For Nats, winning at major league level is still important

Offseasons are tough for clubs and fans alike during a rebuild like the one the Nationals are in right now. It’s the kind they haven’t endured in well over a decade.

After the Nats decided to embark on this rebuild at the 2021 trade deadline, the following offseason was thrown off by last winter’s lockout. Now in their first regular offseason in a rebuild, the team isn’t expected to be handing out some of the top free agent contracts or acquiring the best players available for trade this winter.

But the Nationals themselves are expecting to be better next season at the major league level on the heels of one of the worst campaigns in franchise history.

At 55-107 this year, the Nationals finished with their worst record since coming to D.C. in 2005, and the worst record in Nationals/Expos franchise history since 1976 (also 55-107). All along, general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Martinez have stressed the importance of acquiring and developing young players for the future.

But on the first day of the Winter Meetings, they also emphasized the desire to perform better in the majors.

“Obviously, 55 wins last year was a major disappointment,” Rizzo told reporters yesterday in his first media session of the week in his suite at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego. “We thought we were better than that coming out of spring training. And we're judged by wins and losses at the big league level. And it's a criteria that we're cognizant of, and we want to win.”

That message has been reiterated to the players, as well.

“I've said that message at the end of the season, and I want them to understand that, hey, losing 100 games is not acceptable. It's not,” Martinez said yesterday during his only media session of the week. “We're going to get better. So I want them to come to spring training knowing we're going to compete and compete to win.”

However, in the last couple of days, competing to win just got a whole lot harder in the National League East. The Mets signed reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander to a two-year, $86 million deal that includes a vesting third-year option. And then the Phillies signed former Nationals shortstop Trea Turner to an 11-year, $300 million deal.

Don’t forget the Braves, who won the World Series in 2021 and have locked up a group of core young players for multiple years, and the Marlins, who went 15-4 against the Nats this year.

The new format of major league schedules to be implemented next year will include fewer divisional games. But the NL East will still prove to be a tough path for the Nats to navigate.

“It's a competitive advantage, for sure. There's no question about it,” Rizzo said of the spending by the other teams in the division. “But again, when we started this thing back in 2009, we won 98 games in 2012 with a very low payroll. And it continued to ratchet north. So we're fully capable of doing this again. Again, I keep reiterating, we've done it before. We know what the blueprint's all about, we know how to do it. And we've had a couple of lean years, for sure. But after every lean couple of years, we've had 10 years of success. And when you look at what we've done since 2012, it's hard to not foresee that we're capable of doing it again.”

Despite the 107 losses, the Nats say they did see signs of improvement at the major league level near the end of this season. CJ Abrams improved the defense at shortstop and Luis García played better at second base. Joey Meneses was a surprise supplier of power in the lineup. But of course, there is still room for improvement.

“I liked what I saw towards the end,” Martinez said. “Our defense was better. Our hitting, our young hitters got a little bit better. We talked a lot about the chase rate. And the three guys that we really worked with, they did improve a lot. So we're hoping that we improve that a little bit more.”

Other than wins, how can the Nationals show tangible evidence that they are improving as an organization? The focus will still be on developing young players for the coming years. And they are hoping the improvements recently made at the minor league level will translate to major league wins sooner rather than later.

“It all comes down to: Where the system is going and how are the young players progressing?” said Rizzo. “From the year before to last year, we won 74 more games throughout our minor league system. So we saw some progress there. So we saw the infusion of five or six young players at the big league level. We saw the infusion of 10, 12, 14 prospects being pushed into the upper ranks of good young players.

“So yeah, we see ourselves as an organization on the rise. I think we'll see at the big league level a way more competitive team. And I think that the minor league system is something that we have very high hopes for those players in the minor league system. We feel we have some of the most exciting tool players in the game. We've gotten a lot of them and we're looking forward to seeing them progress.”

The Nationals aren’t unrealistic about how much work this will take. They’ve never put a timeline on this project, but they know it won’t happen overnight. That doesn’t make the losing at the major league level – which has now reached three straight sub-.500 seasons for the first time since 2009-11 – any less frustrating.

“What I want them to come to spring training knowing is that everybody starts fresh,” Martinez said of his players on the big league roster. “We're young, but we can compete. I don't want them to think that, ‘Hey, we're rebuilding.’ No, we're here to compete, and we're trying to win as many games as possible, and that's going to be the message.”

“We're tired of the rebuild term, reboot term, whatever we've called it,” Rizzo said. “We just want to compete and win baseball games. The important part is for our young players to progress and to get better. And if they do progress and get better, it puts us on the right road and wins us more games. So I think that if the question is 'Are we expecting to win more games this year than we did last year?' by all means we are.”

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