Washington might just have the best hypothetical core in the league – combine Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth with Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, and Jordan Zimmermann and you have five legitimate stars. The question, of course, is whether or not the stars can align at any one point in the franchise’s future. R. Zimmerman will soon become expensive, Werth is in his 30s, Strasburg and J. Zimmermann must return from injuries, and Harper is likely a few years away. Beyond the core, the franchise has work to do to surround the stars with supporting talent. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but much work is yet to be done in the nation’s capital.
Major League Talent: 70.45 (24th)
Minor League Talent: 80.00 (T-15th)
Financial Resources: 75.00 (T-20th)
Baseball Operations: 75.00 (T-24th)
Overall Rating: 74.39 (24th)
Mike Rizzo has brought some tremendous talent into the Nationals system, largely with the help of the number one draft pick both years he’s been in charge. He deserves credit for signing both players, but what’s more interesting is how Rizzo has handled the free agent market. Despite the size of the DC market, the Nationals have operated on a limited budget in recent years. Prior to this year, the Nationals’ payroll only topped $60 million in 2006 and 2010, meaning they have operated as a small market team.
That is until the massive seven year, $126 million contract handed out to Jayson Werth this winter. Forget what I have to say about it, just ask Sandy Alderson: “I thought they were trying to reduce the deficit in Washington.” Rizzo claimed that the signing was part of “Phase 2” of the Nationals’ rebuilding process, “compet[ing] for division titles and championships.” Part of the idea is just that Werth is a star quality player, but also that the presence of a player like Werth could entice more high-quality players to come to Washington. We’ll see how this idea plays out in the upcoming seasons. Chances are the team’s ability to draw high level players will trend more with team record and team willingness to spend than anything else.
Moves like the Werth deal seem to signal an unwillingness to commit to a real rebuilding effort. As much as Rizzo doesn’t want to admit it, the team in its current state is nowhere near the level of the Phillies or the Braves. In order to reach that point, the Nationals should be prudent with their expenditures until the elite talent in the organization is ready.
The other high-profile recent move which opposed a true rebuilding effort was less a move and more the lack of one. Last summer, the Nationals refused to trade Adam Dunn. This decision did earn them the 23rd overall pick and a sandwich pick due to free agent compensation, although one has to imagine that a bat as coveted as Dunn’s could have brought in more value at the trade deadline.
So, there appear to be some flaws with the process at this point. But for all the flaws, the Nationals have still managed to accrue a good deal of talent. The Nats will have three top-35 picks coming into the system as well, and given his dealings with the incredibly expensive first overall picks he’s had to sign the last two years, the team is willing to spend, spend, spend on the draft for now.
That willingness to spend in the draft will be important, as it’s likely the most effective way for the Nationals to build toward contending. Beyond the generational talents the team has added recently, the Nationals’ farm system is comparatively bare. It’s no Houston or Milwaukee system, but after guys like Strasburg (technically graduated, but still a future asset), Harper, and Derek Norris, the Nationals don’t have a ton of elite talent waiting in the wings. The ability to develop the role players and merely good starters will be key in the march toward contention, and that will require spending in the draft and overseas (which the club has been willing to do as the Yunesky Maya signing indicates).
The Nationals have some incredible players within their organization, and that gives them as much potential as many teams which top them on the list. The team has an as-of-yet unproven front office attempting to steer this group towards the promised land of the playoffs and beyond. But it will take patience and efficient usage of the club’s financial resources. If Mike Rizzo is able to exhibit both of those things and the team catches some breaks with its young talent, the Nationals could see success in a few years. A few wrong moves, though, and the team could remained mired in the mediocrity of its first years in Washington. Because of that, it is impossible for us to rank the Nationals any higher than 24th of the 30 teams. There is a light, however, no matter how dim or distant it may seem now.
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