The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Nationals’ rebuild is a year old. Here’s how it has developed.

Manager Dave Martinez is guiding the Nationals through a rebuild. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Most fan bases can’t pinpoint when their team went from winning to certainly losing. Maybe there was a bit less spending one winter, signaling the start of a rebuild. Maybe a beloved veteran or two were moved at the trade deadline. Or maybe the manager was fired midseason, making him feel like the scapegoat for problems way above his paygrade.

More often, it all runs together, as if breaking a city’s heart takes a thousand little paper cuts instead of a single ax swing. And then there’s this version of the Washington Nationals. July 30, 2021 — just about a year ago — was the unquestioned beginning of whatever is happening now. That night, after Washington traded Max Scherzer, Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber, Daniel Hudson, Yan Gomes, Josh Harrison, Brad Hand and Jon Lester in a 28-hour teardown, fans in the upper deck at Nationals Park broke out in a slow, reluctant chant.

“Let’s go new guy!” they sang, followed by that familiar round of claps. “Let’s go new guy!”

On the mound? Reliever Gabe Klobosits, a 6-foot-8 former 36th-round pick with a mullet and stirrups.

The implication? This thing might take a while.

“I didn’t see a path to be a World Series-caliber team this year,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said before Klobosits pitched in a win over the Chicago Cubs. “So I felt it was time for us to take a step sideways, to allow us to take a step forward and get back to where we’re supposed to be, which is a championship-caliber organization.”

From the archives: The Nationals’ deadline fire sale unfolded in a matter of days. But it was years in the making.

So with 12 months passed, how has that process looked? The Nationals finished Sunday deep in last place with a 35-68 record. They are expected to stage another sell-off before Tuesday’s deadline. There’s a chance that includes Juan Soto — their best player, one of the best players on the planet — which would turn a “reboot,” Rizzo’s preferred word, into a full-on rebuild.

None of that is particularly sunny. But aside from potentially dealing Soto, a product of him not accepting a 15-year, $440 million offer this summer, the Nationals expected to be here again. That’s why they signed Nelson Cruz ($15 million), César Hernández ($4 million), Steve Cishek ($1.75 million), Sean Doolittle ($1.5 million) and Ehire Adrianza ($1.5 million) to one-year deals and took fliers on Carl Edwards Jr., Victor Arano, Tyler Clippard and Maikel Franco, among others, on minor league contracts.

Back in the winter and spring, the idea was to add players who could be flippable this very week. That just hasn’t unfolded to the Nationals’ liking.

If there is a market for Cruz, it has been considerably slimmed by the 42-year-old’s .663 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. When Hernández was traded by the Cleveland Guardians last summer, he had 18 homers. After Sunday’s series finale with the St. Louis Cardinals, he has zero in 443 plate appearances. Cishek, 36, has been inconsistent and searching for the right shape of his slider. Doolittle, 35, is out for the season after spraining a ligament in his elbow in April and is set to have an internal brace procedure Tuesday. Will Harris’s three-year, $24 million contract is almost off the books, but he’s immovable because he has yet to debut this year because of repeated complications from surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. And it’s hard to see a club wanting Adrianza, Franco or Clippard, currently on the injured list with a groin strain, for the stretch run.

Aside from Soto, Washington’s best trade chips are first baseman Josh Bell and reliever Kyle Finnegan, who comes with three seasons of team control after 2022. They could find a landing spot for Edwards. Perhaps Arano, too, but that seems like more of a long shot. Whatever the case, the first year of a rebuild should be — and ultimately will be — judged on much more than the coming returns for anyone not named Soto.

Their futures unclear, Juan Soto and Josh Bell power Nationals in win

Development of the organization’s young talent is key. At the major league level, that puts the focus on starter Josiah Gray, catcher Keibert Ruiz and shortstop Luis García, with Gray and Ruiz having arrived in the four-player package for Scherzer and Turner. Gray, 24, has a 4.59 ERA in 19 outings, flashing a chance to be a middle-of-the-rotation arm or slightly better. Ruiz, 24, has been up and down at the plate, lacked power and made improvements on defense. García, a 22-year-old free swinger, has shown promise offensively but is perhaps best suited as a future second baseman.

Then in the minors, in the Nationals’ still-thin farm system, there are whole lot of players to keep an eye on. The most well-known prospects — right-handed pitchers Cade Cavalli, Cole Henry and Jackson Rutledge and shortstop Brady House — should help dictate how fast or slow the Nationals rejoin contention, which is before accounting for how an ownership change might shift the front office’s plans. Asked in November for other prospects to watch and particularly for who could hasten the rebuild with big strides, Rizzo mentioned left-handed pitcher Evan Lee, shortstop Jackson Cluff and Yasel Antuna, converted to left field last fall.

Lee, 25, debuted June 1 and has since been sidelined with shoulder issues. Cluff entered Sunday with a .185 batting average, .266 on-base percentage and .289 slugging percentage for the Class AA Harrisburg Senators, a troubling sign for the 25-year-old. And Antuna, 22 and lingering on the 40-man roster, is walking more but otherwise not producing much. Klobosits, meanwhile, was designated for the assignment by the Nationals in early April, claimed off waivers by the Oakland Athletics, then DFA’d by the A’s in June, and he has not pitched in affiliated baseball since.

Overall, then, progress is hard to gauge, as was expected when the Nationals made the cautious decisions to employ Franco, Dee Strange-Gordon, Aníbal Sánchez, Paolo Espino and Erasmo Ramírez at various stages instead of testing unproven players from their system. That’s telling in itself.

The organization will soon outfit Nationals Park and its five affiliate stadiums with cutting-edge Hawkeye technology, giving it more movement data to analyze its players and opponents through a biomechanical lens. On that note, returning coaches and coordinators have described a better-funded player development operation, if nothing else. Members of this summer’s draft class, headlined by high school outfielder Elijah Green, are gathering in Florida to start their professional careers in an evolving program.

One quasi-accomplishment of this season is that the Nationals, owners of the worst record in the majors, should pick right near the top again in 2023. It may not make the constant losing feel worth it. But it is something, if you squint hard enough.

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