newsnats gm rizzo rolling the dice with effort to retool around juan soto

Nats GM Rizzo rolling the dice with effort to retool around Juan Soto

washington nationalsWashington Nationals GM Mike Rizzo is trying to do something that is probably not going to work out with his effort to retool rather than strip down and completely rebuild.

No one would fault him from wanting to start over. The Nats had an eight-year run beginning in 2012 that included three division titles and one world title, in 2019.

To be that good for that long required trading off assets from the farm system to replenish at the annual trade deadlines, so last year, when it became obvious that the championship era was over, the focus turned to flipping assets like three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer and shortstop Trea Turner for prospects.

“It’s still in progress, whether you call it a rebuild or reboot, whatever you want to go with,” said Lacy Lusk, the Nationals correspondent for Baseball America, which ranked the Nats farm system 30th, dead last, in the Majors before Rizzo landed starting pitcher Josiah Gray and catcher Keibert Ruiz from the Dodgers in the Scherzer-Turner deal.

They’d moved up to 26th by spring training. A good draft haul this summer could move the franchise back toward the middle of the pack, which is probably about as good as things will get, given Rizzo’s statement this week that he will not trade outfielder Juan Soto, who is under team control through 2024.

“A Soto trade would probably move them in the top 10, but it’s probably too early,” Lusk said. “Maybe a year from now, I could see it happening. But I understand Mike Rizzo being as adamant as he was. The report is one rival exec said he could see Soto getting traded. And obviously the earlier he’s traded, the more prospects you get for him. But I think they’re building something around him, and it could be enough for him to think about staying. But it’s too early to make a call like that this year. I understand that.”

Gray (5-4, 5.08 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 54 K/25 BB in 51.1 IP) and Ruiz (.273/.335/.371, 1 HR, 12 RBI) are already contributing at the big-league level.

Cade Cavalli, the Nats’ first-round pick in 2020, has been tabbed as a can’t-miss pitching prospect for the past couple of years, but has struggled since getting the callup to Triple-A, going 1-5 with a ghastly 7.30 ERA and 1.86 WHIP in 2021 and a 2-3 mark with a 5.58 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP in 2022.

Also alarming: his Ks per nine innings have gone down sharply, from 13.8 in 18 starts in High-A and Double-A in 2021 to 8.5 in 15 starts in Triple-A spanning 2021 and 2022.

“His last couple starts have been better,” Lusk said. “Sometimes this happens, and it’s not as easy as just shooting straight up through the minor leagues. A guy like MacKinsey Gore with the Padres was a huge prospect, got to Triple-A and really struggled, and just was starting to right the ship a little when they called him up. And sure enough, he’s starting to realize some of his promise and pitch the way he did. The way people always thought he was the top prospect. And I think Cade could end up going along a similar route.”

But that’s the thing with prospects. Some work out as expected and projected; others, think: Victor Robles, do not.

There’s buzz around 2017 seventh-round pick Jackson Tetreault, currently 4-2 with a 3.35 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 8.9 Ks/9 at Triple-A Rochester, and Evan Lee, who got his first big-league start on Wednesday, giving up two runs on four hits in 3.2 innings in a loss to the New York Mets.

Lee, a 15th-round pick in 2018, got the callup from Double-A Harrisburg, where he’s 0-3 with a 3.60 ERA, 1.33 WHIP and 11.1 Ks/9 in seven starts in 2022.

The other big name in the minor league pipeline is 2021 first-round pick Brady House, a 6’4” shortstop currently playing at Low-A Fredericksburg, currently slashing 286/.368/.400 with three homers and 28 RBI.

Rizzo would like to add more talents like House in the 2022 draft.

“I think they’ve shown over the years that they’ll just get the best player available, and regardless of price,” Lusk said. “They don’t try to kind of get a discount in the first round and then pay more later. They’ll get whoever they think is the top guy. And they’re not afraid to get someone who’s had Tommy John surgery or anything like that. At number five, they’re not looking for someone like that this year, but they should be able to get another elite prospect to go with Brady House.”

Story by Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris has won 17 Virginia Press Association awards for his work as an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist. Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, both published in 2019, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to my YouTube page, Want to reach Chris? Try [email protected].

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