Nats expect another Winter Meetings of reluctant patience

NASHVILLE – Members of the Nationals organization arrived at the Gaylord Opryland Resort throughout the course of Sunday afternoon and evening, every one of them eager to see what transpires during this version of the Winter Meetings while simultaneously acknowledging the most frustrating part of the situation: It’s not quite time yet for the Nats to go all-in.

More than four years removed now from their World Series title, the Nationals are itching to return to their prior status as an annual contender. But while they’ve made significant progress since embarking on their franchise rebuild midway through the 2021 season, they’re not done yet. And that probably means another frustrating winter of patching a few roster holes without making any real long-term commitments to free agents.

The Nats, to be sure, have talked to a number of free agent targets. And they will sign a few of them sometime this winter. But they are not expecting to be major players at these meetings, which will see other clubs go for broke in pursuit of Shohei Ohtani, Juan Soto and others.

After improving from 55 wins in 2022 to 71 wins this season, the Nationals know they must take one more critical step before jumping back into the deep end of the free agent pool. Sure, they could make a big move now, like they did back in December 2010 when they signed Jayson Werth for $126 million despite losing 93 games that season. But they appear to be more inclined to wait one more year before going that route this time around.

Why? Because while their won-loss progression the last two seasons may mirror 2009-10, the organization is in a distinctly different position these days.

The 2010 Nationals had a young Ryan Zimmerman, a young Ian Desmond and two young starters who recently had Tommy John surgery in Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. But the farm system at that point had just-drafted No. 1 pick Bryce Harper, injury-prone 2007 first-round pick Ross Detwiler, defensively gifted infielder Danny Espinosa and diamonds-in-the-rough Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore and Michael A. Taylor.

The 2023 Nationals had a young CJ Abrams, a young Keibert Ruiz, a young pitching duo in MacKenzie Gore and Josiah Gray, plus Lane Thomas, Luis García and Jake Irvin already in the big leagues and Cade Cavalli rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Plus Dylan Crews, James Wood, Brady House, Robert Hassell III and Yohandy Morales all at Double-A.

There is, to put it bluntly, more of a potential foundation already in place now than there was then. With every reason to believe several (if not all) of those upper-level prospects will make their major league debuts sometime in 2024.

That is why Mike Rizzo will likely force himself to remain patient through one more Winter Meetings. The idea: Wait a year to see where things really stand, which positions appear locked up for the long term and which ones still need to be addressed. Then be aggressive in filling those final roster needs this time next year.

Yes, the Nationals still need a first baseman (or designated hitter), a left fielder and a third baseman for 2024, plus maybe another experienced starting pitcher. And they will probably seek to fill those needs in the same modest manner they did last year, when they signed Dominic Smith, Corey Dickerson, Jeimer Candelario and Trevor Williams for a combined $22 million.

That will be frustrating for some members of the organization who are itching to move past the rebuilding phase and jump right to the winning phase now. But even they reluctantly agree this more patient path still makes sense.

In a perfect world, the Nats will spend the next 12 months watching more of their homegrown talent reach and succeed at the big league level. Then they’ll excitedly start writing out bigger checks for star power next December.

That’s the hope, at least. If things don’t progress as desired in 2024, those same members of the organization might just report to next year’s Winter Meetings as frustrated as ever, wondering when the time will finally come to go for it again.

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