Quiet Winter Meetings underscore current state of Nats

SAN DIEGO – Mike Rizzo and Davey Martinez might have been the most visible general manager-manager duo at this year’s Winter Meetings, regularly seen in the lobby of the Manchester Grand Hyatt during both daytime and nighttime hours to an extent few of their counterparts were.

A cynic would suggest that was evidence of how little the Nationals were doing at these meetings. An optimist would counter that was merely a reflection of their willingness to be seen in public when others lock themselves in their suites for no reason beyond paranoia.

A realist would say the true answer falls somewhere in the middle of all that. Rizzo and Martinez have always been comfortable schmoozing with attendees at these meetings, whether fellow executives, managers, agents or even lowly reporters. But let’s not kid ourselves: The Nationals were among the least active franchises here over the last 3 1/2 days, because under their current circumstances there wasn’t all that much they could do.

The team’s lone major league acquisition this week was right-hander Thad Ward, the top pick in the Rule 5 draft. The most significant news of the week might well have been the securing of the No. 2 pick next summer after experiencing Major League Baseball’s inaugural draft lottery.

Not in the market for top-tier (or perhaps even second-tier) free agents, not all that aggressive in trade talks, the Nats are just treading water right now. They have some obvious holes they need to fill this winter – rotation, left-handed bat – but they believe they’ll be able to accomplish that sometime before pitchers and catchers report in mid-February. It wasn’t mandatory to make any transactions here this week.

“We’ve talked to the agents for a lot of free agent pitchers,” Rizzo said Tuesday night, underscoring his No. 1 priority. “We’re really focused on that before we search other places. That’s our primary goal right here. We don’t know if that will happen at the Winter Meetings, but we’re confident that it will happen before spring training.”

It remains to be seen how much the Nationals are even willing and able to spend on free agents. The going rate for middling-to-subpar veteran starters was established this week at $10 million. A middle-of-the-order hitter coming off a down year will probably cost at least $5 million, as well.

Those aren’t the kind of moves that are going to be huge difference-makers anyway. Yes, the Nats need help in their rotation and lineup. But the real measure of pitching progress in 2023 will come in the development of MacKenzie Gore, Cade Cavalli and Josiah Gray. And the real measure of offensive progress in 2023 will come in the development of CJ Abrams, Keibert Ruiz, Luis García and maybe Robert Hassell III before it’s all said and done.

There should be just as much attention paid to the minor league performances of Hassell, James Wood, Jarlin Susana, Brady House, Elijah Green, Jackson Rutledge and Cristhian Vaquero next season as is paid to the performance of the major league club.

The Nationals’ rebuild could be headed in the right direction even if the team loses 100-plus games again, as discouraging as that sounds. If enough young building blocks step forward and establish themselves as true pieces to the long-term puzzle, the won-loss record won’t matter all that much.

Not that anyone with the organization wants to endure another 100-loss season.

“The important part is for our young players to progress and to get better,” Rizzo said. “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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