Nats must learn from Astros how to replace lost stars

As they watched the final inning of the World Series late Saturday night, Mike Rizzo and Davey Martinez and anyone else with a connection to the Nationals surely were focused on Dusty Baker, thrilled to see their friend and former colleague finally win a championship as a manager, some 41 years after he won his lone title as a player.

Like so many others across the baseball world, they were rooting for Baker to get over the final hump that should lock up his permanent residence in Cooperstown. And like so many others across the baseball world, they probably weren’t excited to watch the Astros win their second World Series title, five years after their first one became tainted by a sign-stealing scandal that made them into the sport’s biggest villains.

But once the emotions of Saturday’s events in Houston wore off, it would have been appropriate for Rizzo, Martinez and everyone else who cares about the Nats to have another thought: How have the Astros been able to sustain their success and win a second championship while our own local franchise now finds itself a 107-loss disaster only three years after hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy on that very same field?

The easy answer is to lament the Nationals’ inability to retain the core of star players that led them to that glorious moment in October 2019. Juan Soto, Max Scherzer, Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner and Ryan Zimmerman are all gone now, the first four not because they retired like Zimmerman but because they either were traded away or departed as free agents.

If only they had been willing to spend what it took to keep some of those cornerstones – not to mention Bryce Harper, who was two wins away from winning his first World Series ring with the Phillies – the Nats wouldn’t be in this awful predicament right now.

Except the easy answer isn’t always the correct answer, and it most certainly isn’t in this case.

Yes, the Nationals could’ve ponied up to keep a couple of those stars (and not devoted $245 million to Stephen Strasburg) and they’d have put a better product on the field in 2022. But they wouldn’t have been a realistic threat to win another World Series, because of their failures in a far more important department: The drafting and development of young players who are critical to long-term success.

It’s easy to forget this, so let’s point it out: The Astros lost a whole lot of star power in recent years themselves. On the night they lost Game 7 to the Nationals, they had Carlos Correa at shortstop, George Springer in right field and Gerrit Cole in the bullpen incredulous he hadn’t been summoned to pitch three days after he won Game 5 with seven dominant innings.

All three became free agents after that, one each winter, and all wound up signing elsewhere for more money than the Astros were willing to give them.

So why didn’t Houston lose 107 games this year like the Nationals did? Because they had ready-made replacements for all three of those stars ready to go in their farm system.

Jeremy Peña, a third-round pick in the 2018 draft, replaced Correa at shortstop and proceeded to win a Gold Glove, the American League Championship Series MVP and the World Series MVP. Kyle Tucker, a first-round pick in the 2015 draft, replaced Springer in right field and proceeded to hit 30 homers in back-to-back seasons, make the All-Star team, win a Gold Glove and hit two home runs in the World Series. And Framber Valdez, signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2015 as a 21-year-old late bloomer, replaced Cole and proceeded to earn Cy Young Award votes in 2020, make the All-Star team while leading the league in innings pitched this season and allow a total of two earned runs in three starts between the ALCS and World Series.

Yes, the Astros did manage to re-sign some of their key players to long-term deals along the way – Jose Altuve (seven years, $163.5 million), Lance McCullers Jr. (five years, $85 million), Scott Boras-client Alex Bregman (five years, $100 million), Yordan Alvarez (six years, $115 million) – but none of those contracts was exorbitant. And the end result was a $174 million payroll on opening day that ranked only 10th in the majors.

The Astros have won four AL pennants in six years because they have spent wisely and because they have continued to produce major contributors via their own farm system.

The Nationals have become one of the majors’ worst big league clubs because they haven’t spent wisely and because they have continued not to produce any contributors via their own farm system.

You should already know this by now, but just in case you don’t, the Nats …

* Have had one first-round pick produce more than 2 WAR in the majors since 2011: Lucas Giolito, who did that after he was traded to the White Sox.

* Have had zero second-round picks produce more than 1 WAR in the majors since 2008. Jordan Zimmermann was the last to do it.

* Have had one third-round pick produce more than 1 WAR in the majors since 2009: Jesús Luzardo, who did that after he was traded to the Athletics, then the Marlins.

* Have had only three fourth- or fifth-round picks appear in a major league game for them since 2010: A.J. Cole, Austin Voth and Spencer Kieboom.

To their credit, the Nationals have had far more success signing and developing major leaguers out of Latin America, including Soto, Victor Robles, Luis García, Yadiel Hernandez, Joan Adon, Adrián Sanchez, Wander Suero, Wilmer Difo and Pedro Severino.

But their track record for drafting and developing their own big leaguers over the last decade is atrocious, and that’s why they felt compelled to tear everything down, believing the only way to adequately restock their farm system was by trading Scherzer, Turner and Soto for other teams’ top prospects.

The state of their farm system is much better now, but if the Nationals are going to build a contending roster again, they’re going to have to finally hit paydirt with some of their own recent draft picks. There’s still time for Cade Cavalli, Brady House, Elijah Green, Jackson Rutledge and Cole Henry – plus Latin American prospects Cristhian Vaquero and Jeremy De La Rosa – to realize their potential and reverse the trend.

But there’s a whole lot of pressure on the organization to get some (if not all) of those picks right. One of these years, the Nationals need to field a winning roster again that is built on the strength of homegrown talent, not acquired talent.

That’s how the Astros have continued to win even after losing star free agents. It’s the only way the Nationals are going to have a chance to do it themselves.

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