In what may be the most important trade of the century, and definitely in franchise history, the Washington Nationals shipped Juan Soto and Josh Bell to San Diego for a slew of high pedigree prospects. Soto, perhaps the best hitter since Barry Bonds, was given up for virtually no guaranteed value, almost no money saved, and with 2.5 years left of control.
An array of reactions resulted from the deal: from the begrudging acceptance to sadness to anger to resentment. This deal certainly led to a contingent of Nats fans looking for a change in leadership.
Soto wasn’t likely to resign after he rejected multiple proposals, including a 440 million dollar mega deal. Though emotionally painful, the trade was acceptable from a business perspective. Nostalgia should not impede progress, however difficult it is to do.
This rationale is good to have (in moderation), but it seems to be applied unevenly, specifically within the Nationals’ front office. The front office should be treated similarly to an underperforming former star. Mike Rizzo was a star as he built an amazing team, a juggernaut that was consistently a World Series-level contender. Indeed, the Nationals memorably won a championship in 2019.
That championship was four years ago. Since then, things have been downhill for the Nats. The loss of Anthony Rendon and a Stephen Strasburg injury knocked the Nats out of competition in the shortened 2020 season. Another Strasburg injury and the collapse of Patrick Corbin led to the trade deadline firesale of ‘21. The Strasburg and Corbin issues worsened this year, leading the Nationals to another trade deadline as sellers (trading away yet another superstar), and solidifying their place as the worst team in the league, drifting aimlessly into a rebuild, lost.
On the face of it, none of these seem to be Mike Rizzo’s fault, but underneath it, the rot emerges. Injuries and poor performances killed the team because of a lack of depth. The Nats have drafted incredibly poorly over the last couple of years and haven’t been able to develop any players. The Nationals have had such an atrocious farm system that it took the previously mentioned fire sales to replenish their prospect list. The attempt seems somewhat successful but doesn’t negate the inability to develop homegrown talent.
A harrowing example of this is the story of Austin Voth. Voth had an incredibly tough time on the Nationals, with an ERA of 5.70 over five years. Voth has an elite curveball with a high spin rate (only eight pitchers have a higher spin rate on their curveball). But after a 10.13 ERA in ‘22, the Nats placed Voth on waivers, which the Baltimore Orioles then claimed. The Orioles have been infamous for letting go of pitchers like Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman, and Jake Arrieta, only to have them flourish outside Baltimore. The Orioles recognized this problem and now have one of the most analytically advanced organizations in the MLB. This all led to Voth’s sudden turn in performance, where he now has a 2.81 ERA for the O’s, with a 3.46 FIP and 28.5 CSW% (called strikes + whiffs). He’s a different pitcher, and all it took was analytics.
Mike Rizzo and the Nats’ player development staff failed Austin Voth. His career could be much more if they had taken a few notes from Baltimore and many others.
Mike Rizzo is as talented a baseball mind as they come. Still, for the Nationals to succeed in this new era, he needs to recognize the importance of analytics, overhaul the player development department, and cultivate modern baseball minds. If he can’t do this, then he must be removed.