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Perspective | The Nationals have rebuilt from within. That won’t be enough.

Perspective | The Nationals have rebuilt from within. That won’t be enough.

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 3

There is a symbolism to Josiah Gray taking the ball as the Washington Nationals open their season Thursday in Cincinnati. The past is the past. The World Series championship no longer informs this team; it was five long years ago, and its heroes will have scant impact on this roster. What matters is not only identifying and developing the players who could be part of the next contender — Gray fits there — but figuring out the holes and aggressively filling them next offseason.

Put another way: The last time the Nats’ Opening Day starter was someone other than Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer or Patrick Corbin — key World Series cogs — was 2011. Back then, Liván Hernández took the ball in his second stint in Washington. Back then, contending seemed somewhere between a pipe dream and pure fiction, and the holes were everywhere.

But what else did that team have? A 26-year-old third baseman who had already been an all-star in Ryan Zimmerman. A 25-year-old shortstop who would become an all-star in Ian Desmond. A 23-year-old catcher who would also become an all-star in Wilson Ramos. And two members of the starting rotation — 24-year-old Jordan Zimmermann and 22-year-old Strasburg — who would also become all-stars (though Strasburg was out for most of the season after Tommy John surgery).

Oh, and a $126 million free agent outfielder who represented a commitment to contend in Jayson Werth.

Past is not necessarily prologue, of course. But it’s not crazy to look at that blueprint and apply it to these Nats — for whom Gray (26) and MacKenzie Gore (25) front the rotation, Keibert Ruiz (25) is locked up as the catcher, and CJ Abrams (23) may be ready to further break out as the shortstop. Plus, they have minor leaguers expected to pound on the door this summer, if not sooner. Can a team that went from 55 wins — and the pain of trading Juan Soto — in 2022 to 71 wins last season take another step?

“It’s an exciting time where you made a little progress from two years ago to last year,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said during spring training. “But it’s still not acceptable. I hope we take another positive step this year, and a positive step will be not only the prospects playing better and the young kids playing better — and seeing a few of the prospects get to the big leagues — but winning more games. That’s important.”

What would help in that regard pretty darn soon: the signing that corresponds to Werth’s acquisition all those years ago.

The focus for these Nationals — coming off four straight last-place finishes in the National League East — has been the players on the way more than the players on the team. That cycle must end now. Internally, the Nationals believed the offseason that just ended was too soon to spend, because even if they think this developing core will be the foundation of a contender, that’s not going to happen this summer.

But if prudence ruled the day headed into 2024, it can’t be a factor headed into 2025. Mark Lerner, the club’s managing principal owner, said this spring that the team is no longer for sale. (Left unsaid: unless someone blows us out of the water with an offer.)

No longer for sale can’t mean going through another year in which the major offseason additions are strikeout machine Joey Gallo for one year and $5 million and utility man Nick Senzel for a year and $2 million. That gets the Nats to a payroll that ranks 26th out of 30, according to Spotrac. A season or two of that kind of frugality can be overlooked if the focus is on the prospects. From this point forward, it’s unacceptable.

Here’s why: As excited as the Nationals are about their talent in the minors — and they are — you can’t fill out a lineup consisting completely of homegrown players. Those players have to be the primary elements of the infrastructure. But they must also be supplemented, and soon.

It’s tempting to look at what the Nats — potentially — have on the way and try to construct a lineup completely from within. If Ruiz is the catcher for years to come — and he has to make progress offensively and defensively for that to be the case — and Abrams has already arrived as the shortstop, couldn’t you just plug 2021 first-round draft pick Brady House in at third, swing 2023 second-round pick Yohandy Morales over to first, let the versatile Trey Liscomb beat out Luis García Jr. — who’s down to his last chance — at second and field an outfield of James Wood (who’s coming fast), 2023 No. 2 pick Dylan Crews and Robert Hassell III?

Plug some combination of Cade Cavalli, Jackson Rutledge, DJ Herz, Cole Henry and Jake Bennett into the rotation alongside Gray and Gore, convert 103-mph right-hander Jarlin Susana into a closer and — presto! — a contender built completely from within.

It doesn’t work that way. Yes, the Nats from a dozen years ago became competitive because of their young, homegrown players — including Bryce Harper, who arrived in 2012, when the club won its first division title. But they also traded for lefty Gio Gonzalez, who became a fixture in the rotation. They traded for Doug Fister, an important rotation piece on a division winner in 2014. They signed Scherzer for $210 million, and he won two Cy Youngs and was six times an all-star for them.

And the 2019 World Series champs were littered with heroes who were free agents (Howie Kendrick, Corbin, Asdrúbal Cabrera, Aníbal Sánchez) or trade acquisitions (Daniel Hudson, Sean Doolittle, Yan Gomes, etc.).

There’s a way for the 2024 Nationals to be exciting even if they’re not winners, and Gray’s appearance as the Opening Day starter is an important step toward that. If Wood, Crews, Lipscomb and others arrive on South Capitol Street, that will be another step.

But the steps to completing this rebuild can’t come exclusively from within. This season will be about identifying the remaining needs so they can be filled — whatever the cost — headed into the future.

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