When Will Mike Rizzo Make His Next Major Move?

The Nationals have had a string of quiet offseasons since their World Series win back in 2019. With a new crop of young talent knocking on the door of the Major Leagues, when will Mike Rizzo and the Nationals opt to make their next big splash?

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December 5, 2010 - the Nationals sign Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract. In essence, this date marked the beginning of a decade-long run of contention for Washington, opening the floodgates for several star acquisitions to come. Werth was far from the greatest free agent signing ever, but one factor stands out: the Nationals only won 69 games in the 2010 season. Hey, that number sounds familiar...

Fast-forward to 2024, and it feels like another Jayson Werth is not going to arrive. 31-year-old Werth compares somewhat closely to Cody Bellinger, both free agents being former Dodgers outfielders with a few rough seasons, a few amazing seasons, strong power and on-base skills, and postseason experience. Bellinger is several years younger as a free agent, hit a higher peak and won an MVP award, has better defense at more positions, and has been far less consistent but was still an elite player in his contract year. So, if the players are similar, and the Nationals are once again coming out of a 70-ish win season trying to open a contending window... would the Nationals have tried to sign Cody Bellinger? No. Not in a million years.

It would be shocking if the Nationals had even made an offer to the star outfielder. Bellinger ended up getting an underwhelming contract, making far less money than the older Werth did, especially factoring in inflation. He's not the perfect fit on the current roster considering the strong outfield talent in the farm system, but a star player is a star player. Even so, the Nationals had no designs on signing anybody to even a single multi-year contract or a single eight-figure deal. Clearly, the Nationals have a different approach to roster construction and payroll than they did in 2010.

Along with news that the Lerner family was not going to sell the Nationals came the understanding that the team would, at some point, return to spending in the free agent market under the same ownership that brought in Jayson Werth. Back in October, Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Post reported that GM Mike Rizzo has the "go-ahead" from ownership to make a Werth-like addition and signal that the Nationals Are Back, and perhaps that a move like that would come next offseason. Owners always say things like this, but after four straight losing seasons, it is past time to act accordingly.

So, when will Mike Rizzo actually do something? It wasn't Cody Bellinger, and it almost definitely won't be any other available star this year, though Blake Snell would be an enormous upgrade right now. A year from now, the team will likely be coming off another losing season, and Patrick Corbin's contract will be off the books. Will the team make a play for a big name and actually compete? It'd be great, but considering the recent stinginess of the team it seems more likely that the team will stay in neutral when they desperately need a gear shift.

Let's rewind to the offseason after 2011, when the Nationals won 80 games, their best season since 2005. Werth was on the payroll, and the team had a strong core of homegrown youth including Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman, Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Wilson Ramos, and more. Things were looking up, and they stayed that way throughout the 2010s thanks to key veteran free agents and countless deadline acquisitions. Adam LaRoche was signed, and the electric Gio Gonzalez was traded for in the offseason, who was the ace of the 2012 team, the first in Nationals history to make the playoffs.

Moving forward, Mike Rizzo brought in players like Denard Span, Doug Fister, Daniel Murphy, Rafael Soriano, Sean Doolittle, Patrick Corbin and, of course, the unforgettable superstar free agent Max Scherzer. This is only a small selection of the top-end talent that cycled in and out of D.C. over an extended period. Rizzo has acquired incredible players time and time again, but he hasn't made a truly major move since 2019, and I don't count tearing down the team for prospects as a major acquisition. Meanwhile, the team has been jumped in the standings by the Miami Marlins, of all teams, and while they have bolstered the farm system to some degree, their player development has been unable to compete at the cutting edge. The team has only generated a fraction of the value of many other MLB clubs can produce via drafting and developing. Even if every prospect in the system right now ends up being good, that's not enough.

Mike Rizzo probably wants to think of himself and his team as dangerous, lurking in the shadows and waiting for the perfect moment to strike. There never is a perfect moment in the zero-sum league, though. Some level of brute force has to be used to compete, to outbid other teams in the market and to even build a .500 team. Rizzo is aware of this, or at least he was in the early 2010s. When will Rizzo actually strike, or when will he be allowed to by ownership? This question will continue loom over the Nationals as they languish in last place.