Mike Rizzo wasn’t about to put a timetable on the Nationals’ rebuilding project to become a contender again, but the longtime general manager seemed to make it clear today in an end-of-season session with reporters that he views this year as the low point in the process, with significant improvement expected in 2022.
“Our goal is to win,” Rizzo said during a 25-minute session in the home dugout prior to the Nationals’ season finale. “It’s to win the division. It’s to win the World Series, each and every year. Some seasons you go into the winter and it’s a little more problematic to foresee that. But our goal is to be better next year, to give ourselves a chance to win and build a roster that can fortify us throughout the season.”
A Nationals club that enjoyed eight consecutive winning seasons, four division titles and a World Series title in 2019 will finish this season with either 96 or 97 losses, pending the outcome of today’s game against the Red Sox. It represents the third-worst season in club history, better only than the back-to-back triple-digit-loss seasons of 2008-09.
This one, of course, began with grand visions of another October run, only to be derailed by injuries, underperforming veterans and a lack of organizational depth to make up for it all. It prompted Rizzo to orchestrate a mass sell-off of eight veterans at the trade deadline in late July, jump-starting a rebuild few in the organization wanted but most agreed was necessary.
Over the ensuing two months, the Nats went an abysmal 18-41, with a pitching staff that ranked among the majors’ worst. Improving that staff, more than anything, appears to be Rizzo’s No. 1 priority this winter.
“This game is built on pitching,” he said. “It’s built on starting pitching for me. And we have to get better in that aspect, for sure.”
To that end, Rizzo hopes to have a healthy Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross, plus a returning-to-form Patrick Corbin as part of his 2022 rotation, joining trade deadline acquisition Josiah Gray and other returning starters to form a group that bears more resemblance to this organization’s recent past than was on display this year.
“Our mantra here has been that starting pitching is the most important thing, and pitchers have to go deep in games to give us a chance to win, to take the onus off the bullpen,” Rizzo said. “I always think of it this way, right or wrong: Your starting pitchers are your best pitchers. Most relievers are failed starters that moved to the bullpen. So we’re going to count on the pitchability, the talent and the expertise of our starting pitchers to get us the bulk of our innings each game. For 11 years when we were a championship-caliber club, we had starting pitchers that led the league in innings pitched and strikeouts and wins, and that’s how we built our championship-caliber clubs and that formula’s not changing.”
Rizzo was more effusive in discussing a rebuilt lineup that has seen newcomers Lane Thomas, Keibert Ruiz and Luis García make their cases to be everyday players in 2022 along with the returning Juan Soto and Josh Bell.
He was less effusive when discussing third baseman Carter Kieboom, the club’s 2016 first-round pick who has yet to enjoy any kind of sustained success at the big league level despite several opportunities over the last two seasons.
“It’s a matter with him of making adjustments,” Rizzo said. “He started off with six quick home runs, the league made an adjustment with him. Now it’s time for him to make an adjustment to the league, and the great ones do it and the average ones don’t. So the jury’s still out if he can make those adjustments, but he’s got the skillset and the tools to be a good everyday player in the big leagues.”
Rizzo does know his manager is returning for a fifth season, with Davey Martinez having already signed a contract extension late last year. The fate of Martinez’s coaching staff is still to be determined, though Martinez on Saturday said first-year pitching coach Jim Hickey will be back. Asked specifically about hitting coach Kevin Long (who sought a multi-year contract from other teams last winter but wound up returning to the Nationals on a one-year deal), Rizzo said that was a question for Martinez before complimenting Long.
“I love what K-Long does,” the GM said. “We brought him in here to do just that, and he’s terrific at his job.”
Rizzo did hint at moves coming to his front office, with the scouting and player development departments due for their first significant changes in years.
“We’re certainly going to make some changes in the player development and scouting ranks, just to get some new ideas and some fresh looks and some fresh sets of eyes in there,” he said. “And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Ten or 12 years with the same staff shows the cohesion, and then when you make some nice tweaks to get a new set of eyes and some new ideas is never a bad thing.”