It has been a downward spiral for the Washington Nationals organization ever since they won the 2019 World Series, with almost exclusively disappointment and failure for the team since the 2020 season. In July 2021, the Nationals tore down their core, trading away Trea Turner and Max Scherzer to the Dodgers for, most notably, Josiah Gray and Keibert Ruiz. In 2022, they traded superstar Juan Soto to the Padres for a return headlined by James Wood and CJ Abrams en route to a 55-107 record. In 2023, the Nationals drafted OF Dylan Crews out of LSU with the 2nd overall pick in the MLB Draft, helping replenish what was the worst farm system in MLB, and improved to a 71-91 record. On the surface, it may look like the Nationals are going to be contenders by 2025 or 2026. However, if you dig deeper, much of what caused the Nationals to collapse from the pinnacle of baseball glory still remains.
At the major league level, it is almost certain that the 2024 Nationals will be worse than the 2023 Nationals, especially with the lack of moves from the front office this offseason. For starters, the team inexplicably kept pitching coach Jim Hickey, hitting coach Darnell Coles, and catching coach Henry Blanco, all of whom are among, if not THE worst at their respective coaching roles. Any competent team would have fired all of them long before now, but competency isn't part of the Nationals organization. Also returning for 2024 are manager Davey Martinez and General Manager Mike Rizzo, both of whom were extended in mid-August of last year. Martinez has been known to make some questionable in-game decisions and with his staff, as the popular argument is that he hires his friends and inner circle as opposed to the best fits for the job. He has cost the Nationals numerous games across his tenure as manager and struggles to put together good lineups, although recently Mike Rizzo and company have not provided him much to work with. With Martinez as manager and some of the worst staff in baseball, expect some regression at the major league level next season, but they might not even be the worst of the Nationals' problems.
Mike Rizzo, on the other hand, is near single-handedly driving the franchise into the ground. Let's start with the few positives: he is a halfway-decent GM when it comes to trades, although many of his good trades were earlier in his tenure. Trading Steven Souza, Jr. for Trea Turner and Joe Ross, swapping Tanner Roark for Tanner Rainey, getting Josh Bell for Wil Crowe, and acquiring Lane Thomas for a 37 year-old Jon Lester are among Rizzo's highlights when it comes the trades. The other area where Rizzo excels is in free agency, but that depends on if he is allowed to spend any significant amount of money (more on that later). Now onto the negatives. Rizzo may be the worst GM in MLB history when it comes to drafting. Since 2012, players that were drafted by and signed with the Nationals have accrued a grand total of -2.9 WAR with the team (see below), which is unfathomably awful.
Rizzo is arguably even worse when it comes to player development. The success of draft picks go hand-in-hand with player development, so it is no surprise that the Nationals have had neither successful draft picks nor successful player development across the last 10+ years. In an essay written for Baseball Prospectus in early 2023, Jarrett Seidler wrote that the Nationals have "paired poor drafting with poor player development", something that has been made clear over the past few seasons. When I asked Seidler how the (or if) the Nationals have improved or regressed since the writing of the essay, he did not mince words, saying that "they seem to be on the same path" in regards to analytics and player development, something that no Nationals fan should be excited about.
The Nationals' top prospects all have the potential to be all-star caliber players, with James Wood, Dylan Crews, and Brady House being the foundation for the current rebuild. However, there is not much reason to believe that the player development in this organization will be able to help them tap into their potential, and as long as Mike Rizzo is the general manager, there will continue to be little hope in that regard.
Mike Rizzo and Davey Martinez are two of the largest contributors to the failures of the Nationals organization in recent years, but there is one man who is holding the franchise back more than anyone else: Washington Nationals owner Mark Lerner. The Lerner family bought the franchise in 2006 and has owned it ever since. The Lerner family patriarch, Ted Lerner, died in February 2023, leaving his son, Mark, in sole control of the organization. The family announced in early 2022 that they were exploring a potential sale of the franchise, but paused their search for a potential buyer in March 2023, possibly because they did not receive any offer that met their high asking price. Ted Leonsis, the owner of the Capitals and Wizards, and the CEO of Monumental Sports and Entertainment, offered to buy the team for over $2 billion in April of 2023, which was roughly around the estimated value of the team, per Forbes. For an unknown reason, the Lerner family declined and are now "operating the team as if they plan to own it indefinitely", according to the Washington Post.
The Nationals current 2024 payroll is just over $100 million, the lowest it has been since 2012, and nearly $60 million of which is going to Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin alone. The Lerner family has plenty of money, yet they are spending as if they are the Oakland Athletics. When asked if the Nationals would be in the running for any of the top free agents this offseason, Mike Rizzo responded "financially, that doesn't come into play". If Mark Lerner really intends on keeping the team, then he should be out spending money and bringing in free agents. Instead, the Nationals have signed Nick Senzel and Dylan Floro, neither of whom move the needle when it comes to the competitiveness of the club. The team could, and really should be targeting power bats like Rhys Hoskins or Jorge Soler. The struggles of the Washington Nationals organization are not the result of one person, but the many people across all levels of the franchise. At the top of it all is Mark Lerner. He should either act like he wants to own the team and actually spend money or sell, because the longer he takes to make that decision, the longer it will take for the franchise to be competitive again. Ownership purgatory is the worst place for a franchise to be.
So how do the Washington Nationals look going into 2024? Not good. The roster is arguably worse than it was in 2023, there have been no real changes in the front office, at least not in the analytics department, and they have an owner who refuses to spend money while having a net worth of over $6 billion dollars. Are there things to look forward to? Sure. CJ Abrams is an exciting player. James Wood and Dylan Crews are elite prospects who could end up in the majors this season. Cade Cavalli will be returning from injury. But these alone will not set up the franchise for any sustained success. 2024 will be very important to see if the Nationals' young talent can develop and if a successful future is in sight, but with the state of the organization as it is right now, there is not much to be optimistic about.