Nationals Baseball: Is the Nats 2023 rebuild in a better place than 2010

Friday, October 06, 2023

Is the Nats 2023 rebuild in a better place than 2010

Zuckerman suggests yes, the Nats are, in a vacuum, in a better spot today than they were in in 2010.  The hitting talent is younger. The pitching talent is no older. The Nats have a set of young potential stars, where in 2010 the number was smaller (for example once past the few couple you were on Michael Burgess and Eury Perez).  So by those numbers it does seem like the future might be brighter now. And, he suggests, if the Nats are willing to make moves like they did back then (sign a Werth, trade for a Gio) than they might develop on the same time frame, giving the Nats a true contender in 2025 and maybe good enough to try for a playoff spot in these expanded times next season.   

One obvious thing that Zuckerman glosses over is that Strasburg was seen not just as a pitcher but as a generational ace. Neither Gore nor Gray nor anyone in the Nats system is assumed to be one. Bryce Harper, one of the few highlights in the minors, was seen as a generational hitter, something that Crews and Wood hold only outside chances of being by most pundits. You could argue that even with their performances Strasburg and Bryce didn't quite live up to the hype and they were still extremely impactful players.  If the Nats current crop slightly underperforms they won't be great.

But really the important thing here is the one number Zuckerman glosses over - the number of things that hit. In 2010 to 11 to 12 it was nearly all across the board, an insane break of timing and luck that any team would be hard pressed to repeat. 

Wilson Ramos graduated to the majors and was an above average hitter immediately. Ian Desmond graduated to the majors and became an above average hitter. Morse was like August Joey but for a full year in 2011 and still good in 2012. Jordan Zimmermann became an ace pitcher. Gio Gonzalez became an ace pitcher. Werth was good in 2011, reasonable, if hurt in 2012. LaRoche sort of the opposite, bad/hurt in 2011 but good in 2012. Stammen, Storen, Clippard became multi-year plus relievers supplemented with randoms guys that would be good for a season. The Nats would draft Rendon. 

None of this was apparent in the post-season after 2010, outside of Morse maybe being good, so yes it looked darker. But in hindsight it got immediately surprisingly much better. It wasn't a natural development forward. It was a unexpected leap. To expect the 2024 Nats to perhaps be better than the 2011 Nats would require both FA input like Werth and an equivalent unexpected leap, maybe more of one since as noted they lack the Strasburg and probably don't have the Bryce. 

It's not too hard to see the offense match what the Nats were in 2011/2012. Beyond the FA acquisitions to make up for Werth & LaRoche yet undefined the pieces are mostly there.  You need a prospect to play like early Bryce but early Bryce wasn't THAT good. Crews or Wood might do it. Someone would have to be good like Morse, but Thomas might be able to do that without Morse's peak, or maybe Garrett or Meneses. You'd need two guys to get good like Desmond and Ramos. Abrams seems to have that potential and there's a handful of guys - Ruiz, Garcia, the other of Crews/Wood, Hassell, Lipscomb, House - to be the other guy.  There's another big piece missing here - Ryan Zimmerman as the young star. I'm not sure what you do about that but maybe two of that handful work out fast? Regardless you can make out something for the 2025 Nats that isn't too far off the 2012 Nats assuming FAs are coming.

The pitching though. Can Gray/Gore/Cavalli/? have a good year where it all comes together like Detwiler? Probably. Can one blossom into an ace like ZNN did?  Maybe. But even so can the Nats trade for a guy who also aces out like Gio? And what about the missing Strasburg ace already in place if he heals (which he did)?  The bullpen might have two of the decent arms noted with Finnegan and Harvey, but both those guys are older than any of the three building blocks were in 2010.  From the looks of how the pen has performed it's hard to see enough of the annual surprise guys coming. You just can't make out the pitching to be like 2012 unless there are huge surprises.

So while the counts and the ages suggest a brighter future looking ahead from 2023 than from 2010, the talent in place presents a more mixed view and hindsight tells us the 2010 to 2012 move was as much about what surprised the Nats as it was moving forward with a plan. 

To compete in 2025 the Nats need FAs and the Nats need surprises. At least as many offensively, which might happen, but more pitching wise, which likely won't. To limit the surprises need the Nats need to lean more into FA or have a couple great trades.


JB said...

Thanks for your insights, Harper. When the team was running high and getting lucky over the summer, up until Stone went down, I admit I was seeing starry eyed magic, but in the cold light of the end of the Nats' season, the idea of them getting to .500 next year feels very iffy.

The jump in wins this year was great to see, but the next jump will be harder, and from all the stories about the high(ish-end)-talent in the minors, and of course the ownership situation — it doesn't seem like the organization is particularly inclined to make any truly notable FA moves this off season. Would love to be wrong.

Without one, could easily see 2024 winding up not far off from this one — somewhere below 80-wins...

Donald said...

Also, in 2011, the Phillies were really the only good NL East team, with the Braves being just so-so and the Mets and Marlins sucking. In 2012, the Braves were the good team with the Phillies waning and the Mets and Marlins, once again, sucking. I think the Nats will have a lot more competition in 2024 and 2025. The same amount of talent might not get them as far this time around.

PotomacFan said...

Sure, but the Nats don't have to play as many division games as in the 2010s. And it didn't help them when they won the division. Instead, they made it to the World Series as a wild card team.

Nattydread said...

Pitching will be the problem. Rizzo had aces Strasburg and ZNN in hand, traded for good pieces. He needs two of Gray, Gore and Cavalli to improve -- a lot -- and to add an ace.

When Rizzo came in he was able to make some sly trades. Perhaps because he could catch other GMs off guard and grab underrated talent (i.e. Trea Turner). Once he made a few heists, opposing GMs were more wary and it was less easy for Rizzo to get away with one sided trades.

Steven Grossman said...

@ND I don't see much support for Mike the sly trader who used to catch other GM's off-guard, but now they are on to him. He has done quite well with the 2021 and 2022 trades and we got a decent enough return on Candy this year.

When you look at the 2010's, the record is harder to interpret than people remember. Even at the time, it was clear that Steve Souza was way overvalued (by Tampa) and that's how we got Turner and Joe Ross. It was differing perceptions that drove that deal, not Mike's shrewdness. In the other direction, we significantly overpaid (3 pitchers) for Adam Eaton. Maybe it would look better if he hadn't lost 2 years of Eaton to injuries.

Every team has enough information that trades are driven by different needs (champs vs.rebuilders, pitchers vs. position players) and by different valuations of player ability and potential. My guess is that other GM's are just fine working with Rizzo and no more suspicious of a deal made with him vs. any other GM.

John C. said...

Apparently the Cardinals didn’t get the memo, giving up Lane Thomas for the decaying remains of Jon Lester.

Mike Condray said...

I think it's a reasonable summation to say the 2023 Nats are a rough/inexact but not unreasonable equivalent to the 2010 Nats.

One note on the article: yes, Stras was viewed as a generational level pitcher. Stras also had TJ surgery at the end of the 2010 season, so he wasn't expected to do much if anything in 2011 and was a major question mark for 2012 (even pre-shutdown brouhaha). Cavalli is also coming back from TJ and his surgery was much earlier, so while he is NOT viewed as a generational level pitcher he has a shot at contributing to the 2011 Nats (post-ASB?).

Yes, the 2024 (~2011) Nats *DEFINITELY* need more high-level pitching. If an ace-level starter doesn't come in during 2024 a "pretty good" level starter needs to with team financial powder dry to go for an ace-level acquisition in 2025.

Though no player is a regular (much less star) until they prove it, the Nats do at least have hopeful options lining up for most positions (another reason pitching is the big obvious elephant in the room w/r/to team needs). The biggest question mark right now among position players is second base, where Garcia hasn't exactly shined. At least most cromulent options are reasonably priced (trade/free agent wise).

Anonymous said...

St. Louis needed another reliever for their play-off run. At the trade deadline Lester looked like he had enough juice to be of help. Lester fell apart and delivered zero value. At the same time, we needed anyone with a shot at being good, so we took Lane Thomas. He was available because St. Louis saw him as only/maybe good enough to be a fourth outfielder and he didn't even have a good hold on that slot. Even after an All-star level break-out season with us, there are Nats fans that will still tell you that's all he is.

Fairness is determined at the time of the trade. Is there a match of team need and player potential that produces roughly even value in the eyes of the two teams? Some teams are more accurate in their projections; some GM's are better negotiators; sometimes change of scenery has a dramatic impact, other times not.

Rizzo is shrewd--probably a better negotiator than most; might have better intuition from years as a scout. But I see no evidence that he is viewed as sly or searching for a way to stick it to the other time, rather than get good value for the Nats. If he is viewed so negatively, why are teams still doing deals with the Nationals?

Anonymous said...

@Anon 830

I agree with your overall point, but Lester didn't "fall apart" in STL. For us, he pitched 75 innings over 16 starts with a 5.02 ERA and a 5.43 FIP. For STL, he had 66 innings over 12 starts with a 4.36 ERA and a 5.40 FIP.

He was priced as a reliable-ish replacement level innings eater and that's exactly what he delivered. That was worth a bench OFer to a team facing a 40 man crunch.

And then Thomas hit his 90th percentile projection from the day of the trade. Yet another victory for the underrated player dev team! Good thing we don't waste talent like the Cardinals.

John C. said...

Lester is an interesting demonstration of the importance of defense, particularly for a guy who doesn't strike out many hitters. In 2021 with the Nats Lester was 3-5 with a 5.06 ERA. With the Cardinals he was 4-1 with a 4.36 ERA. It looks like a big difference, but if you look at his peripherals he was essentially the same guy. His FIP was basically unchanged, and his K rate actually dropped a bit. But he was going from a team with one of the worst defenses in MLB to a team with one of the best, and his BABIP against dropped 32 points (from .314 with the Nats to .282 with the Cardinals).

G Cracka X said...

Orthogonal question: How were the Orioles able to go from 110 losses to 101 wins in 2 years without spending much in free agency?

Cautiously Pessimistic said...

@GCX - the answer is pretty clear. They didn't go from 110 losses to 101 wins in 2 years in a vacuum, they went from below .500 5 consecutive years, then .500 for a year, to get to 101 wins. Their farm was completely restocked after years of sucking. As a result, they have literally only 5 vets on their payroll, every other player is pre-arb or in arb, so they have tons of flexibility to add on FA in the coming years. Nats are essentially trying to beat that timeline by a year. 2020-2023 under .500, hopefully next year at .500, then competing in 2025 with a very cheap roster. I don't think they'll manage to do it given the pitching prospects, but that's the model

Steven Grossman said...

@JohnC and @Anon924. Thank you for filling in the details on the Jon Lester/Lane Thomas trades. Perhaps you can do the same with the Souza/Myers/Turner-Ross trade. I recollect thinking that Steve Souza was being greatly overvalued by Tampa...and it was certainly a sweet trade for the Nats later.

Apart from that, I appreciate support that trades are measured two ways: fair return at the time of the trade and years later playing the game of who won the trade. Rizzo has certainly won a lot of trades, but i don't see a lot of his trades being unfair to one team or the other.

Ryan said...

Capps for Ramos is the big one that seemed ridiculous at the time