A very different Nats club returns to San Diego for Winter Meetings

When last the baseball world gathered in San Diego for the Winter Meetings, the Nationals were the talk of the town. The defending World Series champions not only were basking in the glow of their recent title, they also found themselves right in the thick of two of the biggest free agent races of that offseason, ultimately re-signing Stephen Strasburg while watching Anthony Rendon leave for the Angels.

Three years later, the baseball world gathers again this week in San Diego for the first full-fledged Winter Meetings since the 2019 version. The pandemic wiped out the planned 2020 event. The lockout wiped out the 2021 version.

Aside from the location, this one will bear zero resemblance to the last one for the Nationals.

As they prepare to gather at the Manchester Grand Hyatt, the Nats are coming off a 107-loss season, not a World Series title. They’re probably not in the market for any major free agents, let alone two of them. The biggest news they might make this week could come in Tuesday’s inaugural draft lottery or Wednesday’s annual Rule 5 draft.

Oh, how times have changed.

The Nationals won’t be the center of attention at these meetings, not even close. They find themselves as one of the event’s outsiders for the first time in more than a decade.

That doesn’t mean this can’t still be a productive week for Mike Rizzo and Co. The longtime general manager could emerge with another starting pitcher or corner outfielder. He could leave town with the No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft. And he almost certainly will depart with whomever he and his scouts have determined is the best player available in the Rule 5 draft, because they already own the No. 1 pick, thanks to owning the majors’ worst record this season.

The week also gives the organization an opportunity to gather all decision-makers together for the first time in a while to discuss where things stand in the franchise’s rebuild attempt. Manager Davey Martinez will be there, offering his input to Rizzo and offering his insight to reporters about his thought process as spring training approaches.

But it’s such a far cry from where all these same people found themselves three years ago in the very same location.

When they weren’t being congratulated by execs and managers from other clubs for winning their first title, the Nationals were hard at work trying to keep the nucleus of that championship roster together for another go at it.

In the span of 24 hours, they managed to lock up Strasburg to a seven-year, $245 million contract that would keep him in D.C. for the rest of his career while letting Rendon depart for the exact same numbers – though, importantly, without the deferrals Strasburg was willing to accept – and head west to Anaheim.

Both decisions have had lasting implications for the franchise. Strasburg has barely even pitched since signing that deal, restricted to eight total starts since the World Series and now unsure if he’s ever going to pitch again, due to a string of injuries and surgeries. Rendon, meanwhile, followed up a solid debut season for the Angels with two injury-plagued campaigns of his own: In 105 total games played since 2021, the former star third baseman owns a .235/.328/.381 slash line, 23 doubles, 11 homers and 58 RBIs.

The Nats haven’t come close to finding a suitable replacement for Strasburg, nor have they found one to take Rendon’s spot at third base. They know they need to improve at both positions in 2023. Whether help comes from within or outside the organization remains to be seen.

Whether the Nationals can come home from San Diego with any significant additions remains to be seen as well.

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