NEW YORK – Though he’d never admit it publicly, Mike Rizzo knew what this season likely had in store for the Nationals. From the moment he dealt away eight veterans at last July’s trade deadline and made only modest acquisitions to account for it last winter, the longtime general manager signaled 2022 would be less about wins and losses and more about rebooting a franchise that sorely needed it.
Two months in, though, with his team owning one of the worst records in the majors, Rizzo admits he’s less than satisfied with what he’s watching. Not necessarily because of the record. But because of the way the Nats are playing.
“I think that the discouraging thing is that we’re not playing good defense, and we’re not running the bases well,” Rizzo said in the visiting dugout at Citi Field prior to Wednesday’s series finale against the Mets, an eventual 5-0 loss that featured several shaky defensive moments. “And those are fundamental mistakes that shouldn’t happen at the rate that they’re happening now. So that’s the biggest takeaway I’ve seen from the beginning of the season.”
Don’t confuse Rizzo’s frustration with the current manner of play from the Nationals as any concession his grand plan isn’t going as planned. He will immediately point to a revamped farm system that has performed better than the big league club, the development of prospects throughout that system and the promise of it all translating into more wins in D.C. sooner rather than later.
“I think setting expectations was important when we started this process with the ownership group and with the fan base,” he said. “I think a lot of people understand it, where we’re at, and I really believe that the reboot is in full-go, and I think that we’re in a better position than we were in 2009. A few short years later, we won the division, and I think we're in a better position now because our minor leagues are much better now than they were then.
“And I see what’s happening with our young core group of players here in the big leagues, and our group of prospects in the minor leagues, and I see the plan, the blueprint, working just the way we want it to work at this point.”
Rizzo may prove to be prescient about the eventual timeline for a return to contention, but that hasn’t made the present any more enjoyable to watch. Sloppy defense and baserunning have been hallmarks of the season to date. The rotation owns a worst-in-the-majors 6.00 ERA and 1.602 WHIP. The lineup, while occasionally quite productive, has been shut out or held to one run in 16 games this year, most in the National League.
A roster featuring a handful of potential long-term pieces but plenty more veteran placeholders has produced an 18-34 record to date. Only the 2009 Nationals were worse after 52 games, opening that 103-loss season 15-37.
There are indications, though, the roster is beginning to change. Luis Garcia, the organization’s top upper-level infield prospect, was called up from Triple-A Rochester on Wednesday and will be the starting shortstop for the foreseeable future, according to manager Davey Martinez. Top pitching prospect Cade Cavalli, after enjoying his best start of the year at Rochester, could be getting closer to making his major league debut. Right-hander Cole Henry, viewed as their second-best pitching prospect, is dominating at Double-A and according to Rizzo is about to be promoted to Triple-A.
Oh, and Stephen Strasburg could be back from the injured list as soon as next week.
“We don’t like how things are going right now, but I think we’re going to play much, much better as the season rolls on,” the GM said. “We’re going to make some of these teams who are beating us up pretty good right now pay, like we have the last 10 years before this one.”
Here are some other topics Rizzo addressed during an 18-minute session with beat reporters before Wednesday’s game …
* On Strasburg’s pending return from thoracic outlet surgery: “It’s exciting, and it’s a good thing for the organization. When he’s pitching, he’s as good as anybody in baseball. So when we get him healthy and we get him back on the mound, he’ll improve the team and he’ll make us better.”
* On how Juan Soto is dealing with the team not winning: “Again, we have a lot of things to worry about with the Nationals. Juan Soto is not one of them. He’s a great player, he’s a great person, he’s a great leader. The only difference I see is he’s taken a more aggressive leadership role in the reboot that we have now. At the end of the day, he’s Juan Soto, he’s going to be Juan Soto and I wish I had a lot more like him.”
* On increasing speculation that Soto could be traded, despite Rizzo’s public assertions that won’t be happening: “It doesn’t frustrate me. I get it. You guys got a blank piece of paper to fill up, and this is a very clickable, very writable story, and I can only say so many times and in so many words what our decision on that topic is.”
* On Patrick Corbin’s struggles: “I think his stuff is close to where it was. Let’s not forget he was fifth in the Cy Young in 2018 and 11th in 2019. We don’t have a championship ring on our finger without him. And he has struggled. Last year in ’21 he struggled, but he still gave us 33 starts, and this year he’s shown flashes of being better but still struggling. I think he’s got to get back to being aggressive in the strike zone, pitching inside with that good two-seamer he has. Because I think the more fastballs he throws on the inner half of the plate sets up the outer half of the plate for his breaking pitches that we know are his bread and butter. I don’t think a lot has changed. I think the approach, to me, needs to be tweaked, and the game plan needs to be adjusted. But his stuff is still good, his velocity is where it’s supposed to be, his spin rate is where it’s supposed to be, and I think it’s just a matter of he’s got to hit his spots and pitch his game to get back to where he was.”
* On Cavalli’s path to the majors: “Cavalli is young to pitching. You’re talking about a part-time pitcher in college. He wasn’t a full-time pitcher really until we got him and a full-time starter. He’s young to pitching, he’s got an arsenal that is hard to find and that very few pitchers have. And he’s a big part of this future. And when Cade Cavalli gets to the big leagues — just like Cole Henry and several other pitchers down there in the minor leagues — they are going to be impact-type pitchers who are going to be the core group of the next championship club, and it’s not far away.”
* On Tyler Clippard, who remains at Triple-A while other relievers have been promoted: “Clip’s been great. He’s an ‘80-makeup’ guy, as we all know. He’s been a great teammate down there. Very open and sharing of his knowledge as a big leaguer. Right now, we’re trying to get him to go back-to-back and stretch him out a little bit, and we’ll see when the time comes. … We still have eyes on him getting to the big leagues with us some time and helping us. But for right now, he’s pitching effectively in Triple-A and really helping those young kids down in Triple-A become professionals and conduct themselves like big leaguers.”