employed.

Fans might remember that shortstop Cristian Guzmán and center fielder Lastings Milledge led the Nats in games played in 2008 with 138 apiece. They were pretty much constants in a season bereft of them. A labral tear in his left shoulder limited third baseman Ryan Zimmerman to 106 games, while 35-year-old Aaron Boone played a lot of first base after Nick Johnson injured his wrist in June. Then-GM Jim Bowden cycled in the likes of Elijah Dukes, Wily Mo Peña, Paul Lo Duca and Ryan Langerhans. Roger Bernadina was a rookie. Manager Manny Acta had choices, but not a lot of good ones.

Thumbnail image for Rizzo-Suit-sidebar.jpgThe 2009 campaign followed a similar script, even though Rizzo supplanted Bowden in the general manager's chair and the Nats fired Acta at midseason and replaced him with Jim Riggleman. Slugger Adam Dunn signed as a free agent a few days before spring training and split time between first base and left field. He contributed a team-leading 29 homers and drove in 105 runs, pairing nicely with Zimmerman's 33 longballs and 106 RBIs. Josh Willingham had 24 homers, but no other hitter reached double digits in that category. The Nats started to collect players that would be the core of their winning lineups a few years later - guys like Ian Desmond and Michael Morse - but they also gave significant playing time to the likes of Anderson Hernandez, Willie Harris, Ronnie Belliard and Alberto González. The catching corps consisted of Josh Bard, Wil Nieves, Jesús Flores and Jamie Burke. No one said 103 defeats would be pretty.

On Aug. 20, 2009, Rizzo had the interim tag removed by team president Stan Kasten and became the full-time GM. By 2013, the Nationals had reached the postseason for the first time and Rizzo took over as president; Kasten had by then moved to the Dodgers. As the Nationals grew into a perennial contender, there was less of a cycling in of players and more season-to-season consistency.

There's no reason that can't happen again. Rizzo is a scout at heart, but he understands and embraces the newfangled metrics well enough to have struck a balance between the old and new, using the best of both extremes to his advantage and surrounding himself with trusted lieutenants who can be extra sets of eyes and whose opinions are sought and valued.

The next couple of seasons will be a different kind of ride. Think of the scary roller coaster, where perilous dips and turns are followed by straightaways that turn into sharp curves. They can be both frightening and exhilarating. Fans need to buckle up and commit to the process long-term. Sure, there will be ups and downs, enormous highs and confounding lows. But that's just the mechanism of building a major league team from an also-ran into a winner. It's a process, and it's not always pretty. But as history and Rizzo have shown before, it can produce profoundly pleasing results.

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