When the Red Sox introduced new chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom on Monday, the former Tampa Bay Rays executive talked about the concept of long-term sustainability. Sustainability, for a team with a recent World Series title and a payroll in excess of $240 million, seems to mean cutting salary, perhaps even to the point where Mookie Betts could be on the move.
Another way to look at the concept of sustainability is the capacity to field competitive teams, year after year; to maximize the present without precluding the possibility of success in the future. The Washington Nationals, one of the best clubs in baseball over the past decade, have won sustainably since 2012, and have just been rewarded with their first World Series title.
This championship has been a long time coming; World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg made his Nationals debut in 2010, while first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the club’s first draft pick after moving to Washington from Montreal, debuted with the club in 2005. The Nationals spent the 2000s as a bottom-dweller, but in March 2009 general manager Jim Bowden resigned amid an MLB investigation into reports that he and other Nats higher-ups had been skimming bonus money earmarked for Latin American amateur prospects. Washington promoted assistant GM Mike Rizzo, who runs the club’s baseball operations to this day.
Rizzo’s promotion coincided with an unprecedented bounty in the draft. The Nats had the no. 1 pick in 2009, when Strasburg entered the draft as the best college pitching prospect of his generation. They had the no. 1 pick again in 2010 and took Bryce Harper, the best position player prospect of his generation. In 2011, they had the sixth pick in one of the two deepest drafts of the 21st century and came away with Anthony Rendon. It’s easy to look at that haul of future stars and think that Rizzo just coasted to four division titles and the World Series. But it took a great deal more finesse to keep this team in contention for the past eight seasons.
It took a couple of years for that homegrown core to come together, and Rizzo soon started filling in the gaps with established big leaguers. Before the 2011 season, he lavished former Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth with a seven-year, $126 million contract. In December 2011, he sent four players to Oakland for 26-year-old lefty pitcher Gio González, who finished third in Cy Young voting in 2012.
That year, the Nationals made their leap. Zimmerman was then an All-Star-caliber third baseman, homegrown right-hander Jordan Zimmermann was worth nearly five wins, and shortstop Ian Desmond made his first All-Star team. Strasburg pitched his first full season in the majors (or mostly full, considering his innings limit), and Harper got his call-up and emerged as a five-win player and the NL Rookie of the Year at age 19. The Phillies, who’d won five straight NL East titles heading into that season, collapsed, and the Nationals, who hadn’t had so much as a winning season since moving from Montreal, stepped into the power vacuum. The Nats not only finished over .500, they led all of MLB with 98 wins. In the past eight seasons, Washington has finished over .500 eight times and made the playoffs five times.
Because the Nationals have been consistently competitive for nearly a decade, it’s tempting to think of the 2012 Nationals and the 2019 Nationals as the same team. That’s not really the case—the Nats have been in a perpetual state of change for the past decade. Only two current Nationals, Strasburg and Zimmerman, have been with the club since 2012, and both are free agents after the season.
It’s a misconception that all championship teams are built on one core group of players. That’s certainly one way to reach the top, but a group of players set to peak at the same time will often reach free agency around the same time and decline at the same time. And when the window closes, it can close quickly and irrevocably, as demonstrated by the Phillies team Washington displaced atop the NL East in 2012 or the contemporary Cubs.
Sustained success comes from building such a core, then changing it slowly over time so it can remain competitive for many years. Just like plants need to be watered, pruned, and repotted, a responsible general manager has to stay active to keep his team in good health. The Red Sox won four titles in a 15-year span thanks to constant turnover from one title-winning team to the next. Some stars, like David Ortiz, were Red Sox lifers, but many others—Manny Ramírez, Pedro Martínez, Jon Lester—were traded or allowed to walk in free agency, setting the stage for the next generation to take up the banner and keep moving. There were only four holdovers from the 2007 World Series roster on the 2013 team, and only one, Xander Bogaerts, who was on both the 2013 and 2018 Boston World Series squads. But rather than turning over the roster all at once, the Red Sox did it piecemeal, allowing the club to maintain a measure of continuity and enter almost every year with playoff aspirations.
That’s what Rizzo has done with Washington. He signed Max Scherzer in 2015 and allowed Zimmermann to walk the following year. Desmond collapsed in 2015 and left as a free agent that winter, just as Rendon was blossoming as a star and Trea Turner was breaking into the majors. Werth aged out of the starting lineup in 2017, when Rizzo traded for Adam Eaton. And Harper’s free-agent departure last winter was offset by the emergence of Juan Soto and Víctor Robles in the outfield and the arrival of Patrick Corbin, who signed as a free agent for roughly the same annual salary Harper makes in Philadelphia.
Rizzo hasn’t been perfect. Lucas Giolito’s emergence as an ace for the White Sox makes the Eaton trade look like a costly overpay, and while Sean Doolittle has been the rock upon which Rizzo has built his bullpen since 2017, he came over from Oakland at the cost of a teenaged lefty named Jesus Luzardo, who at age 22 is the best left-handed pitching prospect in baseball. But even those trades bagged Washington key players on a title-winning team, and Rizzo has hit on far more transactions than he’s missed. Perhaps more importantly, the Nationals have usually been willing to give young players a chance to shine, and, when a star leaves the team, the club reinvests the financial savings in the major league ballclub.
But for all the Nationals’ foresight, 2019 might have been their last best chance at a title. Not only can Strasburg opt out of his contract this winter, but Rendon will be a free agent too. At 35, after battling intermittent back and neck problems this year, Scherzer won’t be the best pitcher on the planet for long, if he hasn’t given up that title already. And the NL East is only getting tougher. The two-time-defending division champion Braves are young and still improving, and while the Phillies underachieved in 2019, they’re planning to reload this offseason. Even the Mets, who have all the winning culture of a long-forgotten lemon at the back of the refrigerator, have Jacob deGrom, Pete Alonso, Marcus Stroman, and Noah Syndergaard, and are therefore not far from threatening to contend in the division themselves.
For the first time since Rizzo took over, he’ll potentially have to replace two foundational stars at the same time. And he’ll have to do it in a year when there is not a like-for-like replacement available on the free-agent market, particularly if Gerrit Cole heads back to the West Coast. And in a leaguewide environment that has even the Red Sox, Yankees, and Dodgers prioritizing penny-pinching over winning, how long will the Lerner family continue to spend to the luxury tax threshold and beyond—as they ought to—now that an elusive title has been won?
If the Lerners do endow a credible title defense, the Nationals could make a run at Hyun-Jin Ryu or Madison Bumgarner. Both would be a step down from Strasburg, but either would make a solid no. 3 starter behind Scherzer and Corbin, even if Ryu’s injury history is a concern and Bumgarner is no longer the pitcher he was five years ago. In fact, the starting pitching market is rather deep, with Cole Hamels, Dallas Keuchel, and Rich Hill among the free agents to be, giving Washington options should it miss out on the top tier of free agents.
At third base, Washington could pursue Josh Donaldson if Rendon decides to move on, though the Nats could choose to fill that position internally with their top prospect, Carter Kieboom, who is a shortstop by training but finds that position occupied by Turner for the foreseeable future. Kieboom is the only Nationals prospect who figures to contribute in 2020 and has star potential. Even so, his ceiling isn’t quite as high as Rendon’s—which is no insult, considering Rendon’s place as one of baseball’s premier third basemen—and Kieboom hit just .128/.209/.282 in an 11-game call-up stint in 2019.
The continued maturation of Soto and Robles should keep the ball rolling downhill, but it’s worth remembering that the Nationals were one of the oldest teams in baseball in 2019. Time, on balance, is not on their side.
The Nationals’ World Series victory took more than just good pitching and guile in the face of imposing opposition. It took 10 years of savvy front-office planning and a measure of good macro-level luck. If the Nationals had fallen short against the heavily favored Astros, it wouldn’t have gone down as a great disgrace, but it could well have been the final opportunity these Nats had failed to capitalize on. Rizzo’s task, of constantly reloading and rebuilding on the fly, is about to get much harder with the impending free agencies of Strasburg and Rendon. It’s good that the Nationals won it all when they did.